Your dog's dental health is very important. Your dog's teeth and gums are as vulnerable to disease as your own, and dental problems are the most commonly diagnosed health condition in all dogs over the age of three. Healthy gums and teeth are the first step towards ensuring your dog gets the most out of his food, and as well as being painful, and upsetting the metabolism, bacteria associated with poor dental care can eventually enter the bloodstream and potentially damage internal organs.
Dental Disease in Dogs
- When bacteria, living on the remnants of food in the mouth, combine with saliva and food debris in the channel between the tooth and gums, plaque begins to accumulate. Typically plaque will collect on the outside of the teeth especially the upper pre-molars and molars.
- If plaque is not removed it combines further (within 3-5 days) with minerals in the saliva and hardens to form tartar or calculus. This tartar can then irritate the gums causing gingivitis, noticeable as a reddening of the gums close to the tooth. It's also a major cause of halitosis or bad breath.
- Eventually tartar builds up under the gum line, separating the deep bony structures of the jaw from the teeth to form pockets and abscesses that encourage even more bacterial growth. The damage is now irreversible, and often leads to tooth loss, bleeding gums, eating difficulties and could cause internal organ damage.
Trauma to the Teeth
Vigorous chewing on very hard objects or accidental injury during games can fracture teeth. Check for broken or worn teeth when you examine your dog’s mouth and encourage chewing on dog chews/toys rather than stones/sticks.
You should examine your dog's mouth regularly for signs of oral disease. Bad breath is the most obvious indicator, but look out for reddened, bleeding or swollen gums, crusted yellow-brown tartar build-up on the teeth and drooling. When gingivitis is severe dogs may drop food from their mouths or eat on one side of the mouth and potentially even lose weight, unable to eat comfortably. Watch out for fractured, discoloured or missing teeth, and ensure the jaw itself is not swollen or misshapen.
Home dental care
How long would you go without brushing your teeth? Your dog's teeth and gums deserve the same regular attention, at least 3-4 times a week, ideally every day.
Dental care should begin early, even before a puppy loses his deciduous puppy teeth (4-6 months). You can get your puppy used to examination and brushing by starting slowly and systematically. Pick a time when your puppy is calm and quiet and start by simply lifting the lips on either side of the mouth, then progress to rubbing the teeth with a finger wrapped in gauze or a washcloth. Concentrate on the outside of the teeth where plaque is most likely to build up. Praise your puppy and give him or her a treat as you finish each session.
Once your dog has learned to accept having their teeth gently wiped, progress to a soft canine toothbrush (from your vet). Starting without toothpaste, soak the toothbrush in warm water and apply to the teeth, brushing particularly where the teeth and gums meet, with the brush head at a 45-degree angle to reach under the gum line. Stroke up and down in even movements, exerting little pressure.
Finally, and only once your dog has become accustomed to the brush, start to use an enzymatic canine toothpaste (flavours include meat, mint and malt). Never use human toothpaste.
If your dog resists you handling his or her mouth (a common problem when good dental care starts later in life) there are a variety of other approaches and aids: oral hygiene gels, available from your vet, that contain enzymes to inhibit the bacteria responsible for plaque formation; chew toys and specially formulated dental chew products designed to reduce tartar and massage the gums. However, with patience and time even older dogs can learn to have their teeth brushed. Ask your vet for more advice on training an older dog to accept teeth cleaning.
Dry dog foods can also help scrape away plaque and tartar.
At the vet
A regular dental examination can quickly identify potential problems. During an oral exam your veterinarian will examine the face and head for asymmetry, swelling, or discharges, examine the oral cavity, oral mucosa and surfaces of teeth and gums, and examine the inner surfaces of the teeth and gums and the tongue, palates, tonsils, and the area underneath the tongue.
If your dog's teeth have tartar, your vet may recommend that this is removed and the teeth polished. This professional veterinary dental cleaning is also called a prophylaxis and is performed under anaesthesia. A routine dental cleaning might include:
- Flushing the mouth with an antibacterial solution.
- Cleaning the teeth with handheld and ultrasonic scalers to remove calculus from above and below the gum line.
- Using a disclosing solution to show any areas of remaining calculus, which is then removed.
- Polishing the teeth to remove microscopic scratches.
- Inspecting each tooth and the gum around it for any signs of disease.
- Any extractions that are required.
Your vet should then advise you on the best follow-up and home dental-care programme for your dog. By cleaning your dog’s teeth at home you can reduce the need for veterinary dental care and keep your dog’s teeth and breath squeaky clean!