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.
Why Do Dogs Get Gum Disease?
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.
Some symptoms of severe gum disease include:
- Problems picking up food
- Bleeding or red gums
- Loose teeth
- Blood in the water bowl or on chew toys
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- "Talking" or making noises when a dog eats or yawns
- Bumps or lumps in the mouth
- Bloody or ropey saliva
- Not wanting the head touched (head shyness)
- Chewing on one side of the mouth
- Sneezing or nasal discharge (advanced gum disease in the upper teeth can destroy the bone between the nasal and oral cavity)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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."