By Teresa Traverse
Gums can be an often-overlooked part of a dog’s mouth, but they’re just as important to keep clean and healthy as your dog’s teeth. Below, learn more about what color your dog’s gums should be, gum problem to look out for and how to help your dog maintain his or her healthy gums.
Why Color Should My Dog’s Gums Be?
If you want to know what healthy dog gums look like, look no further than the seafood bar at your local grocery store.
“Healthy gums should appear shrimp-colored pink,” says Dan Carmichael, DVM, DAVDC and board-certified veterinary dentist at the Animal Medical Center. “Unhealthy gums will appear red and inflamed.”
Certain diseases can cause discoloration of the gums. For instance, red, inflamed gums can be a sign of gingivitis.
“Gingivitis is caused by ‘plaque’ which is composed mostly of bacteria. Plaque can accumulate on the tooth surface especially in the space underneath the gum line,” Carmichael says. “Gingivitis is also caused by the body's oral immune system reacting to the plaque bacteria on the teeth.”
If your dog’s gums are other colors, that can also be indicative of additional health problems.
“If the gums are pale or white, that could be a sign of anemia. If the gums are blue that often means [that] your dog is not getting oxygen,” says Carmichael, adding that yellow gums in dogs can be a sign of Leptospirosis, a bacterial infection that can cause liver disease, and jaundice, which can also be a sign of liver disease.
Common Gum Problems in Dogs
Another sign of unhealthy gums? Bad breath. “Bad breath or especially a sudden worsening of the breath is often associated with worsening of the gum disease,” says Carmichael.
“Gum disease is usually caused not by problems with the gums, but by bacteria on the teeth. So to take care of the gums, brush the teeth,” says Carmichael, adding that the best way to prevent gum disease, the most common overall health and oral health problem in dogs, is to brush their teeth every day using a soft-bristle toothbrush. Brushing aside, you also can use products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council—an independent organization that sets standards for pet dental care products.
Periodontal disease is the most common cause of unhealthy gums, but other diseases such as immune-mediated inflammatory disease, bleeding disorders, gingival enlargements and even oral cancers can also cause unhealthy gums, Carmichael said.
“Periodontal disease is most common in dogs under 30 pounds,” he said. This is due to crowding—small dogs tend to have large teeth in relatively small mouth.
Additionally, breeds like boxers can be prone to gum overgrowth, a benign condition that is genetic in nature, he said. Though the condition itself is benign, it can result in an almost tumor-like overgrowths of gum tissue, Carmichael says, which can cause pseudopockets in the dog’s gums.
“If you can imagine gum tissue growing up and around the tooth, you can imagine it forming this little nook, cranny or pocket between the overgrown gum and the tooth where fur and debris and food can get stuck and subsequently cause bad breath and infection,” he says.
Additional Gum Issues to Watch Out For
Younger dogs, puppies especially, can come down with papillomatosis, or warts of the gums. Signs include the appearance of solitary, clusters or even hundreds of warts. If you see one or two warts, don’t worry. Carmichael says those will usually fall off in one to two months. Dogs with an abundance of warts, however, may need to have surgery to remove them.
Over time, the texture of an older dog’s gums can become more cobbled looking. A cobbled texture in and of itself is nothing to fret about, he says (and it tends to be seen more in large breed dogs like Labrador retrievers or Saint Bernards), but cobbled gums can be a sign of cancer. Depending on the type of cancer, if the cobbled gums are accompanied by bad breath, oral pain, reluctance or difficulty chewing and oral bleeding, seek out a vet to examine your pet.
“I would have folks pay more attention to the color of the gums, if they’re bleeding or look like they’re going to bleed easily,” he says. “That would concern me more than textural changes.”
Additionally, rough or intense chewing on a toy or a bone can cause gums to bleed. “Sharp pieces of the chew toy could temporarily roughen up the gum,” he says, adding that this gum condition normally is not a serious issue, unless the bleeding doesn’t stop.
“If bleeding lasts more than 10 minutes, [pet owners] should seek emergency treatment,” says Carmichael. “My big worry would be some sort of a bleeding disease unrelated to the dental health.”
Carmichael says bleeding gums could be a sign of oral cancer, kidney failure (high levels of ammonia can accumulate causing ulcerations and gum bleeding) or idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura (or ITP)—when the immune system destroys platelets so blood doesn’t clot. If dog a consumes rat poison, it also could cause their gums to bleed, he says.
How Can Gum Problems Be Treated?
If you suspect your dog has gum problems, head to the vet. Your veterinarian will perform a complete dental exam under general anesthesia and take dental X-rays to determine the appropriate treatment, Carmichael says.
“Treatment is based on the results of the exam and X-rays, and may include anything from a good cleaning of the plaque and tartar on the tooth surface to periodontal surgery or even tooth extraction,” says Carmichael. “If other disease is suspected [like immune disease or cancer], a gum biopsy can be obtained and sent to a laboratory.”
If you suspect your dog already has a dental disease, it’s best to have a vet treat the condition first and then start at home gum-care program.
“If the pet has a preexisting dental problem that could be associated with oral sensitivity … it may be beyond the point where tooth brushing is going to do any help. It’s just going to irritate the dog,” Carmichael says. “When your pet has a mouthful of healthy teeth left, then is the time to start on a home-care program with tooth brushing.”
Learn more about common dental issues your pet might have, and how to treat them, here.