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Gum Diseases in Dogs

Periodontal disease is one of the most common problems seen in veterinary practice. It occurs in two forms: The first is gingivitis, a reversible inflammation of the gums. The second is periodontitis, an inflammation of the deeper structures supporting the teeth.


Gingivitis develops when bacteria build up between the teeth and gums, leading to irritation, inflammation, and bleeding. The edges of healthy gums fit tightly around the teeth. In a dog with gingivitis, rough dental calculus builds up in an irregular fashion along the gum line, producing points at which the gum is forced away from the teeth. This creates small pockets that trap food and bacteria. In time, the gums become infected.

Dental calculus (also called tartar) is composed of calcium salts, food particles, bacteria, and other organic material. It is yellow-brown and soft when first deposited. At the soft stage it is called plaque. The plaque quickly hardens into calculus. Calculus collects on all tooth surfaces, but is found in the greatest amounts on the cheek side of the upper premolars and molars.

This buildup of calculus on the teeth is the primary cause of gum inflammation. This occurs to some extent in all dogs over the age of 2. Certain breeds, such as Poodles, and smaller dogs seem to form calculus more readily. Dogs who eat dry kibble and chew on bones or dog biscuits have less calculus buildup than dogs who eat only soft, canned foods.

A characteristic sign of gingivitis is bad breath. The halitosis may have been present for some time-even accepted as normal. The gums appear red and swollen, and bleed easily when touched. Pressing on the gums may cause pus to ooze from the gum line.

Treatment: Treatment is directed toward preventing gingivitis from progressing to periodontitis and delaying the progress of periodontitis once it is established.

The teeth should be professionally cleaned, scaled, and polished to remove all plaque and calculus. Many veterinarians now use ultrasonic dental units, similar to the ones used on people, for cleaning dogs’ teeth. For optimum results, the dog should be heavily sedated or given a general anesthetic.

The cleaning should be followed with a regular regimen of home oral care.


Periodontitis develops as a continuation of gingivitis. The teeth are held in their bony sockets by a substance called cementum and a specialized connective tissue called the periodontal membrane. As the gum infection attacks the cementum and periodontal membrane (see above the figure Structure of a Tooth), the roots become infected, the teeth begin to loosen, and eventually they detach. This is a painful process. Although the dog’s appetite is good, she may sit by her food dish, eat reluctantly, and drop food from her mouth. Drooling is common. A root abscess can rupture into the maxillary sinus or nasal cavity, producing a purulent unilateral nasal discharge, an oral-nasal fistula or a swelling below the eye.

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