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Does Your Dog’s Breath Have You Seeing Stars? Here’s What It Could Mean

Teeth and gum infections can lead to heart, liver, and kidney disease.


If your dog has bad breath that is overpowering, it might be a clue that something is off. Sometimes, foul odors are the result of diseases such as diabetes or kidney failure; and some dental illnesses are harder to spot, especially because dogs are experts at hiding pain. In that case, the only way to find a problem early is through a professional dental exam. “Dental care should be part of your dog’s annual veterinary visit,” says veterinarian Genna Mize, DVM, of Virbac, a pharmaceutical company that studies dental care for dogs. “Your veterinarian can find something you might miss, such as periodontal disease.”

It’s easy to miss this gum disease in its initial stages in both humans and dogs because it forms below the gums. But periodontal disease is one of the most common clinical conditions in adult dogs, and the most untreated health condition in dogs overall. Like other dental conditions in dogs, odor can be a clue. But in the case of periodontal disease, the smell is detectable only once the condition progresses to the point where it’s visible and quite advanced. What makes this worrisome is that “when bacteria in your dog’s mouth enters the bloodstream, blood carries bacteria from the mouth to other parts of the body,” Mize says.

Megan McCarthy, DVM, staff veterinarian at the Best Friends Animal Society Lifesaving Center
in Salt Lake City
, agrees. “Healthy teeth and gums affect the well-being of your dog’s entire body,” she says. “If the teeth are infected, each time the dog eats or chews, this infection and debris can enter the bloodstream and cause heart disease, liver disease, and kidney disease.” Poor dental care can also cause gum recession, pocketing around the teeth, abscesses, and infection surrounding the teeth and tooth loss.

Should my dog get professional teeth cleanings?

Most dogs require dental cleanings. “This is very individual and depends on the breed, home dental care, size of the dog, diet, and genetics,” McCarthy says. “Some small or toy breed dogs can benefit from a dental cleaning at least once yearly while some large breeds may go several years in between. Dental cleanings are performed under anesthesia so the teeth can be cleaned well beyond the gum line and polished to keep them healthy.”

How can I brush my dog’s teeth at home?

Before you attempt to brush your dog’s teeth, get him used to your touch by gently moving your dog’s lips up and down. Then softly touch his teeth with your hands in an up and down motion, as if your hand was a toothbrush. “You can also put peanut butter on your fingers, which dogs like,” Mize says. “And when he lets you put your fingers in his mouth, tell him what a good dog he is.”

“Once your dog gets used to this, you can introduce a dental wipe,” Mize adds. “You can wrap the dental wipe, specifically for dogs, around your finger and make the same motion as a toothbrush.” Dental wipes for dogs remove plaque and tartar and clean your dog’s breath. You can find them at pet retail stores.

As for how often you should brush your dog’s teeth at home, “daily is recommended,” Mize says. “However, two to three times a week also works because not all dogs will cooperate.” Purchase a dog toothbrush from your veterinarian or local pet store. Use a soft bristle toothbrush to remove plaque, bacteria, and residue. A soft bristle toothbrush does the job without damaging the enamel and gums.

“Make sure you use toothpaste made for dogs,” Mize emphasizes. “The toothpaste we humans use is not safe for dogs to swallow. And doggy toothpaste comes in a wide assortment of flavors including chicken and fish.” Ask your veterinarian to show you how to brush your dog’s teeth. “You can also watch a YouTube video that demonstrates how to [do this],” McCarthy says.

What about dental toys and treats?

“The second best thing to brushing your dog’s teeth are dental chews, dental diets and dental treats,” says McCarthy. According to a study in the Journal of Animal Science, dental chews certified by the Veterinary Oral Health Council are effective in decreasing tartar on a dog’s teeth. “These chews can help prevent and remove tartar and are good for a dog to chew on as long as they actually chew them rather than swallow them,” McCarthy notes.

Dental toys can also be helpful in preventing tartar and “come in handy for teething puppies,” adds McCarthy. “You want to choose a dental toy that has a little give to it, one that you can bend a little and indent with your fingernail. Kong and Nylabone make some nice dental dog toys. Just make sure they are not too hard. Some toys and bones can be too tough for dog’s teeth and can cause tooth fractures or breaks.”

Should I put my dog on a special diet?

Kibble can help remove plaque from your dog’s teeth. When your dog chews large bits of kibble, the kibble breaks apart and scrubs the surfaces of your dog’s teeth. While this helps keep teeth clean, it’s important to talk to your dog’s veterinarian before switching to a kibble diet. Most dogs eat two meals a day.

You might want to give your dog kibble for breakfast and wet food for dinner. Dental treats are another option. Make sure your dog chews them in order to remove plaque. This strategy will be more effective if you limit the number of sweet treats you give your dog to one or two a day.

When should I start my dog’s dental care?

Right now! “It’s imperative to start puppies right off the bat with home dental care,” McCarthy says. “Even though puppies will lose their baby teeth, you have started training them so that when their adult teeth come in, they are used to having their teeth being handled.” Older dogs benefit, too. “Teeth brushing will not remove years of tartar,” McCarthy says. “It will help prevent further buildup. In an older dog with dental disease, I recommend having their teeth cleaned with a veterinarian and after one to two weeks, once the gums are less inflamed, you can start routine tooth brushing to slow down the tartar buildup. Space out the time in between dental cleanings with your vet.”

Veterinarians perform routine dental care. But to treat a progressive dental disease, you may have to see a veterinarian who specializes in dental care. Ask your dog’s regular veterinarian to give you a recommendation.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine Inside Your Dog’s Mind.

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