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Dog dental disease

Written by dentist Dr. Richard Mitchell from

Dog dental disease is hard to spot in the early stages, but I guarantee that most dogs will have dental problems of one sort or another at some point in their lives. In fact, both the Australian and American Veterinary Dental Societies state that 80% of dogs will have gum disease before the age of 3 years.

It's very important to keep an eye on your dog's teeth and gums for several reasons;

  • Dental problems will cause your dog pain.
  • Dental problems can affect your dog's general health, affecting the heart, liver, kidneys, with links to cancer, diabetes and the brain.
  • Dental problems become more expensive to fix as time goes by.

  • Medical conditions caused by dental problems can ruin your dog's life.

So the FIRST most important thing is to PREVENT dental problems in the first place!

And the SECOND most important thing is to learn how to recognize the early signs of a dental problem, should something occur. The earlier you can spot the problem, the better.

Finally, the THIRD most important thing is to know what to do if you DO discover that your dog has a dental problem.

What do healthy gums look like?

Healthy gums are pale pink, sometimes very pale pink! And they are pink all around the necks of the teeth - NO little red line around each tooth! Some dog breeds have pigmentation in their gums which can be dark brown or even black - don't worry, that's normal for that breed. It's any sign of REDNESS we want to look for.

dog dental diseaseVery pale pink gums - very healthy! Image courtesy dogsnaturallymagazine
dog dental diseaseNice white teeth and pink gums
dog dental diseaseno signs of gum disease here!

To prevent dental problems getting a start in the first place, we need to look at what causes dental problems.

The only cause of diseases to do with teeth and gums is dental plaque, just the same as in humans. This a hard-to-see sticky white film that builds up on the teeth, where the tooth meets the the gums.

This plaque is full of bacteria, and it is these bacteria that cause all the problems.

As the bacterial plaque film slowly builds up, the bacteria release toxins which irritate the gum. In the initial stages, there's not much to see. After all, the plaque film is very thin, it's the same color as the tooth (white), and there are no immediate effects on the gums

Dog Dental Disease

At this early stage, you can only see the plaque film if you were to take a very close look at the biggest teeth - the long canine tooth and the big molar towards the back of the mouth - and gently scrape the surface of the tooth near the gum edge with something like a wooden toothpick. If there IS plaque there, it will come off on the tip of the toothpick, looking like a fine white deposit.

If you try this test out at home, and you can scrape a soft white deposit off your dog's teeth, then it's time for action!

BUT what to do?  SIMPLE! You have to remove the plaque.

I sometimes despair at homeopathic and natural remedies that don't deal with removing the plaque. It's so simple to remove plaque, but there are some people out there who want to slather all sorts of oils and concoctions onto the gums OVER the dental plaque, when it would be easier and cheaper to just remove the plaque in the first place!

It's like having a splinter in your finger - the skin gets red, inflamed and sore. You KNOW that the correct thing to do is pull the splinter out , NOT cover it with probiotics, yoghurt, honey, coconut oil or any other weird things, hoping things will get better.

All you have to do at this early stage is to brush your dog's teeth, very slowly and gently, with a small, soft toothbrush. I recommend a manual brush designed for children aged 4 -7, as most dogs don't like an electric brush, unless introduced at a very young age.

Dog Dental Disease

The best way to brush your dog's teeth is to get it to sit, then stand or kneel (depending on how large or small your dog is) behind your dog with it sitting between your knees. Then you can lean forwards, gently turn your dog's head to one side, and then slowly massage the gum edges where they meet the teeth with a gentle circular motion. Remember where it was that you managed to scrape some plaque off your dog's teeth, and go extra slowly and carefully in those areas.

At first, this will be a new experience for your dog, so don't try to brush all the teeth at the first session. Just be happy to get your dog used to the brush for 30 seconds or so, and give lots of praise for cooperation. Just go around the back teeth initially, as that's where the problem is usually worst. After 5 to 7 sessions, you can start to increase the time you spend brushing your dog's teeth, and include more teeth.

You don't really need to use a toothpaste, as most human toothpastes are much too strongly flavored for dogs, BUT veterinary surgeon Dr. David Urch recommends an aloe vera toothpaste called Forever Bright Toothgel which has anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. Read more about this at our dedicated page on aloe vera HERE.

Congratulations! You have caught a potential dental problem really early, and prevented any dog dental disease getting started! Repeat this procedure at least once a week!

But if things have progressed to the next stage, when you look at your dog's teeth you will be able to SEE some slight staining on the teeth, and if you try scraping some teeth with a wooden toothpick, you will get a significant amount of plaque coming off. And it will smell bad.

You will also see, if you look closely enough, that the gums are NOT pale pink next to the teeth. At the gum edges, next to the necks of the teeth, you will see that the gum looks red, and it may also be slightly puffy. In short, it looks inflamed.

Your dog now has the first stage of gum disease. Also, with this much plaque on the teeth, there is a higher risk of your dog getting cavities. And that could be painful for your dog and for your wallet!

dog dental diseaseSlight red line at gum edge, and staining on the teeth

What to do? The same as above, except you need to brush your dog's teeth every day for a couple of weeks, to make sure the plaque is being removed, and allowing the gums to heal. At this stage it is definitely a good idea to use the Forever Bright Toothgel, because the aloe vera speeds up healing by 30%, according to Dr. David Urch, as well as being anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory.

And you need to look at how to prevent the dental plaque from re-forming each day. More on that below.

Dog Dental Disease

If things have progressed even further, and plaque has been allowed to build up for a while, it eventually becomes calcified and turns into calculus - the dental term for tartar. This is hard and chalky, and cannot be removed by tooth brushing.

Your dog's teeth will look quite stained, rough, (like they have little suede gloves on them), and the gums will look very red, and may even be bleeding a little here and there. If your dog will allow you, go round each tooth and give it a wiggle - you may find a few teeth are now loose.

dog dental diseaseObvious staining and tartar, and red gums

What to do?  Now the disease has progressed beyond dealing with at home, and your pet is in real danger of losing a tooth or teeth, if they have become loose. Now it's time to see your vet, and get your dog's teeth professionally cleaned. It's not cheap, but it's the only way of removing that bacteria-laden mass of tartar from your dog's teeth. The ONLY way.

What other effects can dog dental disease have?

Because the bacteria in dental plaque can get into the blood stream, they can travel all around the body and cause problems in many places. For example, they can contribute to heart disease, osteoporosis, kidney disease, diabetes, and (in humans) Alzheimers disease. If a human has gum disease, they are TWICE as likely to have a heart attack. That's DOUBLE the risk of having a heart attack. The risk is not quite so high in dogs, as they generally get more exercise, but it just shows the effects that dental plaque bacteria can have on general health.

How can you tell if your pet has a dental problem?

There are several things to look for that might indicate dog dental disease:

  •  Bad breath.
  •  Your dog is reluctant to play with a ball or play tug-of-war.
  •  Your dog seem to eat more slowly than usual.
  •  Your dog may paw at its mouth.
  •  Traces of blood on dog toys or in the water bowl.
  •  Red gums, which may also bleed.
  •  Loose teeth, if you try to wiggle them.
  • The teeth look yellow or brown, instead of shiny white.

How you can prevent these problems.  

The most important things involved in preventing dog dental disease are;

  •  Diet.
  •  Diet
  •  Again, diet!

Your dog's teeth and jaws have evolved over millions of years to eat raw muscle fibers, sinews, cartilage and to gnaw on raw bones. These tough fibers rub on the teeth surfaces and remove the plaque. The BEST thing for plaque removal is a raw bone for your dog to gnaw on.

Scientific studies show that the worst diet for your dog is dry dog food (kibble). It just isn't rough enough to rub plaque off the teeth of dogs. The BEST diet is raw meat if possible, but most importantly a RAW bone for your dog to chew and gnaw at. And not a clean, cooked bone that looks nice and white - it has to be a raw bone with sinews and bits of meat still attached. Your dog will love to sit and chew on a bone like this for hours!

If your dog is used to eating dry feed kibble, and you want to switch to a raw food diet, you have to do it bit by bit, for 2 main reasons;

  •  Your dog's digestion will not be used to a raw diet at first.
  •  Your dogs chewing muscles will be weaker from eating a soft diet. He will find gnawing on a bone hard work at first!

So make the switch-over a gradual affair, to allow your dog to get used to a new diet. And keep up with the tooth brushing in the meantime!

BUT if you would rather stay with a dry food kibble diet for your dog, there is evidence that choosing the biggest kibble size you can find will reduce the severity of any gum inflammation. So look for the BIG kibble. This strategy works even better if you add a dog dental stick for your dog to chew on.

Unfortunately most dog dental chews are not that great, as they contain sugar and salt to make them attractive to your dog. The problem is that a dog's saliva does not contain an important enzyme called amylase, which breaks down sugars. Without amylase, any sugar in that chew stick will stay on the dog's teeth, literally providing a feast for the bacteria in the dental plaque that we are trying to remove!

So try to look for chew sticks or toys that do not contain sugar, such as rawhide strips. These will work much better at removing plaque, especially when combined with a big-size kibble.

To sum up, dog dental disease can be a serious threat to your dog's well-being. It has become much more common in recent years after the introduction of dry dog food and the decline in raw food, especially raw bones, for dogs.

Preventing gum disease in dogs is mostly to do with providing a raw diet, but also includes switching to a bigger size of kibble, using rawhide chew sticks, and regular tooth brushing. Professional cleaning at a vet surgery always involves a general anesthetic, which carries some risks, and should only be done if absolutely necessary after a thorough risk:benefit analysis.

Page written by dentist Dr. Richard Mitchell from

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