By Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
Bacteria are everywhere on human and canine bodies, but when they get under your dog’s gums in the form of plaque, they can lead to gum disease, the most common dental condition that occurs in adult dogs, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA).
“Most of what many people think they know about gum disease in dogs is wrong,” says Brook Niemiec, a veterinarian at Veterinary Dental Specialties and Oral Surgery in San Diego. While many pet parents believe that tartar, a brown-colored coating on the teeth, causes gum disease, it actually does not, by itself. “People will lift up [a dog’s] lip and look for tartar, [but] it is actually bacterial plaque that causes gum disease,” he says. Tartar, which is just calcified, hardened plaque, does provide more “hiding places” for bacteria to thrive, however.
Learn more about the most common signs of gum disease and how to prevent this condition in your dog, below.
Signs of Gum Disease in Dogs
These are the top five signs of gum disease in dogs:
Gingivitis. Symptoms of gingivitis include redness and swelling of the gums, says Jenna Winer, DVM and dentistry and oral surgery resident at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Bad breath. Maybe even before you notice gingivitis, pet parents may notice that their dog has bad breath, Niemiec says. “Many people think that doggy breath is normal, but it’s not,” he says. “It’s common because so many dogs have gum disease, but it isn’t normal.” The most frequent cause of bad breath in dogs is dental disease.
Receding gums. A separation of the gums away from the teeth is a signal of gum disease. In the most advanced stage of the disease, the gum tissue will recede and expose the roots of the teeth.
Bleeding. If your dog’s gums bleed when he chews, when you’re probing his mouth or brushing his teeth, it could be a sign of advancing periodontal disease, says Niemiec
Loose teeth. This is a sign of later stages of periodontal disease, Niemiec says.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Gum Disease in Dogs
If a dog’s gingivitis is diagnosed and treated before it advances to full-scale periodontal disease, it is reversible, says Winer. “If the bacteria are cleaned out before it advances, it can be reversed.”
If gingivitis continues to advance, however, it could mean serious health consequences for your dog. Niemiec says that most dogs, especially those under 20 pounds, develop various stages of gum disease and, depending on their genetics, this can develop in dogs as early as 18 months old.
As gingivitis advances into more serious periodontal disease, your dog will begin to lose bone and tissue surrounding the teeth and your veterinarian may be forced to extract teeth. “There is no reversal when it gets to that point,” says Niemiec.
Other consequences may include fractures of the jaw as a result of a weakened jaw bone, bone infection and development of a hole (or fistula) into the naval cavity, causing nasal discharge. Periodontitis can also have systemic effects on the heart, liver and kidneys, according to the AVMA.
How to Prevent Gum Disease in Dogs
The number one way to prevent gum disease in dogs is to brush your dog’s teeth. “I would recommend brushing be done once per day, but at the minimum, it should be done at least two times per week,” Niemiec says.
There are many other products, such as chews and water additives, that can help you maintain your dog’s gum health, but he recommends using only those with the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of approval and using them to assist in maintaining oral health, not as a substitute for brushing.
The next step in maintaining your dog’s oral health is scheduling a professional dental cleaning with a veterinarian. This includes a cleaning under general anesthesia with scaling and polishing, Winer says.
Small dogs (under 20 pounds) should undergo a cleaning at least annually, in addition to brushing at home, while large breed dogs can generally have their teeth cleaned every two to three years, Niemiec says.
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