Probably the most common problem that affects dogs' mouths is
gum disease. Starting silently with no obvious signs or symptoms,
it advances quickly, causing chronic pain, eroded gums, missing
teeth, even bone loss - a fate hardly fair to your four-legged
friend. In fact gum disease is so common, studies show over 80% of
dogs suffer a stage of gum disease before they are three years
What causes gum disease?
Bacteria cause gum disease (periodontal disease). Straight after
your dog eats, bacteria - along with food, saliva, and other
particles - forms a sticky film called 'plaque' over oral surfaces
(like tooth enamel).
Gum disease is five times more common in dogs than humans, as
dogs have a more alkaline mouth, promoting plaque formation. Also,
most dogs don't have their teeth brushed every day, giving
plaque-forming bacteria the chance they need to multiply.
Bacteria in plaque instruct your dog's immune system to
recognise them as foreign, quickly marshalling white blood cells to
attack. Plaque bacteria then instruct white blood cells to release
enzymes to break down gum tissue. This skirmish leads to inflamed
gums, destroyed tissue, and loss of teeth, bone, and even jaw
fracture; all caused by untreated gum disease.
What effects can gum disease cause?
Plaque causes inflammation (reddening) of the gums (gingivitis)
which can initially be very subtle, making them more likely to
bleed. Plaque not removed over time hardens, mineralising into
calculus (tartar), the browny yellow hard substance on your dog's
teeth, and the perfect surface for even more plaque to stick to,
speeding up the whole process. Gingivitis is reversible but, if
left untreated, it progresses to periodontitis.
Periodontitis is irreversible, characterised by loss of
attachment for the tooth in the socket, which may lead to tooth
mobility, loss of tooth, and severe infections. Bacteria may
potentially enter the bloodstream every time your dog chews,
causing infections much further afield in the heart, lungs and
Effects of severe gum disease can include abnormal bad breath
(halitosis) caused by periodontal disease. Imagine your own breath
if you stopped brushing your teeth for a few days! Never ignore
this early warning sign of disease. There are many other causes of
bad breath too, so it's important to get it checked by your vet as
soon as possible, rather than assume it's normal or an inevitable
sign of old age
Dental disease can be painful, but most animals are extremely
good at covering up the signs and will rarely stop eating. So look
out for difficulty picking up food; bleeding or red gums; loose
teeth; blood in saliva, water bowl or on chew toys; strange noises
when eating; pawing at mouth/face; and dribbling. If in any doubt,
ask your vet.
What may my vet do if my dog has a problem?
Most vets perform some degree of dentistry, with no such thing
as a 'typical dental'. All cases require thorough examination of
the patient, both conscious and under anaesthetic. This involves
examining every tooth individually, both visually and with a
special probe. Dental X-Rays are often indicated to see what's
happening below the gum-line in the root/socket area. Extractions,
or other treatments may be required, and most patients will require
scaling and polishing of teeth to remove plaque and tartar before
Pets need general anaesthetic to have dentistry performed as
what we see is literally the tip of the iceberg; disease isn't
often discovered until the animal is examined asleep. Your vet's
priority is also to ensure your dog doesn't feel any pain, and even
scaling and polishing can cause minor discomfort, so your vet
always recommend that they are safely anaesthetised.
How can I prevent gum disease?
Preventing gum disease should be a part of your routine canine
care with teeth ideally brushed daily, just like ours, minimising
bacteria and their by-products and helping your dog maintain a
healthy mouth. Surprisingly many owners seem reluctant to brush
their dog's teeth as they think their dog won't like it, but most
respond well, actually enjoying this new form of attention. So ask
your vet to demonstrate, introduce gradually using rewards and
doggie toothpaste, and you'll be brushing in no time!
If possible, introduce teeth brushing as a puppy so he or she
grows up thinking it's quite normal. Regular brushing, and at least
twice yearly checks with your vet, should mean less dental
Feed quality dog food, 'dental diets', or special foods that
prevent plaque from hardening. If in doubt, ask your vet about what
diet is best for your dog, and offer tooth friendly toys and treats
Remember, many pet insurance policies don't cover dental work so
it's even more important to look after your pet's teeth.
Who can I contact for further advice?
The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable
to provide general or case specific veterinary advice. If you
have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this
article then please contact your local veterinary practice for
This article was written by Marc Abraham and was originally
published in the Crufts Magazine - www.thecruftsmagazine.com.
Marc Abraham is a vet based in Brighton. He regularly appears on
UK television. For more information about Marc please visit www.marcthevet.com.