Keeping teeth and gums in a healthy condition is as important for dogs as it is for humans.
Gum disease is the most common health problem affecting a dog’s mouth. By the age of two, up to 80% of dogs already have some form of dental disease.
If not treated properly, the advanced stages of gum disease can cause chronic pain, eroded gums and teeth loss. It can also lead to more serious conditions affecting major organs such as the heart, kidney, liver and lungs.
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Not all pet insurance policies cover dental illness and disease. Check out our guide to pet insurance that does include dental cover.
Why do dogs get gum disease?
Gum disease affects dogs in a similar way to humans. When saliva, food and fluids combine in a dog’s mouth, they help create ideal conditions for bacteria to grow. This bacteria forms plaque, which causes tooth decay and gum disease.
Dogs suffer from gum disease more than humans because they have more alkaline in their mouth, which leads to plaque-forming bacteria.
Bacteria use the sugar found in food to produce acids that eat away at the tooth enamel. Food containing high levels of sugar will help the enamel break down faster, which eventually leads to a cavity (or hole) forming in the tooth surface.
There are different forms of gum disease. Bacteria inside the mouth causes inflammation of the gums and this mild form of gum disease is known as Gingivitis. Gingivitis causes the gums to become red, swollen and leads to bleeding.
When Gingivitis is not treated it can develop into a more serious Periodontal disease. This affects the tissues that support the teeth and hold them in place. Gingivitis is considered by many to be the first stage of Periodontal disease.
What are the signs of gum disease in dogs?
It can be difficult for dog owners to recognise the early signs of gum disease and when they finally do, it can already be advanced.
A dog may be suffering from gum disease if they show some of the following signs:
- A loss of interest in chewing or playing with toys
- Loss of appetite or weight
- Becoming fussier with food - preferance for certain types of food
- Blood in the water bowl or on chew toys
- Loose teeth
- Reddened or swollen gums
- Bleeding gums
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Chewing on one side of the mouth
- Sneezing and nasal discharge - can be a sign of tooth infection
What puts dogs at risk of gum disease?
Poor oral hygiene increases the risk of gum infection in all dogs and this is especially true for small dogs.
They are more prone to developing gum disease due to the small size of their jaws, which can lead to the overcrowding of teeth.
Small breeds that suffer more from dental disease include:
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- Lhasa Apsos
- Shih Tzu
- Yorkshire Terriers
Older dogs are also more at risk to dental problems. They will have weaker immune systems and are less capable of fighting off the effects of bacteria from gum disease.
What is the best treatment for dog gum disease?
Treatment will depend on how serious and advanced the gum disease is.
Dog mouth wash
Dog mouthwash can be used to keep a dog’s oral health in good shape. It’s specially formulated for dogs so that it’s safe to ingest.
Dog mouthwash is helpful in minimising bacteria, improving breath and eliminating the persistent build-up of plaque.
Anti-inflammatory pain relief
A vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to deal with any pain caused by gum infection. Anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics will most likely be needed after any surgery that is required.
Antibiotics can be used to fight tooth infection, particularly tooth abscesses that can occur due to Periodontal disease.
Dogs with severe dental disease are often placed on antibiotics in the days leading up to and after dental cleaning.
Dental cleaning is a more serious procedure to remove the build up of plaque and tartar. It requires placing a dog under an anaesthetic as this is the only way to safely clean and remove teeth.
While under anaesthetic a vet can take X-rays that can reveal any other problems affecting teeth and bones. This is important as in diagnosing Periodontal disease, many of the symptoms are hidden beneath the gum line.
How to prevent gum disease in dogs
Dental checks and cleaning
Dog owners should ensure their dogs have regular oral exams and cleanings. Having your pet's oral health checked at least once a year by a vet is important.
Annual dental check-ups might also be required by your pet insurance provider. If you don't have them, they may decline claims for dental treatment.
Early stages of gum disease will require the removal of plaque, but more advanced forms of gum disease may need some form of surgery.
Dog owners should aim to brush their dog’s teeth twice a day using animal-safe toothpaste. Daily brushing and flossing done correctly will help remove most plaque from a dog’s teeth, but even a couple of times a week would be better than nothing at all.
There are special toothbrushes and toothpaste available for dogs. It’s helpful to introduce teeth brushing when a dog is still young. They will quickly get used to having their teeth brushed as part of their daily routine.
Dogs should not be given too many sugary foods as this will cause bacteria to build up on their teeth.
Many dog owners and veterinarians believe a diet of raw meaty bones are good for the oral health of dogs. They provide active chewing and keep gums clean. Raw food diets contain natural enzymes that help resist bacterial plaque; this gives dogs healthier teeth and gums.
Toys and treats for chewing
Dog owners can buy toys that are designed to clean a dog’s teeth as they chew on them. They help satisfy a dog’s natural desire to chomp while making their teeth strong.
These dog chews combine enzymes and chewing to actively remove plaque and tartar build up from teeth and gums.
What happens if gum disease is left untreated?
Gum disease can lead to further infection of the mouth. Periodontitis is irreversible and can result in tooth damage and loss, as the disease is characterised by the tooth becoming detached from the gums and socket.
Periodontal disease can lead to tooth abscesses that are painful and should be treated quickly. Vets may prescribe antibiotics, but in some cases, the infected tooth will need to be removed through surgery.
More serious illnesses can also develop from gum disease. Poor oral hygiene has been linked to health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease.
Studies have shown that dogs with diabetes tend to have higher levels of Periodontal disease. The more severe the Periodontal disease is, the more serious the diabetes gets. This in turn worsens the Periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease also increases the risk of heart disease and other organ damage. The bacteria found in a dog’s mouth can enter the bloodstream; if their immune system fails to kill off the bacteria circulating in the blood it can reach the heart and infect it.
Dogs live longer with healthy teeth and gums
Healthy teeth and gums are a sign that a dog is in good physical condition. Regular dental care can help dogs live longer happier lives as they grow older.
Dog owners should combine a programme of a healthy diet, dental care and toys to combat dental disease. They should examine their dog’s gums and mouth regularly for signs of disease and arrange regular dental check-ups with their local vet.
It’s important to remember that many pet insurance policies don't cover dental work so it’s vital that owners take good care of their dog’s teeth and gums.