Just like humans, dogs can develop gum diseases which can potentially lead to tooth loss. But how do you recognize it? Can you prevent it from happening to your dog? And finally, what are the treatment options for it?
Canine gum disease is also known as periodontal disease and is a progressive, inflammatory disease of the gums, soft tissues, and bones which support the teeth. It can lead to bad breath, gum recession, tooth infection, loss of teeth and cause a whole host of problems elsewhere in the body too.
Did you know that this is the most common medical condition of adult dogs? It affects over 80% of dogs that are over three years old. (1)
The good news is it is totally preventable, but only if you start taking good care of your dog’s teeth when he is young. In this article, we will tell you how you can help prevent your dog from getting gum disease, and if your dog has it already what the treatment options are.
What Happens During Gum Disease?
Every dog, just like us humans, has bacteria in their mouth. The bacteria mix with food and form a substance called plaque which sticks to the surface of the teeth. When we brush our teeth after eating we remove this plaque.
If the plaque is not removed, then minerals in the saliva mix with the plaque and form a much harder substance called tartar (dental calculus) which is much more firmly attached to the teeth. Tartar is yellow or brown in color and can be obviously seen on your dog’s teeth. It looks like an extra, thickened layer on parts of the teeth above the gum line.
The big problem starts when plaque and tartar build up and start to spread under the gum line. This allows bacteria to start to damage the gums and supporting tissues around and under the tooth and can end in loss of the tooth. The bacteria secrete damaging toxins and stimulate an inflammatory response.
Different Stages of Gum Disease
The gingiva is another word for the gums. The initial stage involves only gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums. In this stage, the gums might look more red than normal, swollen or bleed easily. You might have noticed your dog’s gum line looks a little red, just where the gum meets the tooth? This is gingivitis!
This stage is reversible, so with good care, your dog’s gums can go back to normal. We will cover that in more detail later.
The next stage of gum disease is periodontitis, which is severe inflammation of the supporting structures of the teeth. It can lead to bone loss and the teeth becoming infected or falling out.
What Causes it?
So, we know that gum disease is caused by a build-up of plaque and tartar in the dog’s mouth. However, why does it happen?
There are many different factors which can play a part in whether your dog will develop gum disease or not. Some may be out of your control, such as his genetics and breed, other things may be your direct choices, such as the food he eats or the toys he chews!
Let’s take a closer look at some factors which can influence the development of gum disease…
Bacteria play a major role in the formation of canine gum disease. In dogs, a recent study has shown that the most common bacteria associated with gingivitis and periodontitis are Pseudomonas sp, Porphyromonas cangingivalis, Desulfomicrobium orale, and Actinomyces bacteria. (2)
Normal chewing of fibrous food should help clean your dog’s teeth. However, feeding very soft food means it is more likely to stick around the teeth, compared to dry food.
Some dogs get in the habit of chewing stones, bones or wood, through boredom or because the owner gives them to play with. These can cause broken teeth, scratches and wounds in the gums, which weakens the teeth and the area around them. This means bacteria can more easily enter the damaged areas, putting the dog at higher risk of gum disease.
Dogs need a quality, balanced and complete diet for good, healthy teeth. Normal chewing of dry food or fibrous foods can help to remove plaque too. We know that too much sugar isn’t good for our teeth and the same goes for dogs.
Dogs who are given snacks or human food high in sugar will be at higher risk of gum disease. Studies have shown that dogs with a poor diet, lacking vitamins and minerals, had a higher rate of gum disease. (3)
Poor Immune System
Older dogs tend to have weaker immune systems, and also dogs who have other diseases or cancer. If your dog has lots of bacteria in his mouth, but his immune system is struggling to carry out its normal job. This allows the bacteria to multiply and cause problems, especially if there is a lot of plaque and tartar in the dog’s mouth!
Brachycephalic breeds are those with a short nose and flatter face, such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Shih Tzus, and they are more prone to gum disease. These breeds are more prone to overcrowding of the teeth, and malocclusions (where the top and bottom teeth don’t overlap normally). This can make it more likely for food and debris to get caught up in teeth, and for plaque to quickly form.
Are Some Dogs More at Risk Than Others?
Yes. Unfortunately, some types and breeds of dogs seem more at risk of developing severe gum disease than others. (4) These are the dogs at higher risk:
However, it is important to remember that ANY dog can develop gum disease!
Clinical Signs Of Gum Disease
Often the first thing an owner will notice is that their dog has bad breath when they want to give their dog a cuddle and a smooch. However, sometimes by that stage, the gum disease might already be quite severe.
It is good to get in the habit of checking your dog’s mouth and teeth. Ideally, this should be started while your dog is still a puppy but can be started from any age. It is important to know what color your dog’s gums normally are, a salmon pink color? Or does he have pigmented black gums?
Common signs of gum disease include:
- Bad breath
- Red, inflamed gums
- Bleeding gums
- Decreased appetite or refusing food
- Chewing on one side of the mouth only
- Dropping food from the mouth while eating
- Pain while eating
- Scratching at the mouth
If your dog is showing any of these signs, then you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian.
Learn more about gum disease in this video.
What Other Problems Can Gum Disease Cause?
We have already discussed that gum disease can lead to sore, red gums, tooth infection and even tooth loss. However, the problems are not just confined to the mouth.
The bacteria and inflammatory cells which are produced during severe gum disease can spread in the blood to other parts of the body. Gum disease has been linked to heart disease (cardiomyopathy, endocarditis), kidney disease (interstitial nephritis, glomerulonephritis), liver disease (hepatitis) and lung disease (chronic bronchitis, pulmonary fibrosis). All that sounds pretty scary and it is!
How Is Gum Disease Diagnosed?
The veterinarian should check your dog’s mouth as part of a full physical examination. Your dog should have a health check at least once a year with a vet.
Gum disease is usually pretty obvious, just from looking in the mouth. The gums may be red or inflamed (gingivitis), or there may be a build up of tartar over the teeth.
In some cases, the dog may need to have its mouth and teeth checked under a general anesthetic. This allows the veterinarian to probe the teeth and thoroughly check the gums. As you can imagine some dogs may not like a vet having a good check of their mouth, especially if their teeth are sore.
Often dental x-rays may be taken to check the health of the tooth roots and the bone under the gums. Did you know that up to 60% of the tooth is hidden below the gum line? Therefore, we can’t see all the problems just from looking at the part of the tooth that is visible. X-rays will show if there are any changes in the density of the tooth roots and changes in the supporting bone, which are signs of periodontal disease.
What Are The Treatment Options?
The treatment options depend on how far advanced the gum disease is.
Early Stages- Gingivitis
In the early stages, treatment focuses on removing tartar, bacteria, and plaque through a professional dental cleaning (also known as a scale and polish). This is done by a veterinarian under a general anesthetic. This may be able to cure and reverse your dog’s gingivitis (red and inflamed gums) if completed early enough in the disease process.
Although some people may offer teeth cleaning when your dog is awake, this isn’t very good or efficient at removing the harmful bacteria and plaque!
If a dog has very mild gingivitis then the veterinarian may just advise regular home cleaning to try to reverse the changes in the gums. Daily teeth brushing with a dog safe toothpaste may be all that it takes to cure the gingivitis. Usually, if there is no improvement after a few weeks of regular tooth brushing, then a professional scale and polish will be advised.
Later Stages- Periodontitis
Periodontitis requires more of an aggressive approach to try to prevent spread of the disease. The dog’s teeth require a deep cleansing/scale and polish. Root scaling removes the plaque and tartar from the exposed tooth roots and root planing is the process of smoothing the root surfaces. Infected teeth or those with a significant portion of their roots exposed are often removed, in a process known as tooth extraction.
Often some of the jaw bone needs to be removed too, known as a periodontal flap. The antibiotic gel may be placed into any pockets of exposed gum or after tooth removal, and bone grafts may be used to help replace lost bone. Some teeth may be able to be saved through major surgery by a specialist veterinary dentist.
Don’t worry too much if your dog needs to have some teeth removed, he will feel much better once the infected and sore teeth are taken out, and dogs cope just fine with less teeth.
Can Gum Disease Be Prevented?
The good news is YES gum disease can be prevented, but only if you are dedicated to the oral hygiene care of your dog. The American Veterinary Dental College has some great recommendations for canine oral hygiene here.
It all revolves around regular plaque removal and control, which is best achieved through daily brushing. Regular tooth brushing physically removes the plaque (and pesky bacteria) and prevents tartar from forming.
Feeding a good quality, complete dog diet will help keep your dog’s immune system strong and your dog healthy, which can help reduce his risk of developing gum disease. Soft food may increase his risk, so it’s important to feed some dry food too which helps to remove plaque, as your dog needs to crunch and chew the food more. Some specialized “dental diets” also include ingredients which help to reduce oral bacteria or slow down plaque formation.
There are also many different dental products available, such as dental treats, chews, sprays, mouthwashes, oral gels and dental toys. Talk to your veterinarian for advice, on which products may be best for your dog. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has a helpful list of dental products which can help slow down or prevent plaque on your dog’s teeth.
Some dogs who are at higher risk may need regular dental scale and polishes to help prevent gum disease, every 6months or yearly.
Gum disease is very common, and most dogs will suffer from it, especially when they get older. The best way to prevent it is to brush your dog’s teeth daily. Use a dog-friendly toothbrush or gauze with a dog safe toothpaste. It is best to start slowly and gently, especially if your dog has never had his teeth brushed before. By regularly checking your dog’s teeth, you can also spot changes sooner.
If your dog does develop periodontal disease, early diagnosis and treatment is the best way to prevent serious health problems. Remember the bacteria in the mouth can spread to other organs in the body and cause serious disease elsewhere too!
The take-home message is you should brush your dog’s teeth daily to help prevent gum disease, and get your dog regular dental check-ups with the vet.
This article has been medically reviewed by Dr Margarita Boyd, BVSc MRCVS.
Margarita graduated from the University of Liverpool, earning a Bachelor in Veterinary Science with distinction. She worked in small animal and equine practice for a few years, before choosing to focus solely on companion animals. She has developed a special interest in internal medicine and ophthalmology.