Dog Dental Health: Keeping Your Dog’s Mouth bark-worthy

13 min read

Updated - Oct 15th, 2022

Dental health is just as important for our tail-waggers as it is for us. We wouldn’t go a day without brushing and flossing our teeth, and your dog needs a regular dental routine as well.

A regular dental hygiene routine and dental check-up with your veterinarian every 6-12 months can extend the happiness and life span of your dog!  

Studies show that 80% of dogs  over the age of three show some sign of dental disease. If teeth aren’t maintained properly, plaque and tartar will build up causing infection and gingivitis (bleeding gums) which leads to periodontal disease. 

When periodontal disease is present, the harmful bacteria produced in your dog’s mouth will enter the bloodstream and can gradually damage the heart, kidneys, and liver. This is especially true for small and toy breeds. They have tiny mouths, making them especially susceptible to dental disease.

Pet owners need to be aware that dental disease has many potential factors – Breed,genetics, and diet . The good news is that now we have better tools to deal with dental disease early on, and we have better dental-specific diets and products designed to reduce dental tartar accumulation. –

Dr. Maritza Bruno, DVM, West Orange Animal Hospital

A quality balanced dog food, regular dental maintenance from a veterinarian, and a home dental care routine are the best ways to keep your dog’s mouth healthy. An Ipsos study shows 95% of dog owners brush their own teeth regularly, but only 7% of them regularly brush their dog’s teeth. Most claim brushing their dog’s teeth is challenging and inconvenient. But it shouldn’t be, and we’re going to show you how.

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Causes of Dental Disease

Dogs have the same dental problems as humans, but rarely are cavities the root of the problem.. Some causes of dental problems are:

  • Broken teeth and roots 
  • Gingivitis
  • Periodontal disease
  • Tooth root abscesses and other infections of the mouth
  • Misalignment of the teeth or jaw
  • Cysts or tumors in the mouth

Dogs don’t have the amount of saliva or the enzymes to fight bacteria like humans do. Without that bathing capacity to clean the mouth, the food sits on the gums and in between the teeth. Plaque develops on the teeth, causing an opportunity for dental disease.

Many pet owners believe that kibble will clean a dog’s teeth. This is only helpful to the point that the kibble/crunchy actually provides friction to the surface of the teeth/enamel.  

“A dog’s upper teeth overlap their bottom teeth, so the chewing surface (and only the chewing surface) benefits from friction when they chew on kibble or crunchy things.  But no matter what a dog chews on, save for some select Veterinary Oral Health Association-approved items, they take no friction on the outside surface of their teeth – which is where my technicians spend >90% of their time scaling and scraping plaque from during cleanings.”

Dr. Ryan Gates, DVM, Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic

The carbs left on dogs’ teeth that mix with the saliva, setting up the development of plaque. This will inflame the gums and gingivitis will begin. Without removing the plaque, it hardens into a calcium-like substance called tartar or calculus. We get it on our own teeth and need to have it scaled off. The same is true for dogs.

In the absence of dental care, after a time, tartar accumulates around the base of the tooth and irritates the gums. You’ll notice your dog’s gums are red, and their breath may be smelly. This is evidence of periodontal disease.

When tartar builds up, it can create pockets in the gumline, giving the bacteria an opportunity to develop into an abscess or infection – allowing the bacteria to enter the bloodstream and affect the heart, liver, and kidneys of your dog. 

Advanced periodontal disease can also invade bones, opening up the susceptibility of jaw bone fractures.

Signs, Symptoms, Treatment & Treatment Costs

Signs of dental disease

Dogs will rarely show pain. Dental disease is painful, and many dog owners never realize their dog is suffering until it’s advanced enough to cause additional problems or is severe. 

There are five stages to periodontal disease. The common signs are:

  • Bad breath
  • Bloody or swollen, inflamed gums
  • Broken or discolored teeth
  • Tartar buildup on the teeth and gumline
  • Abnormal chewing
  • Drooling (sometimes bloody) or dropping food from the mouth
  • Sneezing or nasal discharge (dental disease on upper teeth can destroy the bone and invade the nasal cavity)
  • Decreased appetite or refusal to eat
  • Bleeding from the mouth or gums
  • Pain around or inside the mouth
  • Swelling around or inside the mouth

All of these symptoms indicate the need for a dental evaluation with your vet. 

The Costs of Dental Care

Dental care can be expensive, and most dog parents quake at the thought of it. Where you live, the size, age, and health of your dog, and the extent of medical treatment needed are all factors when determining the cost of dentistry for dogs. 

Depending on the age of the pet, the cost of a cleaning could run between $400 – $1000, and includes the cleaning, bloodwork, x-rays, and general anesthesia. Anesthesia-free dentistry should be avoided, as it is considered inappropriate by most veterinary professionals and institutions because of the inability to perform adequate diagnostics,  and risk of injury & aspiration it poses to the patient.

A more severe case of dental disease may involve a dental specialist and require tooth extraction or gum excising. This can run up to $5000.

“Preventive cleanings are less costly and are more likely to preserve your dog’s teeth than cleaning up severe gum infection in the mouth and addressing the diminished quality of life that results from ignoring dental health for a long time.”

Dr. Ryan Gates, DVM, Cuyahoga Falls Veterinary Clinic

Even with good dental hygiene some breeds are predisposed to dental issues, and as dogs get older they may still develop dental disease. 

Healthcare insurance for your dog may help with these expenses. Few pet insurance providers offer coverage for dog dental care. But the dental coverage offered by Pumpkin covers many costs when dental disease is diagnosed. Their coverage can help make it easier to choose consistent dental care for your dog’s health without breaking the bank.

Preventing Dental Disease in Dogs

The Dental Checkup

Initially, your vet will do a physical exam of your dog’s mouth. This gives them a window into the condition of the teeth and jaw. Here’s what they will look for:

  • How the teeth fit together and the jaw aligns (missing or extra teeth, an overbite, or an under-bite).
  • Fractured, or broken teeth
  • Gingivitis or periodontal disease 
  • A buildup of tartar on the teeth and along the gumline
  • Abscesses or signs of infection
  • Bumps or lesions that may indicate a tumor 
  • Any facial swelling 

Depending on the results of the physical exam, your veterinarian will develop a plan for your dog or schedule a more thorough examination. 

Common Dental Procedures

During the physical exam, only the top of a dog’s teeth is visible. Seeing the roots and bones under the gumline is vital to assessing true dental health. The results of the physical will determine any additional dental examination or procedures your dog needs. 

Some dental procedures are as simple as routine teeth cleaning. If severe dental disease is present, there may be aggressive treatments required or oral surgery.

Let’s look at what you can expect during dental procedures.

General Anesthesia

For your dog’s comfort and to ease anxiety, the vet will typically use a premedication to your pet.  Next, a general anesthetic with oxygen supplementation is used which allows for proper x-rays, a thorough examination, and any procedures necessary without the concern of your dog moving or being uncomfortable.

Many times this is when they find the complete extent of any disease and the damage it caused. In fact, American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) determined x-rays found that 27.8% of dogs had additional dental disease not visible to the naked eye.

If oral surgery is needed for procedures like removing tumors, excising gum tissue, or extractions for damaged or impacted teeth, your pet may be referred to a Veterinary Dental Specialist.

Routine Dental Cleaning

For routine cleaning with no dental disease, it’s very similar to when we get our teeth scaled and polished. For dogs, the tartar is scaled off of the teeth and plaque is removed at the gumline with root planing. This will remove the harmful bacteria that can cause disease.

The teeth are polished and the mouth is flushed to remove any remaining bits of tartar or plaque. Polishing the teeth smooths out the surface, making it harder for plaque to adhere to them. 

The vet will check the teeth and gums with a blunt probe to assess the stage of periodontal disease. This helps develop an ongoing dental plan for your dog.

How to Help Prevent Dental Disease 

The older a dog gets, the more likely dental problems will develop. So the earlier you get started with routine dental cleanings and brushings (the gold standard), the better it will be for your dog. 

Fortunately, good dental health isn’t difficult to accomplish. Let’s look at the best ways to prevent dental disease for your pooch.

Three steps to prevent dental disease:

  1. Regular veterinarian dental exams
  2. Brush your dog’s teeth consistently at least three times per week (daily is best).
  3. Incorporate products that help support good dental health.

1. How often should your dog get their teeth professionally cleaned?

Your dog’s teeth should have a professional cleaning every 12-24 months, depending on your veterinarian’s recommendation and the needs of your dog. 

Small and brachycephalic (flat noses like bulldogs and Pekinese) breeds should have dental exams every six months. Their teeth have shallow roots and are typically overcrowded, making them more likely to develop dental disease or tooth problems.

“I am always amazed when cleaning a small breed’s teeth, due to the overwhelming amount of tartar, calculus, and disease present.  During a 2019 dental seminar at the OVMA’s, a Board Certified Dentist explained that years of breeding small dogs to get smaller and smaller has caused major issues within the mouth.  Overcrowding of the teeth is one the main concerns as well as retained deciduous teeth (baby teeth). This is why we recommend that most small breeds get their first dental cleaning at 6- 12 months of age.”

Michael Riffe; Harbor Veterinary Clinic.

2. What should my dog’s home dental care routine be?

Only 7% of dog parents routinely brush their dog’s teeth. Many don’t realize the importance good nutrition and professional cleaning have on their dog’s overall health or believe it’s too hard or time-consuming. Good nutrition and professional cleanings are vital, but a home dental routine is necessary for optimal dental health.

“Nothing beats brushing your pet’s teeth at least 3-4 times for a week. The older a dog gets, the more likely dental problems will develop. And the earlier you get started with routine dental cleanings and brushings, the better it will be for your dog.”

Dr. Maritza Bruno, DVM, West Orange Animal Hospital

The good news is it’s easier than you think, even for an older dog.

Introducing an oral cleaning routine to your dog

  1. Baby steps: Start by getting your dog used to you messing with their mouth.  Run your fingers over the outside of their mouths, chin, and cheeks. The whisker area is sensitive, but you want them to get used to you touching their face and mouth, so go slow if your pooch seems hesitant.
  2. Make it fun: After your dog is comfortable with step 1, run your finger around their cheeks, inside the mouth, and over the gums.
  3. Make it tasty: Once your dog is comfortable with step 2, introduce a dab of veterinary toothpaste on your finger and let your dog taste it. Using cotton gauze wrapped around your finger, or a finger brush at this point works well too.

    Most dog toothpaste is chicken or liver flavored and dogs like them. If your dog doesn’t, you can use a dilution of salt and water.

    Never use human toothpaste, the fluoride will upset your dog’s digestive system.
  4. Keep it brief. You only need a couple of minutes a day to accomplish good oral health.  Using praise and healthy treats keep the sessions a positive experience.

Introduce the toothbrush!

  1. Play can be good. Introduce the dog toothbrush by letting them mouth it. They shouldn’t chew on the bristles, but licking and mouthing it is a great way to get them comfortable with it.
  2. Add the tasty. Once your dog is comfortable with the brush, add a dab of veterinary toothpaste or a salt and water dilution to the brush.
    1. Using small, slow circular motions, brush the outside surface of your dog’s teeth letting it slide lightly over their gums as well.
  3. Progress, not perfection: Over the next few days, increase the number of teeth brushed. Remember to always brush in a circular motion and pay attention to the gums as well. When your dog is comfortable, brush the insides of the teeth as well.
  4. Not going for it? If your dog isn’t tolerating the toothbrush, try using a finger brush to clean their teeth.

Remember that dogs like routines—a good brushing at least 2-3 times per week is good, but daily is better. Use praise, reassurance, and healthy treats to signal the completion of the routine and your dog will soon look forward to having his teeth brushed.

3. Incorporate products, treats and toys that support good dental health.

Plaque reducing dental products

A healthy diet is the foundation for fighting dental disease to keep your dog’s body at its optimum health. There are also dental foods available and may be recommended by your vet.

Enzymatic dog oral rinses and water additives:
These help prevent the formation of plaque on your dog’s teeth. Some contain kelp, and some contain cheese enzymes. They raise the PH balance in your dog’s mouth and demineralize the plaque. 

They can be sprinkled on top of dog food, or added to your dog’s water bowl. These are good for dental care between brushings.

Tooth wipes:
Resembling baby wipes, they do the same thing as the gauze with doggy toothpaste. If your dog doesn’t like the toothbrush, these are a good alternative.

Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) has several products they recommend for doggie dental health.

Dental bones, chews & treats 

Chewing is necessary for dogs of all ages for mental stimulation and jaw exercise. It releases endorphins that relieve stress. But avoid any bones or chew sticks that can fracture teeth, or splinter and leave sharp edges that can cut your dog’s gums, tongue, or be swallowed and create havoc in their gastrointestinal system.

“Tartar starts forming on the teeth immediately after a teeth cleaning, so having annual teeth cleanings along with at home care products such as Veggiedent Treats, which we promote at our clinic, can significantly help keep severe dental disease at bay.”

Michael Riffe, Harbor Veterinary Clinic

Greenies would be another good example of these. They’re considered an abrasive for removing plaque during the chewing process. They are high in calories also, making moderation important.

Dental toys

Dental toys are beneficial, especially for more aggressive chewers who can go through a bully stick in minutes. They’re a mechanical, or abrasive, tooth cleaning tool. As your dog chews them, they scrape the plaque off the tooth and massage the gums for better dental health.

Kongs, doggy tennis balls, knotted rope chews, and Nylabones are all good examples for hours of chewing happiness.

The bottom line on doggie dental health

As you can see, your dog’s dental health is as important as your own. Teeth are the windows to health, and need a consistent routine, regular professional cleaning, and the right diet in order to provide a longer healthier life for your pooch.

Your pup’s yearly exam is a great time to discuss their dental health with your veterinarian and learn what preventive care, treatments and daily home habits they recommend.

Dr. Stacy Choczynski Johnson

Dr. Stacy Choczynski Johnson is a veterinarian and strategic sales representative at Pumpkin. Our resident veterinary expert, Dr. Stacy has 12 years of clinical experience and over 20 years of experience working with animals ranging from kittens to beluga whales.
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