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Complications of Gum Disease

Periodontal disease can cause more problems than tooth pain, says O'Morrow. For example, dogs with unchecked gum inflammation may be at higher risk for heart, kidney, and liver disease.

"The ultimate complication is one I see too commonly, and that is pathologic jaw fracture," Beckman says. Over time, untreated gum disease can destroy bone to such an extent that even a little pressure will fracture a small dog's weakened jaw.

Preventing Gum Disease in Dogs

Pets’ teeth should be brushed twice a day, just like humans’ teeth, O'Morrow tells WebMD. "If we can minimize bacteria and their by-products, a normal body will provide a suitable defense to maintain a healthy mouth."

Working with your veterinarian, follow these four steps to prevent or slow painful gum disease in your dog:

  1. Take your dog in for regular oral exams and cleanings. Oral exams with dental X-rays done under general anesthesia are the only way to get a full picture of what's happening in your dog's teeth and below the gum line. 
  2. Brush your dog's teeth every day. You know that the best home care for keeping your pearly whites in top form is daily brushing -- well it's the same for your pooch. While the task may seem a little daunting, it doesn't have to be. Patience, the right tools, and some guidance from your veterinarian can lead most pet owners to success. As a matter of fact, if you take it slow, most dogs and cats, even senior pets, will allow you to brush their teeth. 
  3. Feed your dog quality dog food. Some dogs will benefit from "dental diets" that help scrub their teeth as they chew, or from foods that have additives that prevent plaque from hardening. Talk to your vet about what diet is right for your dog. 
  4. Offer safe toys and treats for daily chewing. Chewing every day on tooth-friendly goodies is another way to help prevent gum disease in dogs. Look for treats and toys that aren't hard, like: rubber balls, thin rawhide strips that bend, as well as rubbery toys in which you can hide treats. (Beware that hard rawhide can cause gastrointestinal problems if your dog swallows a large piece.)

To prevent fractures and broken teeth, avoid hard treats of any kind, such as animal bones (raw or cooked), nylon bones, or cow and pig hooves.

Treating Gum Disease in Dogs

It's only recently that most of us have even heard of dentistry for dogs, so chances are good your dog may already have some gum disease. Studies show that more than 80% percent of dogs have some stage of periodontal disease by the age of 3.

Once the problem is under way, treatment depends on its stage, though initially all treatment requires an exam and X-rays to determine the presence (or absence) of disease. 

  • Stage 1 of gum disease in dogs consists of mild redness or inflammation of the gums, without periodontal pockets between the gum and tooth. For this stage a cleaning above and below the gum line is the only treatment required. "This is where we would like to see the patient," Beckman says, but "unfortunately we don’t come across this very often." 
  • Stage 2 occurs once there are periodontal pockets between the gum and tooth, but before any significant bone involvement. Here the gum tissue and tooth root are cleaned, rinsed, and treated with a gel to help reattach the gum to the tooth root.  
  • Stage 3 gum disease in dogs is when periodontal pockets around the teeth go deeper than 5 millimeters, which means there's now bone loss. "Depending upon the anatomy of the bone loss, many times we can expose the defect by opening a gum flap and cleaning out the diseased tissue around the tooth root and bone," says Beckman, then use special therapies to grow new tissue and bone. 
  • Stage 4 is when bone loss is over 50%, and tooth extraction is the only treatment.

Just as you keep on top of your own health, you need to stay informed about your pet's health, too, says O'Morrow. Ultimately you need to "become an advocate for your pet’s health care. You are part of the team."

How to Brush a Dog's Teeth

See techniques and tips for brushing your dog's teeth – the easy way.
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