Bad breath (or halitosis) is a common presenting sign in dogs and may be an indication of one of a number of problems. The main cause is dental disease, but halitosis can also indicate other medical problems such as disease of the kidneys, lungs, gastro-intestinal tract and diabetes. It can sometimes be difficult to distinguish the source of the bad breath so it is important that your dog has a thorough clinical examination with your veterinarian to assess the overall health of your pet, accurately diagnose the cause and discuss the best course of action. We will focus here on bad breath caused by dental problems.
What is the problem?
Dental disease begins when a soft material called plaque is deposited on to the surface of the teeth. Plaque is composed of calcium salts, food particles, bacteria and other organic matter. It quickly hardens to form tartar (or calculi) which is a yellow/brown in color and much more difficult to remove.
As plaque and tartar start to build up on the teeth the gums develop gingivitis where they become inflamed, swollen, painful and can bleed easily when touched. At this stage it is possible to reverse the effects before there is permanent damage to the teeth. If left untreated gingivitis leads to periodontitis, which is caused by bacteria from the plaque and tartar entering the area next to the tooth. An infection develops resulting in damage to the root of the teeth and the supporting periodontal ligaments. Teeth become painful, loose, the gums start to retract and the breath starts to become smelly. If still left untreated periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss, difficulty in chewing, loss of appetite, abscess formation, permanent bone loss and possible fracturing of the jaw. Another common outcome is that the bacteria from around the teeth enter the blood stream and travel around the body, lodging in the kidneys and the heart, thus causing disease in these vital organs and a reducing the quality of life of your pet.
There are numerous causes of dental disease:
- Age - dental disease occurs more commonly in older dogs.
- Diet - being fed mostly soft food and dry food that crumbles easily when chewed
- Chewing behaviour - some dogs chew only on one side of their mouth or not at all.
- Breed, Genetics and Tooth alignment - dogs with over or under-bites, small breed dogs are at a higher risk of developing dental disease as they have crowded teeth. Food is more likely to get trapped and the normal cleaning mechanism that occurs when dogs chew is ineffective. Crowding of teeth is also seen if baby teeth do not fall out.
- Mouth environment - the more acidic the saliva the faster the tartar builds up. Dogs that open mouth breathe cause their mouth to dehydrate and the tartar hardens faster.
- Damage to teeth - eg. a fractured tooth is painful, so dogs don’t chew on the affected side causing rapid tartar build up, also the inside of the tooth is exposed to bacteria.
How to prevent dental disease
If your dog has developed dental disease, the first step is to book in for a dental check up with your vet or vet nurse, where they will be able to discuss a scale and polish of the teeth under a general anaesthetic. While anaesthetised your veterinarian will systematically clean and then assess each tooth to ensure they are healthy. Any diseased teeth will be removed and the remaining teeth polished to smooth their surface to reduce the chance of plaque reattaching. Then an aftercare plan is specifically designed for your dog to reduce the chance of dental disease reoccurring using one of the previously mentioned preventatives and regular dental check ups to ensure early intervention. Remembering always that prevention is better than cure. We want to clean teeth in the early stages and get your pet on the right track rather than extracting teeth that have been causing pain to our pets for a while
If your dog’s teeth show no evidence of dental disease then the best plan is to prevent plaque from building up by ensuring good eating habits, manual cleaning and regular checks of your dogs teeth by a vet or vet nurse, or alternatively checking them yourself at home.
- Dental foods - please discuss with your vet or vet nurse which ones are the most suitable for your pet. These foods are designed for your dog to bite into and chew each biscuit and remove plaque from their teeth.
- Strips of meat - this is more suited to smaller breed dogs, with the chewing action actively cleaning the plaque off the teeth
- Manual Cleaning - this is best achieved with a children’s or pet specific toothbrush ideally electric. Not all dog’s will tolerate the noise, so slow introductions are best and making it as positive an experience as possible ie just before dinner, lots of praise and using dog toothpaste (not human toothpaste as this can cause stomach ulcers). Focus on the canines and the molars at the back. You only need to clean the outsides of the upper teeth as the teeth on the lower jaw should clean themselves when you dog chews. Alternatively finger brushes may be a better alternative for your dog
- Gels and Water Additives - that can help reduce plaque production and reduce gingivitisis
In conclusion there are many reasons that your dog may be predisposed to having dental disease, but with good eating habits and a dental healthcare plan set up by your veterinarian they can receive the best possible care for their teeth and have pearly smiles for many years to come.