Dogs are known for sharp, strong teeth and powerful jaws that are capable of much destruction. Dogs use their teeth and jaws to eat food, carry objects, and play with toys. In the wild, their teeth and jaws enabled them to capture and eat prey. Today's domesticated house dog still needs healthy teeth to fulfill the instinctive need for chewing. However, life sometimes has a negative impact on the oral health of dogs.
Dental problems are among the most common health issues in dogs. Dog teeth issues can have a negative impact on a dog's quality of life and overall health.
Signs of Dental Problems in Dogs
- Bad breath
- Discoloration of teeth
- Visible tartar buildup
- Inflamed gums
- Bleeding gums or blood spots seen on dog toys/bedding
- Pawing at the mouth
- Swollen face
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty eating
- Excessive drooling
Note that many dogs will not show signs of oral pain until it is severe. Signs of oral pain may include pawing at the mouth or face, lack of appetite, difficulty eating, lethargy, whining, and acting withdrawn from family members.
Plaque and Tartar Buildup
Plaque is a biofilm that develops on the teeth. It is a whitish substance primarily composed of bacteria. Plaque has a foul odor that worsens the longer it remains in the mouth. Plaque on the teeth causes tooth decay and gum irritation.
If not removed by brushing within about 24 to 48 hours, the plaque hardens and turns into tartar, a yellow or brown-colored substance also known as calculus. Tartar remains fixed to the surfaces of the teeth and cannot be removed without being scraped off with a hard object, like a professional dental scaler. Its contact with teeth and gums causes further tooth decay and gum irritation.
Plaque and tartar are the primary causes of loose teeth and gum disease. The main signs dog owners will notice are bad breath, discolored deposits on teeth, and a red, swollen gum line (called gingivitis). As dental disease progresses, owners may notice bleeding gums and worsening breath.
The term "periodontal" refers to the gums and bone that surround the teeth. When plaque and tartar remain in the mouth, bacteria makes its way under the gum line, eating away at the tissue and bone that hold the teeth in place.
Periodontal disease begins with gingivitis. As the disease progresses, there will be loss of bone and soft tissue around the teeth. As the vital support structures for the teeth degrade, pockets develop around the roots of the teeth, allowing food, bacteria, and debris to collect and form dangerous infections. Over time, the teeth become loose and begin to fall out.
With periodontal disease, the open space around the tooth roots can become filled with bacteria, leading to an infection. The infection may manifest as a tooth root abscess. The bacteria-laden pocket around the tooth root fills with pus to fight the infection. The abscess may get so large that it leads to facial swelling and anatomical deformity.
Oral infections are often caused by periodontal disease, but they may also occur secondary to trauma in the mouth. Dogs that chew on sharp or hard objects may injure their mouths and develop infections.
Tooth fractures are common in dogs that are powerful chewers. Items like bones, antlers, and very hard plastic can actually cause teeth to break. Most vets will tell you that your dog should not chew on anything harder than what you would want to bang hard on your knee.
The size of the chew can also contribute to tooth fractures. A very large chew may make the tooth and chew line up at an angle that splits the outside of the tooth off. This is known as a slab fracture. Pick chews that are small enough to hold in the mouth without swallowing by accident, but not so large that the dog needs to have a fully open mouth to chew on them.
Dog teeth problems are not just limited to the dog's mouth. The bacteria in the plaque and tartar can easily enter the bloodstream, especially if your dog has irritated gums, like in the case of periodontal disease. This bacteria makes its way through the bloodstream and reaches the heart, kidneys, liver, and even sometimes the brain. This can cause serious organ diseases and worsen existing disease, and even organ failure.
Retained Baby Teeth
All puppies have baby teeth, also called deciduous teeth, that are supposed to be pushed out by growth of adult teeth. In most cases, a puppy's baby teeth fall out, and the adult teeth take their place by the age of six months. However, puppies may retain some deciduous teeth (the adult teeth come in, but the baby teeth remain).
There is no way to prevent retained deciduous teeth. However, your vet will likely recommend removing them under anesthesia to prevent shifting of adult teeth and tartar buildup. Many vets will do this when the dog is already under anesthesia for a spay or neuter.
How to Care for Your Dog's Teeth and Prevent Dental Problems
The best way to prevent teeth problems in your dog is to begin a dental care routine. Daily tooth brushing is the gold standard, but not all dogs will tolerate this. Alternatives include dental chews and water or food additives. No matter what method you choose, be sure you are looking at your dog's teeth regularly so you can see problems before they become severe.
If your dog is showing signs of dental problems, be sure you visit your vet for an examination. In many cases, a professional dental cleaning under anesthesia is necessary to remove disease-causing tartar. Once clean, the vet can take x-rays and thoroughly examine the teeth and determine the nature of the dental disease.
Dental Pain in Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Wallis, C. and Holcombe, L.J. A review of the frequency and impact of periodontal disease in dogs. J Small Anim Pract, vol. 61, pp. 529-540, 2020. doi:10.1111/jsap.13218
Dental Disorders of Dogs. Merck Veterinary Manual.
Tooth Root Abscess in Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Dental Disease and its Relation to Systemic Disease in Pets. VCA Animal Hospitals.