Q: Could my dog have bad teeth?
A: (Also see Dental Disease - The Hidden Epidemic) It is actually quite rare for dogs to have cavities like we do but about 85% of dogs over 3 years old will have what we call gingivitis and periodontitis - disease around the teeth and the gums as opposed to the teeth themselves. We would get this too if we did not brush our teeth and indeed a lot of us will have had mild cases of gingivitis - when the gum around the teeth get red and painful and sometimes bleeds after brushing.
This starts from bacteria and other foodstuffs building up on the teeth causing a covering of plaque - this is the hairy feeling you get when you don't brush your teeth for a few days! After a while this plaque will get thicker and calcify or harden up to become tartar. Both of these can impinge on the gum line and allow bacteria to get in and cause infection and inflammation of this area that attaches the tooth to the gums and bones of the jaw- this is periodontitis.
Left untreated this can turn quite nasty and cause a lot of pain and discomfort, bad breath, loose teeth and even heart, liver and kidney disease due to bacteria spreading from the infected gums through the bloodstream to these organs.
The signs you may see would be your pet not enjoying eating as much, bad breath, pain elicited by rubbing his face on the ground or just being quiet and off form. If you look into the mouth you may see a lot of dirty looking teeth and perhaps bleeding from the gums. In the very worst case scenario this can result in severe illness and premature death due to liver, heart and kidney failure. Go back not too long in our own history when we didn't brush our teeth daily and you will find a lot of people died in middle age due to these secondary effects of bad teeth.
At Blacklion Pet Hospital we always include a thorough dental assessment as part of your pet's annual vaccination and health assessment (or indeed any visit) and will tell you if there are any signs of dental problems hopefully before it gets too bad - your own vet should do the same.
If there are problems we will suggest a course of treatment to improve matters. This can range from a course of antibiotics if just a simple gingivitis to general anaesthesia and cleaning of the teeth with an ultrasonic descaler (we have just about the same equipment as a human dentist) and removal of any badly affected teeth if necessary. In fact we would nearly have one pet every day that we need to do this to - this is how prevalent dental disease is in pets. We also find that we have to sometimes repeat this for the same pet every year or two.
The only sure way of minimising dental disease in dogs is to brush their teeth daily. Seriously. While special pet toothpaste can help it is not that necessary (and the fluoride in human toothpaste can be toxic to dogs is ingested) so using just an ordinary soft toothbrush and water is enough to take the worst of the plaque off before it can cause problems.
However this is not so easy to get around to doing every day so in reality the best way to reduce the onset of dental disease is a proper diet. Feeding the right type of food can help reduce the incidence of disease dramatically - just as in humans.
We recommend to avoid wet food (tins and pouches) completely - they may look and smell nice but to be honest are overpriced, not as good as a good quality dry food and are a great example of the power of marketing over substance. I think you will look long and hard to find a vet that feeds their dogs tins! the best to feed your pet is a crunchy or hard food. Not alone is this far better for their health but it works out a lot less expensive as well - a win-win situation!
In our practice we recommend to feed Hills' Science Diet dry foods but there are other brands on the market with as good a reputation - for example Waltham Royal Canin and Eukanuba/Iams. If these prove a bit too expensive then just go with a complete dry food from the supermarket. Giving your dog a bone or something like a rawhide chew is also beneficial for your dog's teeth. There are some other products on the market such as chews and gels that are specifically formulated to help keep teeth clean - these can be useful but if something this simple was as effective as brushing then wouldn't we be using them too!
In short your dog's teeth are very important and by not looking after them properly your pet may be in pain and may die prematurely. Your vet will examine his teeth and tell you if anything needs to be done so if in doubt go and see you pet's dentist!
See also Dental Disease - The Hidden Epidemic