Doggy Breath….The Cause, and How You Can Prevent It!

By Erik Eldridge, DVM

dental jan 16 memorial road ph-2Each morning when we wake up, we are most likely greeted by our beloved dogs, eagerly waiting to play, eat and…well…eat and play some more. We take these things for granted, often forgetting that dogs do almost everything with their mouths. Exploring their environment; chewing on any number of objects (insert your dog’s item of choice here); and most importantly, eating, occupy a significant amount of time in a dog’s life, and all these activities involve teeth.

Dogs have 42 teeth, and each one is important. If broken, diseased or otherwise injured, any one of them can cause our furry companions considerable pain. Learning what to look for when you look at your dog’s pearly whites is literally worth its weight in chew bones and can save both you and your pup future worry and discomfort.

Dental care for humans has advanced dramatically during the last century, and anyone who’s had serious dental work performed understands its importance. We brush our teeth two to three times daily and still develop dental problems. Can you imagine what would be happening in your mouth if you didn’t brush? And worse, can you imagine having to speak face-to-face with someone who didn’t? Now, imagine that that “someone” was your dog. Every day, clients approach me about the terrible odor coming from their dog’s mouth; most accept this as just “dog breath,” and don’t think to look at the source.

The Fable and the Facts

Contrary to popular belief, the statement that “a dog’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s” is just not true. I’ll bet that you don’t know very many people who drink out of puddles, eat dirt and ingest unmentionables. Dogs do have ammonium in their saliva, which raises the pH of their oral environment and keeps certain decay-causing bacteria under control, but that’s only part of the story. Without Mother Nature’s help, things in our pets’ mouths would be a lot worse.

Oral disease generally starts as soon as a dog’s permanent teeth erupt, when the puppy is about four to eight months old. All disease starts with tartar formation at the gum line, which results in Grade I periodontal disease and gingivitis. If the teeth are cleaned at this point, the disease is mostly reversible, but many overlook this maintenance step. Grade II periodontal disease is diagnosed when moderate tartar is present and the gums are red, swollen and possibly bleeding; Grade II disease can be reversed as well, but a commitment must be made to brush the dog’s teeth regularly and improve the health of the gums. When a pup is diagnosed with Grade III periodontal disease, she will have red, and receding gums; exposed pulp or roots; and weakening or destruction of the bone associated with the teeth. Grade III is not reversible.

A host of problems can be associated with severe gum and periodontal disease. The mouth has a wonderful blood supply, and when the gums become inflamed, the numerous bacteria that have been making tartar spill into the blood stream, which carries them to important organs. If the bacteria settles in the heart, liver, kidney, brain or even skin, severe problems can result. After a good teeth cleaning, many dogs seem to be invigorated, probably as a result of the huge reduction in the amount of circulating bacteria.

Dental Prophylaxis (Cleaning) Procedure

Most dogs must be under general anesthesia for a thorough cleaning to be performed. First, an ultrasonic scaler or pick is used to remove tartar above and below the gum line. Then, wielding a small probe, the vet (or qualified veterinary technician) will determine if periodontal pockets are present along the gum line; any tartar in these pockets is removed. Depending on the depth of the pocket, an antibiotic gel may be infused to reattach the gum to the tooth. The health of all teeth is established—exposed pulp, fractured teeth, exposed roots and any number of other problems are checked. Fillings, root planing, root canals and possibly tooth extraction may be needed. Polishing the teeth, which is done last, is very important; this smoothes out all the tiny surface irregularities and makes it difficult for bacteria to attach to teeth. However, despite our best efforts, bacteria will re-establish themselves within about 20 minutes, and tartar will harden within a week. This is why brushing is so very important.

Brush Up on Cleaning Strategies

Recently, I read that a person who brushes regularly can add seven years to his or her life—seven years! So let’s start there: If you want to extend your dog’s life, and most importantly the quality of her life, you need to brush her teeth. Now, this is easier said than done, but if we start this routine early in the dog’s life, most will be compliant.


There are many types of brushes and pastes on the pet market—find ones that you and your dog like and use them faithfully. I often suggest a small, child-size brush or an on the finger brush, and any flavored paste your dog likes (there are a number of yummy flavored toothpastes made especially for dogs; toothpaste for humans should be avoided, since they are not intended to be swallowed).

Oral wipes

Some newer products on the market may provide some prevention without brushing. I have suggested to many clients the use of dental wipes. These are small cotton pads that are soaked in an antiseptic solution, and you simply wipe your pet’s teeth with them daily. This acts as a mechanical removal of plaque, and reduces oral bacteria.

Toys and Food

It is debatable as to whether dry, crunchy food is actually better than wet food in preventing tartar, but it is most definitely better for exercising teeth. Firm rubber toys, rope toys and numerous brands of “chews” may also aid in preventing tartar formation. Hard bones can also be useful, but they must be given with caution, as they can potentially cause tooth fractures and intestinal obstructions. Uncooked beef knuckle bones and femurs, which are least likely to splinter, are a good choice ; avoid giving your dog fowl bones, cooked or raw, and smoked bones, beef or otherwise (and always observe your pup when she is chewing or playing with any type of bone). For best results, however, there is no substitute for good preventive oral care, and for quick intervention when a problem arises.

Happy brushing!

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