Veterinary dentistry experts explain causes, treatment, and tips for keeping your dog's pearly whites healthier at home.

By Tracey L. Kelley
February 10, 2021
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Vet tech examines dog's open mouth
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VCA Hospitals indicates that more than two-thirds of dogs over 3 years old suffer from some degree of periodontal disease. This makes it the most common dental disease in dogs, followed by problems with fractured teeth

To understand it, let's delve into a bit of dog dentistry 101. Adult dogs have 42 teeth, divided into four types. The tissues surrounding each tooth are collectively called the periodontium, with four distinct areas of support

  • Gingiva, or gum tissue at the base of each tooth
  • Cementum, which covers the root surface
  • Periodontal ligament, which connects the root to the jaw bone
  • Alveolar bone, which forms the tooth socket

Infection and inflammation in any part of the periodontium causes periodontal disease—also known as periodontitis or gum disease—in dogs.

What Does Gum Disease Look Like in Dogs?

Your own dentist might have talked with you about preventing gingivitis, which is gum infection or inflammation. VCA Hospitals states that gingivitis in dogs starts with a build-up of bacteria known as plaque, which creates a biofilm across their teeth. If not removed, plaque "thickens and mineralizes, resulting in tartar." Tartar, also referred to as calculus, acts like a magnet for more plaque. This infects the gingiva tissue with toxins at and below the gumline, and is the first stage of gum disease in dogs.   

According to the Dentistry and Oral Surgery Service at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital (VMTH), normal dog gums have uniform color and firm shape that lie flat against a dog's teeth. Unhealthy dog gums due to gingivitis inflammation are red, swollen, and may bleed easily around the tooth. However, VMTH indicates this stage of periodontal disease is still reversible with proper professional care.

What does severe gum disease look like? Spoiler alert: icky. The Veterinary Oral Health Council provides this "after" picture of advanced periodontal disease in dogs. Can you imagine what the poor pooch living with this stage of periodontitis must feel? 

Fortunately, we have expert tips to keep your canine friend in good health and prevent dog dental disease from ever reaching this stage.

Symptoms of Dog Dental Disease

Tony M. Woodward DVM, AVDC, is a board-certified veterinary dentist and owner of Montana Pet Dentistry and Oral Surgery in Bozeman, Mont. He says while diligent home dental care is helpful for slowing down the progression of periodontal disease in dogs, it can never entirely prevent it from occurring. 

"Consider the level of dental care most people receive. We brush our teeth diligently 2–3 times a day and have them professionally cleaned every 6–12 months. The cleanings are very detailed and typically take an hour," he says. "Veterinary patients don't receive care that approaches the levels most humans receive. Many dogs don't receive any home care at all. As such, periodontal disease is eventually seen in most dogs."

If this is the first you're hearing of periodontitis, it's possible some early symptoms of the condition were considered typical 'doggie stuff', especially if you have yet to take a pooch to a specialist in veterinary dentistry. "Unfortunately, pets rarely show any signs of dental disease that even the most observant and caring owner would notice," Woodward says.

Some symptoms of dental or gum disease in dogs might include:

  • Bad breath
  • Avoiding touches on their snout or head
  • Sneezing or nasal discharge
  • Bloody saliva
  • Receding gums
  • Lumps under the eyes or in the mouth
  • Trouble eating, especially if you notice them dropping food or chewing on one side of their mouths
  • Not playing with their favorite chew toys

Woodward notes that in general, smaller dogs tend to have increased levels of periodontal disease. "Small dogs with shorter noses, like Pekinese and pugs, seem to be more severely affected and require more frequent cleanings," he says. "Half of periodontal disease is caused by the individual pet's propensity to form plaque and calculus, and their reaction to this accumulation on their teeth." Dogs with crowded and rotated teeth are more at risk, too.

He adds that genetics also play an important role in the progression of periodontal disease, stating that different individuals in the same litter can have more severe issues, "even if they get the same diet, home care, and preventative care."

Stages of Dog Periodontal Disease

Woodward says grading the stages of periodontal disease in dogs is difficult on conscious patients—few pups, no matter how affectionate, will hold still long enough to let you poke around. A veterinarian who specializes in dentistry will likely spot any advancement through a checkup while your dog is under anesthesia.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) outlines four dog dental disease stages:

  • Gingivitis, which is infection and inflammation of the gum line
  • Early periodontal disease, resulting in 25 percent tooth attachment loss
  • Established periodontal disease, resulting in 25–50 percent tooth attachment loss
  • Advanced periodontal disease, causing more than 50 percent tooth attachment loss and jaw damage

Hopefully, you'll never encounter stage 4 gum disease with your own dog. But this might be a concern if you're fostering a rescue or caring for a senior dog who hasn't had proper dental checkups, so it's good to know what next steps to take.

How to Treat Periodontal Disease in Dogs

Treating and preventing dental disease in dogs is an essential part of a dog's overall wellness plan. "Studies have shown that patients with periodontal disease have microscopic changes in their liver, kidney, and hearts," Woodward says. "Additionally, consider the effect chronic pain can have on your pet's general well-being."

Let's review by our list of stages again, with periodontal disease treatments detailed by the AAHA:

  • Gingivitis is often treated the same way by veterinary dentists as our own dentists would do for us: dental scaling to remove tartar, tooth polishing, and irrigation around all teeth and gums. At this stage, it’s important to make a commitment to brush your dog’s teeth daily or at the very least, three days a week. 
  • Depending on the level of corrective treatment needed, antimicrobials or antibiotics might be prescribed before or after scaling and cleaning. Dedicated home dental care continues after treatment. 
  • For established periodontal disease, a veterinary dentist might have to do all of the above, in addition to surgical therapy involving extraction, root planing, and guided tissue regeneration. Few specialists will go to these lengths without a pet parent’s commitment to home dental care. 
  • Once a dog has advanced periodontal disease and goes through all of the above, plus perhaps more invasive surgery such as bone reshaping, the AAHA indicates the “prognosis is considered guarded.” 

How to Prevent Future Dental Disease in Dogs

While you can't treat gum disease in dogs at home, you can certainly develop a consistent prevention plan.

"There's only one way to be proactive with early detection, and that's to have your pet's teeth professionally cleaned with full-mouth dental x-rays taken at the time of the cleaning," Woodward says. "Generally speaking, pets should have their teeth cleaned for the first time at 1–2 years of age."

He adds that periodontal disease usually starts back soon after a cleaning. How quickly it comes back and progresses depends on many factors, but cleaning your dog's teeth at home regularly is vital for keeping the disease in check. Daily brushing only takes a few minutes, provides a good bonding opportunity with your canine friend, and helps you spot concerns more quickly. Woodward also advises regular cleanings by a veterinarian who has training in dentistry.

Chew toys and dental treats are also good ways to keep your dog's teeth clean at home and channel their love of chewing toward something that isn't your favorite pair of shoes.

Unsure of how to brush your dog's teeth? VMTH provides a brief video tutorial you may find helpful. You can also consult your veterinarian for resources, tips, and referrals.