By Samantha Drake
Would you know how to identify and handle these canine mouth conditions? Left untreated, certain mouth problems can cause bleeding, infection and even lead to organ damage, so it’s important to spot the following issues (most of which are common in dogs), quickly.
One of the most common mouth-related conditions that veterinarians generally see in dogs is injury from foreign objects (like sticks, pieces of mulch or rawhide) embedded in a dog’s mouth, says Dr. Amy Stone, Clinical Assistant Professor at the University of Florida’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Gainsville, Fla.
Signs that a dog has something stuck in its mouth may include excessive drooling and gagging. However, dog owners may have no idea their pet is in discomfort or pain since the dog may continue to eat and drink normally, Stone says. If left in place too long, these objects can lead to infection, with the most obvious symptom being unusually bad breath.
Stone recommends that dog owners check inside their dogs’ mouths regularly to make sure nothing is caught in their teeth, roof of their mouth or gums. The best approach is to begin working with their dog while he or she is young to get them used to their mouth being handled. A quick look with a flashlight can confirm a problem and can sometimes even be accomplished while the dog is panting, says Stone.
Large breeds like the Great Dane, Boerboel and Mastiff are prone to certain mouth injuries such as cuts and broken teeth simply because they’re given things to chew on that are too hard, says Stone (this includes antlers and real bones). Big dogs may look tough, but their teeth and mouths aren’t.
Other mouth injuries happen when “dogs put their faces where they don’t belong,” she says. Dogs that are too inquisitive in the wrong situation can get hurt by other dogs and animals (like insects and porcupines) that don’t appreciate the attention. Such mouth injuries can include cat scratches, snake bites and bee stings. “Animals don’t have hands so they lead with their faces,” Stone says.
Fortunately, a superficial cut may not need attention and a bee sting can often be addressed by giving the dog a veterinarian-directed dosage of Benadryl to reduce the swelling, says Stone. But a dog with broken teeth or a snake bite should see a vet as soon as possible. A more serious laceration to the dog’s lips, tongue or gums, evidenced by bloody saliva and possibly a hesitation to eat or drink, should be treated by a vet.
Oral warts, caused by the canine oral papillomavirus, are found on the lips, gums and tongue of a dog. Fortunately, warts aren’t a big problem because they eventually fall off on their own (even though they’re unsightly), Stone said. “Oral warts can get bad, but that’s rare,” she says. “They usually just go away by themselves.” While uncommon, severe cases of oral warts can take months to resolve on their own and can cause bleeding, so they may need to be removed by a vet.
“It’s more of a puppy thing,” adds Dr. Lori Bierbrier, the medical director of mobile clinics for the ASPCA in New York. Because oral warts, also known as puppy warts, are caused by a virus, dogs are usually exposed to it at a young age and don’t get it again because their immune system fights off any reoccurrence, she says. The warts aren’t painful but they are contagious, says Bierbrier. Dogs spread the virus by licking each other’s faces, therefore, dogs that have oral warts should be kept away from other dogs until the warts disappear or are removed, she says.
Inflammation of the gums, known as gingivitis, is a very common mouth problem in dogs, says Bierbrier. Gingivitis is caused by the accumulation of food particles and bacteria along the dog’s gum line, which form plaque. Combined with saliva and minerals, plaque hardens into tartar, also known as calculus, which irritates and inflames the gums. The biggest signs of trouble are bad breath and inflamed gums.
Annual visits to the vet should include a thorough look in the dog’s mouth, Bierbrier says, and dog owners should brush their dog’s teeth regularly to prevent gingivitis.
“In a perfect world, we would all brush our pet’s teeth every day," says Bierbrier. Vets know this doesn’t usually happen, she adds, however, good dental care is important for dogs because, if left unchecked, gingivitis can lead to periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease is an inflammation of some or all of a tooth’s deep supporting structures (the gum tissue that attaches the tooth to the dog’s jaw bone). Over time, tartar from gingivitis builds up under the gums and causes the gums to separate from the teeth. Bacteria can form in the space under the teeth and, without treatment by a veterinarian, can lead to bone loss, tissue destruction and pus formation in the cavities between the gum and teeth.
Small dog breeds, including the Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Yorkshire Terrier and many other toy breeds, tend to be prone to periodontal disease. This is because small breeds have the same number of teeth as larger breeds in a much smaller mouth, Stone says.
Periodontal disease, characterized by a range of symptoms including bad breath, drooling, inflamed and/or bleeding gums, and tooth loss, can be prevented by regular teeth brushing at home or by a vet, Stone notes. Early stages of the disease can be reversed through regular dental care; later stages are irreversible and can lead to serious health problems, including damage to the liver, kidney and heart.
Tumors in a dog’s mouth can be cancerous or non-cancerous. They occur in different places in the mouth and are most often found in the gum tissue at the back of the throat, Bierbrier says. Even non-cancerous tumors sometimes need to be removed because they are taking up space in the dog’s mouth and could push the teeth out of alignment she says. Signs of a potential tumor include excessive drooling or licking to try to remove an irritant.
Tumors are yet another reason why dog owners must check their dog’s mouth regularly for signs of trouble. This doesn’t mean, however, that dog owners have to pry their dog’s mouth open to peer inside. Bierbrier says just lifting the dog’s top lip and then pulling down the bottom lip can help identify problems.
Concerned about your dog's teeth? Learn more about common dental problems in dogs.