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What is gum disease in dogs?

Gum disease in dogs begins with bacteria sticking to the surface of your dog’s teeth, forming a sticky coating known as dental plaque. As this coating builds up, the dog’s gums become red, inflamed and sometimes swollen, this is a condition known as gingivitis. 

If the plaque isn’t removed it will harden after a few days and become tartar. This is a brown, hard coating on the teeth which is difficult to remove. Over 85% of dogs over the age of 3 will be affected by some degree of gum disease. Small breeds of dogs tend to be more severely affected, due to a combination of diet, small teeth and less bony attachment. 

 

Dental disease in dogs can be broken up into four stages;

  1. Stage 1: Gingivitis is categorised as inflammation of the gums and is in response to the presence of bacteria and tartar. There may also be swelling of the gums at this stage. 
  2. Stage 2: Early periodontitis — there is a small amount of ligament and bone loss, visible on X-rays of the mouth. The gums become more red and inflamed and you will begin to notice some bad breath. To help reverse the progression of gum disease in dogs at this stage a full descale and polish with a veterinary surgeon is recommended. 
  3. Stage 3: To the naked eye, this stage will appear similar to stage 3. Moderate periodontitis will see up to 50% loss of tooth support on a dental x-ray. As with the previous stage, gums will be inflamed, swollen and bleed easily.
  4. Stage 4: Advanced periodontitis will occur along with bone loss of 50% or more. Tartar build-up at this stage will be significant, as the dog’s gums will start to react. Teeth will become more damaged and multiple extractions will be required.

 

Not only can the progression of dental disease lead to severe pain for your dog, but it can also have multiple effects on their general health. Bacteria from inside your dog’s mouth can be released into the bloodstream and travel around the body. This can cause; 

  • Damage to the heart (endocarditis)
  • Insulin resistance (Diabetes)
  • Poor kidney function
  • Damage to the liver

 

Canine chronic ulcerative stomatitis is a much less common and separate condition. This is an immune-mediated hypersensitivity to plaque. Affected dogs have severe inflammation of the gums and mouth relating to even a small amount of plaque on the dog’s teeth. This is a very painful condition, which may necessitate the removal of most or all the teeth. Greyhounds and Labradors are some of the more commonly affected breeds. 

 

Symptoms of gum disease in dogs

Dogs will often show no outward signs of gum disease, especially in the early stages. It is therefore important as an owner to recognise the signs before the disease progresses to cause potential harm to your pet. 

A weekly check of your dog’s mouth will help you to spot any signs of tartar and gingivitis early. 

 

Other signs you may see include:

  • Bad breath — often a sign of bacteria in the mouth, so often indicates a gum problem
  • Bleeding gums when your dog chews
  • Excessive drooling or discharge from the mouth
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Pain – your dog may be reluctant to have their face or head touched, have difficulty eating or become less playful, even lethargic

How is gum disease diagnosed in dogs?

Gum disease is diagnosed by a vet, who will examine your dog’s mouth thoroughly. This will allow us to find any loose or problem teeth. If your dog will not tolerate this due to pain or fear, then we will often use other indicators such as swelling, pain, drooling, difficulty chewing, or unpleasant smell to indicate a problem with the teeth or mouth. 

Depending on the severity of the condition, we will book your dog in for a dental procedure in the following days or weeks. 

Dental procedures in dogs are always carried out under General Anaesthesia. This allows us to fully examine all the teeth and other structures within the mouth. It also means we can pass a tube down your dog’s windpipe to protect their breathing and prevent them inhaling fluids whilst using drills and scalers in their mouth. 

We use dental X-Rays as routine to examine the teeth, including their roots and sockets in the underlying bone. Sometimes these will reveal fractured roots, root remnants, abscesses or loss of attachment of teeth that are not visible above the gum. 

We also use probes to assess the attachment of the gum holding the teeth in place. These investigations will enable us to decide which, if any, teeth need extracting. 

 

How is gum disease in dogs treated?

Gingivitis in dogs (stage 1) is curable with regular tooth brushing and good oral health care. 

Mild to moderate periodontitis (stages 2 and 3) requires scaling above and below the gum line to remove plaque and tartar build-up. The teeth are then polished to leave a smooth surface. Regular dental care must be carried out following a dental procedure or the disease will return within a few months. 

Advanced periodontitis (stage 4) will most likely necessitate the removal of affected teeth by performing a dental extraction.

 

How to prevent gum disease in dogs

  • Brushing your dog’s teeth. This is the gold standard and should be carried out daily, or at least 3 times weekly. Starting from when your dog is a puppy means they will be more likely to accept this as part of their daily routine. Use a soft toothbrush or finger brush to apply the toothpaste and gently rub the surface of the teeth. Make sure you use a toothpaste designed for dogs. These are often meat or malt flavoured and are enzyme based. The enzymes break down the plaque and tartar and so do not require the same amount of brushing in comparison to humans. Do not be tempted to use human toothpaste. Some ingredients in human toothpaste such as fluoride and xylitol can be poisonous for dogs. 
  • Topical medications. These can be applied to the gums and teeth to prevent plaque build-up e.g. Dentisept gel, which contains the antiseptic, chlorhexidine.
  • Food and water additives. To prevent plaque and tartar formation. Eg Plaque off — a natural seaweed-based product which helps to soften the tartar. 
  • Dental chews. These will help to remove the plaque by friction. There are many products available, such as; hide chews, dental sticks, antlers, dried animal ears and fish ‘jerky’ which are all good for your dog’s teeth. Raw vegetables can also be useful, especially if your dog is watching their weigh. Bones should be used with caution, as they can lead to broken teeth or bowel obstructions if swallowed. 
  • Regular vet check-ups. Most pets are seen at least once a year for booster vaccinations, so this is an ideal time for us to check your dog’s mouth as part of their clinical examination. 

Unfortunately, periodontal disease is not reversible. Keeping your dog’s mouth healthy by ensuring regular dental care to avoid or at least minimise gum disease is therefore very important. 

If you’re concerned about your pets dental health or would like some advice on how best to care frothier teeth, contact your local Animal Trust surgery or book a free consultation with one of our vets.

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