Periodontal disease is characterized by inflammation of the tissues surrounding a tooth (essentially, the tooth's support system). It can affect one tooth or a dog's whole mouth. At first, periodontal disease may only inflame the gums, but will eventually affect the bone around the tooth roots. Left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to severe oral pain, loss of teeth, other dental diseases, and a wide array of complications throughout the body.
What Is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease is infection and inflammation of the tissues that surround the teeth (called the periodontium) because of bacterial overgrowth in the mouth. It is a worse condition than gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums, in that it threatens the integrity of the periodontal ligament and alveolar bone.
Symptoms of Periodontal Disease in Dogs
The signs of periodontal disease vary from dog to dog and are typically based on the severity of the disease. The first thing most people will notice is halitosis (bad breath). Contrary to what many people believe, dogs are not supposed to have bad breath. This is a sign of dental disease that should be addressed right away. Dogs with advanced periodontal disease tend to have especially foul breath.
As periodontal disease progresses, so does oral pain. Dogs may become reluctant or unable to chew food and treats. Dogs with oral pain may also lose interest in chewing toys. They may begin to salivate more than usual, and the saliva may even be blood-tinged.
Gingivitis (inflammation/reddening of the gums) will be apparent. and as periodontal disease advances, teeth will become loose.
Causes of Periodontal Disease
The development of periodontal disease is a gradual process that begins with the formation of plaque on the teeth. The process develops as follows:
- Bacteria in the mouth form this plaque, which is a bacterial film that adheres to the teeth.
- Minerals in the saliva harden the plaque into dental tartar (calculus), which becomes firmly attached to teeth.
- The plaque and tartar, both of which contain bacteria, spread under the gum line.
- The bacteria secrete toxins and cause damage to the supporting tissues around the tooth, including the gum and bone. This damage creates a pocket around the tooth where more bacteria and debris can collect.
Certain dogs seem to have a genetic predisposition to periodontal disease. This often relates to the dog's breed. Many small breed dogs, such as toy poodles and certain spaniels are especially prone to periodontal disease.
Diagnosing Periodontal Disease in Dogs
Periodontal disease is initially diagnosed by a veterinarian via an oral examination. The extent of the disease and its damage may be determined by X-rays. Many vet offices perform digital dental x-rays, which are extremely valuable when it comes to making an accurate diagnosis and treating accordingly.
Periodontal disease is diagnosed and numbered from one to four (based on severity).
- Grade I: the earliest form of the disease, when only gingivitis is present
- Grade II, III, and IV: Periodontitis (loss of bone and soft tissue around teeth) is present and gets more severe in higher grades
- Grade IV: The most advanced stage; loss of more than half of the tooth's supportive structures is noted
Tartar build-up and gingivitis start in the early stages of dental disease. These can be cured with a professional dental cleaning, home care, and a little healing time. However, there is no cure for periodontal disease. Once dental disease progresses to periodontal disease, the bone surrounding the teeth begins to destruct. This bone loss cannot be undone. Fortunately, it can be treated to slow the progression of the disease.
No matter the grade of periodontal disease, the first and most important treatment step is professional dental cleaning. This procedure must be done under general anesthesia. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians can get a better look at the teeth and accurately assess the stage of the disease.
Thorough scaling of the teeth can be done during a professional cleaning, including the subgingival surfaces of the teeth (under the gum). Be cautious when it comes to "anesthesia-free dentistry." This procedure may help improve the look of teeth and possibly reduce bad breath, but it is not a thorough periodontal cleaning. A true professional cleaning cannot be done if the pet is awake, no matter how well-behaved that pet may be.
Prognosis for Dogs with Periodontal Disease
Once your dog's teeth are clean, the goal is to slow down the progression of periodontal disease. Home dental care is essential for all dogs, but it is even more important for dogs with existing periodontal disease. The "gold standard" is to brush your dog's teeth daily with an enzymatic toothpaste made especially for pets.
Untreated, periodontal disease causes damage to the gum tissue and bone around the teeth, leading to the loss of these tissues. Periodontal disease can also cause other problems to occur in the mouth.
- Development of a hole (fistula) from the oral cavity into the nasal passages causing nasal discharge
- Weakening of the jaw bone that can lead to fractures
- Bone infection
It is important to understand that periodontal disease can lead to other major health problems throughout the body.
- Heart Disease
- Kidney Disease
- Liver Disease
- Various infections
How to Prevent Periodontal Disease in Dogs
Daily brushing may or may not be a realistic option for you and your dog. As an alternative to daily brushing, you can try simply applying toothpaste to the dog's teeth daily. If daily care is still not an option, various topical products can be applied periodically (usually once a week).
In addition, some food and water additives can change the chemistry of the dog's mouth, slowing the buildup of plaque and tartar. You may also be able to find a canine dental chew that prevents tartar buildup. Just make sure it's safe for your dog.
Periodontal disease in small animals - digestive system. Merck Veterinary Manual.
O'Neill, D G et al. Epidemiology of periodontal disease in dogs in the UK primary-care veterinary setting. The Journal of small animal practice vol. 62,12 (2021): 1051-1061. doi:10.1111/jsap.13405