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Dog Breath Gone Bad

dog bad breath

Dog Breath. Even among those without pets, those words are easily recognizable as a reference to that foul, stinky smell that seems to emanate from the mouths of our dogs.  Even among pet parents, the stink that our canines breathe on us seems to be normal, just a part of the package. It is time to stop accepting bad breath as part of life with a dog. Not only can this foul odor be fixed, but it can also be prevented. Our first step is understanding what causes it.

The Truth About Dog Breath

Contrary to the well-known phrase, that gross smell is not normal. While there can be a number of causes for bad breath in dogs, such as infection from an oral foreign body or advanced renal (kidney) failure, the main cause is directly related to dental disease. Known as ‘periodontal disease’ in the veterinary profession, this term broadly encompasses several stages of the disease. Graded on a scale from 0 to 4—with 0 being a healthy mouth and 4 representing extreme breakdown and infection of gums and teeth—this scale is the grade by which your veterinarian recommends treatment.

Periodontal disease begins early, with the slow buildup of plaque on the surface of a dog’s teeth.  This soft, easily cleaned off layer is often a combination of food residue, saliva, and the activity of several species of bacteria that normally reside within his mouth. Left untouched, this plaque begins to accumulate into thicker layers, causing irritation and infection as it spreads beneath the gum tissue in the form of gum disease and similar ailments. The longer this thick layer remains, the more it interacts with the saliva in the mouth and hardens into a thick, calcified layer that, in advanced cases, can almost completely encase the tooth.  This hard layer continues to cause irritation as it pushes up against the gumline, or gingiva, causing the soft tissue to become more inflamed and recede. This, in turn, exposes the roots of the tooth, further increasing the amount of infection and disease.

Much like morning breath in humans, this presence of plaque and bacterial overgrowth is what causes the stinky smell we all associate as "dog breath." Its presence is a strong indicator of your pet’s oral health.

Dental Disease - How to Fix It

The progression of periodontal disease in dogs can be halted with the help of your veterinarian.  The first step is to schedule an exam to assess the current stage of disease within his mouth. Based on what is found on exam, most veterinarians will recommend a dental care, sometimes referred to as dental prophylaxis.

Humans are not always known to be the most cooperative when we visit the dentist’s office, and our pets lack the understanding we do to simply open their mouths and say "Ahhhh."  To fully assess a dog’s mouth, the veterinarian will administer anesthesia. The visit then becomes remarkably similar to our own visits to the dentist.

In this manner, a full oral exam is performed, and the mouth is inspected not only for signs of periodontal disease, but also for foreign bodies, lumps, and other problems.  Full tooth radiographs are taken to look for diseases that may be lurking beneath the surface. Once a complete picture is provided of your dog’s current dental health, the veterinarian can reliably recommend additional treatments such as extractions or antibiotic therapy. Next is a complete cleaning of the teeth using an ultrasonic cleaner, followed by careful polishing of the enamel.

This cleaning and treatment process can help to reset your dog’s mouth (and breath!). By removing all the current plaque and calculus build-up, it allows you to initiate prevention measures at home to slow and reduce plaque build-up and the recurrence of dog breath.

An Ounce of Prevention...

There are ways that we can help to prevent severe periodontal disease in our dogs and halt the appearance of dog breath.  Just like with humans, it starts with brushing teeth. The American Veterinary Dental College recommends daily brushing when possible to help remove the soft plaque that builds up. Because not all of our pets are as cooperative or understanding with this activity, there are now a number of products available on the market to help. Dental chews are a common choice, formed with fibers that help to scrape off soft plaque while the pet chews on it.  These are only effective if you have a dog that chews on the treat, though. For the Labs and other breeds that tend to swallow their food whole, other products exist, varying from sprays and flavored enzyme foam to water additives designed to reduce the bacterial growth in the mouth.  

All of these products have the potential to be effective, and when unsure, your veterinarian can help you choose the right product for your dog. The Veterinary Oral Health Council, or VOHC, has made it easier for you to find appropriate products on the pet store shelf by placing their seal on products that help reduce the production of plaque.  This seal is lacking most notably from a majority of dry kibble diets, as these are less effective than originally thought in preventing and reducing plaque build-up.

Why Prevention Is Important

Dog breath is not all that we seek to keep away. As anyone who has ever had a toothache can confirm, severe dental disease is an extremely painful experience. By utilizing annual dental cleanings through your veterinarian and good at-home care in the form of brushing with dog-friendly toothpaste, natural or commercial chews, or other dental products, we can ensure that not only will our pets continue to be comfortable and keep their teeth, but that they also continue to be healthy. Moderate to advanced dental disease in humans and in dogs affects not only the health of the mouth but also the health of the rest of the body. As inflammation occurs, the bacteria that played a major part in building the plaque on the teeth enters the bloodstream and travels to other organs, creating plaque build up there as well.

As an indicator of disease, dog breath most certainly can be a telling sign.  The great news is that, with a combination of care, we can keep dog breath at bay and keep our pets healthy too.   

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