Oral Hygiene and Your Dog's Health

By T. J. Dunn, Jr., DVM

It’s a fact. Most dog owners never take a good look inside their dog’s mouth. And that’s unfortunate because it is estimated that over 80 percent have significant oral pathology. Every day veterinarians are presented with patients for routine vaccinations or other minor afflictions whose oral health status is truly cause for alarm. Upon displaying the dog’s loose teeth, sore and infected gums, and rotting tooth sockets to the dog’s owner, the response usually is one of surprise and shock.

"Well, she does seem to have bad breath, Doctor" is the usual reply. "But I’m sure at her age she can’t have anything done now." My response is that the continual presence of bacteria and their associated toxins have a daily impact on the dog’s health; anything we can do to change that for the better is appropriate. Privately I’m thinking "How would you like that pathology going on in your mouth?"

Partly because the mouth is warm, moist and has significant nutrients present for organisms to grow on, the oral cavity of dogs is a perfect incubator for all kinds of bacteria. Most are normal and natural, but once plaque and calculus (tartar) form on the teeth the normal microbial flora gets out of balance — and if pathogenic organisms proliferate, trouble ensues.

Far too often veterinarians discover during the physical exam that their canine subject has a foul odor to the breath as a result of generalized periodontitis. But foul breath is a mere shadow of a much more insidious disease process. 

To help understand the topic of oral hygiene let’s take a look at a few basic definitions below:

Definitions Click on image for close-up
Gingivitis - inflammation of the gums.  
Periodontitis - a general term for a disease of the oral cavity that attacks the gum and bone and delicate tissues around the teeth.  
Pyorrhea - inflammation of the gums and tooth sockets, often leading to loosening of the teeth and accompanied by pus.  
Caries - an area of decalcification of the tooth enamel leading to cavities in the tooth. Caries are very rare in dogs.  
Plaque - the first buildup of material adhering to tooth enamel. Composed of a mix of intercellular matrix of bacteria, salivary polymers, remnants of epithelial cells and white blood cells, it can cause caries, calculi buildup and periodontal disease.  
Calculus (Tartar) - calcium carbonate and calcium phosphate combined with organic material, deposited on the surface of the tooth.  

Adverse Effects of Poor Oral Hygiene

I asked a Diplomate of the American Veterinary Dental College, Jan Bellows DVM, of Hometown Animal Hospital and Dental Clinic in Weston, Florida, about the adverse health impact chronic periodontal disease can have on a dog. This is what he had to say, "The toxins from periodontal disease are absorbed into the dog's blood stream. As the kidneys, liver, and brain filter the blood, small infections occur causing permanent and at times fatal organ damage. After periodontal disease is treated, and the owners give proper home care, most dogs respond wonderfully due to the decreased pain and infection."

The adverse effects of periodontal disease are due in part, as Dr. Bellows states, to the toxins the bacteria secrete and the damage these toxins cause to delicate kidney, cardiac, and brain tissue.  In addition, many veterinarians believe that actual bacterial colonies can spread via the circulation and set up housekeeping within the animal’s tissues, commonly in the heart valve areas, kidneys and liver. Far better than extracting teeth, performing gingival flaps, filling erosions or doing root canal procedures, would be to prevent the health damaging periodontal disease in the first place.

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