Dental care

Labrador mouth

Probably the most common problem that affects dogs' mouths is gum disease.

The dangers of gum disease

Starting silently with no obvious signs, gum disease 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 3 years old.

What causes gum 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). 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.

Is gum disease a problem in dogs?

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.

The problems of plaque and tartar

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 hard, browny yellow 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.

What are the effects of gum disease?

Dental disease can be painful, but most animals are extremely good at covering up the signs and will rarely stop eating.

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
  • dribbling

If in any doubt, ask your vet.

What is 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 kidneys.

Bad breath - an early warning sign

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.

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 waking up.

Why your dog may need anaesthetic 

Pets need general anaesthetic to have dentistry performed as what we see is 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 should 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.

Brushing your dog's teeth

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!

Start when they're puppies

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 disease.

Watch what they eat

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 ask them to suggest tooth-friendly toys and treats as well.

Pet insurance and dental work

Remember, many pet insurance policies don't cover dental work, so it's even more important to look after your pet's teeth.

Article author

This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.

Think your dog may be affected?

If you're worried about your dog's health always contact your vet immediately!

We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.

Find a vet near you

If you're looking for a vet practice near you why not visit the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons' Find a vet page.