Gum disease is usually silent. When it starts there are no outward signs and symptoms. Yet once it advances, gum disease can devastate your dog's mouth, causing chronic pain, eroded gums, missing teeth, and bone loss -- a fate hardly fair to man's best friend.
Fortunately, it doesn't have to be that way. Though gum disease in dogs is regrettably common, it can be prevented. To find out how, WebMD talked to experts: specialists in veterinary dentistry. They told us why dogs get gum disease, its complications and treatment, and ultimately, how gum disease in a dog can be prevented or at least slowed.
It’s normal for puppies and dogs to chew on objects as they explore the world. Chewing accomplishes a number of things for a dog. For young dogs, it’s a way to relieve pain that might be caused by incoming teeth. For older dogs, it’s nature’s way of keeping jaws strong and teeth clean. Chewing also combats boredom and can relieve mild anxiety or frustration.
Blame bacteria for gum disease in people and in pets. Almost immediately after an animal eats, bacteria, along with food, saliva, and other particles, begin forming a sticky film called plaque over teeth.
"The bacteria in plaque does a lot of things," says Brett Beckman, DVM, FAVD, DAVDC, DAAPM, a veterinary dentist practicing in Florida and Georgia. "But one thing it does both in pets and humans is to cause our immune system to recognize it as foreign."
When the body of your dog senses a foreign invader, it marshals white blood cells to attack. In turn, the bacteria in plaque tells the white blood cells to release enzymes to break down gum tissue. This skirmish leads to inflamed gums, destroyed tissue, and loss of bone. The end result: Tooth loss.
Gum disease, also called periodontal disease, happens five times more often in dogs than in people, says Colleen O'Morrow, DVM, a veterinary dentist in Manitoba, Canada, and fellow of the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry. The reason? Dogs have a more alkaline mouth than humans, which promotes plaque formation. Also, most pets don't have their teeth brushed every day, giving plaque-forming bacteria the chance they need to multiply.
What Are the Symptoms of Gum Disease in Dogs?
Unfortunately, the first symptoms of gum disease in dogs are no symptoms at all at first, Beckman says.
It’s rare that pet owners ever notice signs of gum disease in their dog, and if they do, the gum disease is very advanced. By then, your dog may be living with chronic pain, which animals instinctively hide to avoid showing weakness.