If your dog had a toothache, would you know? If their gums were receding and painful, could you tell? Probably not.
To find out why, WebMD talked with veterinary dentists. They shared their thoughts on recognizing the early signs of oral problems in dogs and offered tips on what you can do today to help keep your four-legged friend's teeth in great shape.
1. Understand Your Pooch's Mouth
Just like people, dogs can break or fracture their teeth. And just like us, they can also get gum disease. Dogs are five times more likely to get gum disease than humans for a couple of reasons. First, dogs have a more alkaline mouth, which promotes plaque formation. Second, unlike humans, dogs usually don't have their teeth brushed daily.
"Plaque is made up of saliva, food debris, sloughed cells from the lining of the mouth, oral bacteria, and their by-products," says Colleen O'Morrow, DVM, a fellow of the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry and a veterinary dentist practicing in Manitoba, Canada. "As the plaque thickens from not being brushed away on a regular daily basis, the bacteria multiply."
Once the bacteria multiply, the problems do, too. As the bacteria increase, your dog’s mouth mobilizes cells to fight the invasion. Those mobilized cells and the bacteria combine to cause inflammation and tissue destruction in your dog's mouth. As the inflammation and tissue destruction progress, they destroy bone, which ultimately leads to tooth loss -- and a lot of pain for your pooch.
2. Be Aware: Dogs Rarely Show Signs of Dental Pain
Even with a cracked tooth or periodontal disease that damages gums around the teeth, your dog would probably eat normally, wiggle happily at your return home, and overall act like the same dog you know and love.
Your pet may be in chronic pain, but you wouldn’t know it. Why? Dogs have evolved to hide such chronic pain. Their animal instinct is not to show signs of weakness.
"In my experience the No. 1 sign of periodontal disease is no signs at all," says Brett Beckman, DVM, FAVD, DAVDC, DAAPM, a veterinary dentist who practices in Florida and Georgia.
"The number of patients I see a year that come in because there is pain is less than 5%," says Beckman, while more than 80% of dogs have periodontal disease by the time they're 3 years old. "I really want to get that point across," says Beckman, "there are almost always no signs at all" of dental pain.
3. Know the Signs of Advanced Dental Problems in Dogs
However, once an oral health problem is advanced, you may see certain symptoms, including:
- Red or bleeding gums
- Blood on a chew toy
- Vocalizing when they yawn or eat
- Loose teeth
- Bad breath
- Lumps or bumps in the mouth
- Ropey or bloody saliva
- Head shyness (your pet not wanting you to touch their head)
- Difficulty picking up food
- Chewing on one side of their mouth
- Nasal discharge and sneezing (advanced gum disease in the upper canine teeth can lead to bone loss between the nasal and oral cavity)
Also, keep an eye out for discolored teeth, broken teeth, loose teeth, or rotated teeth. All are signs of teeth gone bad. Too often, pet owners blame these symptoms on aging, Beckman says.
There's a lot that can happen in your dog's mouth -- and almost all of it can easily go undetected. So what can you do?
4. Take Care of Your Dog’s Oral Health
Taking care of your dog's oral health is similar to taking care of your own. To maintain a healthy mouth, many vets recommend:
- Annual oral examinations, dental X-rays, and cleanings done under general anesthesia. A full oral exam and X-rays are the only way your vet can look below the gum line, where gum disease hides. General anesthesia is necessary so that your vet can check for pockets around your dog's teeth, remove calculus and tartar above and below the gum line, and take out dead tissue. Exams and cleanings done without X-rays and anesthesia are of very little use.
- Daily tooth brushing. Cleaning your dog's teeth every day is a great way to prevent or slow the progression of oral diseases. All you need is some pet toothpaste (which comes in lots of pooch-pleasing flavors, like seafood, vanilla-mint, malt, peanut, poultry, and beef), and a pet toothbrush (brushes made for humans are too big for most dog's mouths), along with a bit of patience and guidance, and you can go far toward keeping your pet's mouth healthy and pain-free.
- Daily chew time. Another way to keep your dog's mouth in top form is to give them safe toys to chew every day. Go for hard, rubbery toys, or thinner rawhide bones that easily bend. (Rawhide can cause gastrointestinal problems if the dog swallows a large piece.) Vets also recommend staying away from all hard treats and toys like nylon bones, rawhide that doesn't bend, cow or pig hooves, and animal bones of any kind, raw or cooked. And steer clear of fuzzy tennis balls, whose abrasive surface can wear a dog's teeth down as they chew.
- Good-quality dog food. You may want to talk to your vet to see if a "dental diet" is right for your dog's needs. This may mean feeding your pooch foods with additives that help keep plaque from hardening, or dried foods that help scrub your dog's teeth as they chew.
5. Regularly Examine Your Dog's Teeth
You can't be expected to diagnose gum disease or other serious oral issues in your dog's mouth, but there are things to look for between annual cleanings by the vet.
- Look for broken or discolored teeth.
- Check your dog's mouth for odor, especially odor that returns within one or two months after a cleaning.
- Look for bleeding in the water bowl, or when your dog is playing with a chew toy.
- Check for lumps or bumps in or around your dog’s mouth, especially any swelling present on one side but not the other.
- Be alert for increased resistance to toothbrushing.
- Notice if your pet is turning away from food.
- Listen for chattering jaws when your dog eats.
If you see any of these issues while caring for your dog's teeth, talk to your veterinarian right away; your pooch may be in pain and need urgent oral care.