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Canine Dental Care
By Peter Emily, DDS, AVDC

Keeping teeth and gums clean is an important part of your dog's overall health. Dental home care and veterinary dental cleaning is essential for all dogs, especially for smaller dogs. In smaller dogs, the bone that holds the teeth is thinner so gum disease can be more of a problem.

Common Canine Dental Problems

Gum disease is very common in dogs. Many dogs over the age of 2 or 3 have either gingivitis or periodontitis.

Periodontitis, or periodontal disease, is the most common dental problem for dogs. It is caused by plaque, a mixture of bacteria, food debris, and cell mucus. It forms a milky-white film on the teeth and gums. As plaque gets into pockets under the gumline, bacteria eats away at the bone that holds the teeth (called resorption of the bone). When mixed with saliva in the mouth, plaque turns into tartar, which can stick to the teeth like cement.

Gingivitis, or gum disease, is an inflammation of the gum tissue.

It does not affect the deeper structures of the teeth. Without treatment, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis, bone loss, loosening of the teeth, and eventually loss of teeth.

Tooth fractures. The second biggest problem for dogs and their teeth is that hard chews can break the teeth, leading to infection inside the tooth (called endodontic disease). Dogs can break their teeth surprisingly easily, just from crunching down on hard rocks, cow hooves, and other tough substances.

Many dogs are inclined to chew on hard things to exercise their gums. But the teeth used to chew are extremely vulnerable to fracture. Dogs chew in an up and down motion, which causes the object to slide off to the side of the tooth and may break it. This exposes the pulp tissue inside the tooth.


Preventing dog dental problems

You can prevent periodontal disease by eliminating plaque before it becomes tartar. The best way to do this is through the mechanical action of brushing your dog's teeth. This reduces the amount of bacteria in the mouth, which also has the added benefit of keeping your dog's breath smelling sweeter. Try to brush your dog's teeth every day.


Toothpaste. Brush your dog's teeth with toothpaste made for dogs. People toothpaste is designed for people to spit out. Dogs can't do that, so you need to use one that's safe for the dog to swallow


Toothbrush. Introducing a toothbrush is a process of building confidence and trust. Gentle encouragement works best. One way of getting your dog used to a toothbrush is to take some garlic salt, mix it with water, and dip an old toothbrush into it. Hold the brush, and let your dog lick or chew the brush. The dog will realize that a toothbrush is good and that it tastes good. You can do this a few times so the dog won't be scared of the brushing process, and will let you brush daily.

Dogs' teeth touch only in one or two places, and their teeth are narrow. A toothbrush reaches 90% of the area that needs to be cleaned. The toothbrush doesn't always reach the teeth that are farthest back in the dog's mouth, but this is not the most important area. Chewing on a cotton rope bone can help clean those back teeth.

Finger brush. Instead of using a toothbrush, you can use a finger brush. A toothbrush is better, but a finger brush is a good alternative. It fits onto your fingertip and lets you brush your dog's teeth almost without your dog knowing it. The drawback of using a finger brush is that the bristles are a bit too large to get under the margin of the gumline as effectively as a regular toothbrush.

Professional cleaning. Another important part of making sure that your dog's teeth and gums are clean is to have the teeth professionally cleaned by your veterinarian. A veterinarian will anesthetize your dog, scrape all of the plaque buildup from above and below the gumline, and then polish the teeth.

Home checkup. Get in the habit of looking in your dog's mouth to check for broken or cracked teeth. Look especially closely at the very large forth tooth, counting back from the fang (not counting the fang). If that tooth doesn't have a sharp point, look inside and see if it's rough. If you can see pulp tissue, the tooth can become infected, develop a big abscess, and even some swelling under the eyes. Contact a veterinary dentist as soon as possible.

Home safety. Don't let your dog chew on rocks, bones, cow hooves, or hard nylon or ceramic bones. Safer chewing toys are those made of rubber, soft rope bones, or bones that are soft enough to provide the necessary chewing exercise without the possibility of breaking teeth. Rawhide may be safe for chewing, but as it softens pieces can break off and if inhaled, may cause your dog to suffocate. If swallowed, rawhide can cause an intestinal blockage.

Mouthwash. There are two sprays on the market that work very well to help kill bacteria in the mouth and may actually heal damaged gum tissue. Ask your veterinarian about these products.

Other points

Food. Dry dog food helps keep the plaque level down. However, it helps only in the area that's visible, not in the important area just below the gumline. Dog biscuits can also reduce tartar, but again, only above the gumline. Brushing your dog's teeth does the best job of cleaning the important area below the gumline, where bacteria and plaque hide and can rot away the gums and bone.

Plaque. 80 percent of plaque is bacteria. Four hundred different strains of bacteria have been found in the mouths of animals. Some strains of bacteria produce odor, while others cause gum disease. Bacteria is a direct result of plaque. To eliminate the odor of your dog's breath, you must eliminate the plaque.

Dogs generally form most plaque on the outside of their teeth, but they occasionally form plaque on inside surfaces of the mouth. Daily brushing works to get rid of plaque on the outside surfaces of the mouth. However, to eliminate the plaque from the inside surfaces of the mouth, go to your veterinarian periodically to have your dog's teeth cleaned professionally. Ask your veterinarian about products that you can use at home to prevent bacteria. To avoid the buildup of plaque, you must still try to brush your dog's teeth daily.

Dog Dental care points to Remember

Gum disease begins with the formation of plaque, a sticky film

of bacteria that forms in the mouth at the gum line.

Plaque hardens into tartar which harms the gums causing them to become red and swollen, known as gingivitis.

If left untreated, gingivitis will lead to gum and peridontal disease. This can lead to infections of the bone that hold the teeth in place, resulting in loss of bone, which can cause the teeth to fall out.

Dogs 3 years and older have an 85% chance of getting some form of gum disease.

Take steps now to help prevent this from happening:

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See also:

Helping your Dog Live as Healthy as Possible

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