By Paula Fitzsimmons
Dental disease is serious business. It affects not only a dog’s teeth and gums, but also can cause infection and ultimately result in organ failure, if left untreated. Periodontal disease is the most prevalent disease in all dogs, but some breeds are at higher risk, says Dr. Donald Beebe, a veterinarian with Apex Dog and Cat Dentistry in Englewood, Colorado.
Knowing which diseases your canine companion is prone to can help you provide the optimal care he deserves. “Just as it’s important for you to know what your family’s medical history is, you need to understand how your dog’s genes may contribute to his or her health,” explains Dr. Laura LeVan, founder of the Veterinary Dental Education Center in Concord, Massachusetts.
And if you’re thinking of adopting a small breed, be prepared for more trips to the vet. “With small breeds—generally anyone shorter than knee height—periodontal disease is a huge problem,” says Dr. Donnell Hansen, a veterinarian with BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Blaine, Minnesota.
Pet parents should bring their dog to the vet for regular dental checkups and cleanings, and practice at-home oral hygiene, regardless of their dog’s breed. But some dogs, particularly smaller breeds, are at a higher risk of developing periodontal disease. Here are eight dog breeds you should be extra diligent with.
The Collie is one of the breeds most impacted by an overbite (others include Shelties and Dachshunds), says Beebe, who is certified in veterinary dentistry and oral surgery. “Overbite dentition is an abnormal relationship between the dental arches in which the lower jaw is shorter than normal, relative to the upper jaw.” It’s often seen in very young puppies.
In these cases, he says a vet may recommend interceptive orthodontics, a procedure performed on young dogs whose facial bones are still growing. “Extraction of all deciduous (baby teeth) lower canines and incisors is sometimes performed to eliminate discomfort and promote forward growth of the lower jaw.”
Once a puppy becomes an adult, vets focus on treating secondary problems such as tooth-on-tooth wear and soft tissue trauma, he says. “Depending on the severity, treatment options in adults include orthodontic movement (placing force on a tooth), crown shortening with vital pulp therapy, or extractions.”
Your Pug’s short, pushed-in face may be endearing, but it also sets her up for periodontal disease, says Hansen, who’s board certified in veterinary dentistry and oral surgery. Other breeds in this category—called brachycephalics—include Shih Tzus, Bulldogs, Lhasa Apsos, and Boston Terriers. “Brachycephalics are notorious for malocclusions, meaning their teeth do not line up appropriately,” Hansen says. “While we are not worried about the way teeth line up in terms of appearance (like we are in people), these teeth can hit the wrong place and cause trauma and pain.”
Crowded teeth are also a problem. “It allows for increased food entrapment and bacterial buildup due to close contact of teeth, and leads to periodontal disease,” Hansen says. In some cases, extraction of select teeth is performed to help provide more space in the mouth, Beebe adds.
The abnormal crowding and misalignment also makes the Pug’s teeth more difficult to clean, says Kimi Kan-Rohrer, a veterinary clinical specialist and dental hygienist at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California, Davis. “My Pug won’t let me even look in her mouth or try to brush her teeth, while my Border Collie mix has no problems during tooth brushing,” she says. It’s another reason why regular professional dental cleanings are so important.
Small and toy breeds like Yorkies, as well as Poodles, Maltese, and Pomeranians, commonly have persistent deciduous teeth, Beebe says. “You can often see the baby teeth in place right on top of the adult teeth. A general rule of thumb is that no two teeth should occupy the same spot at the same time in the same mouth.” Food and debris easily collect in these hard-to-maintain areas, predisposing the dog to periodontal disease.
Persistent deciduous teeth should be extracted promptly, he says. “When they fail to fall out in a timely fashion, the adult teeth may fail to erupt or may come in at an incorrect angle and cause an orthodontic malocclusion.”
A Chihuahua has to fit 42 teeth—the same number of teeth all breeds have—into a small mouth. “There is not enough room for all those teeth in small mouths,” LeVan says. “This causes crowding, which allows food and debris to collect between the teeth.” Plaque bacteria accumulates, which can destroy the soft and hard tissues and result in periodontal disease.
Other breeds in this category include Maltese, Poodles, Yorkshire terriers, Pomeranians, Lhasa Apsos, King Charles Cavalier terriers, and Shih Tzus.
The Dachshund’s narrow muzzle makes it susceptible to developing periodontal pockets—spaces created by tooth and bone loss where bacteria thrives—especially on the inside surfaces of the upper canine teeth, LeVan says.
“Treatment may involve deep root planing, with involved periodontal treatments such as guided tissue regeneration or surgical extraction,” she says. Collies are another example of a breed with a narrow muzzle.
Boxers, as well as Great Danes, Mastiffs, Bulldogs, and Collies, top the list of breeds that get gingival hyperplasia, an overgrowth or thickening of the gums, Beebe says. “The reaction is most often caused by an inflammatory response to dental plaque and bacteria, or as a side effect of certain medications.”
Vets focus their treatment on decreasing the amount of plaque bacteria in the mouth, and discontinuing or decreasing medicines that may be causing the gingival hyperplasia, he says. “In advanced conditions, surgical resection to restore the gums—called gingivectomy or gingivoplasty—to a more normal anatomy is indicated.”
Shih Tzus are more prone to delayed tooth eruption, a condition where the dog’s teeth erupt from the gums later than what is normal, Beebe says. “Oftentimes, this is not a concern as teeth eventually erupt with time. However, teeth that fail to erupt can cause problems down the line, such as tooth impaction and (dentigerous) cyst formation.” In select cases, oral surgery can be performed to help encourage teeth to erupt.
Lhasa Apsos, Maltese, and Havanese are example of other breeds affected by delayed tooth eruption.
Unlike smaller breeds who are more genetically prone to periodontal disease, larger breeds are more likely to get tooth fractures, Hansen says. “Large, active breeds like Labradors and Shepherds seem to get themselves into more mischief, and the most common reason I visit with these guys is fractured or worn teeth.” She recommends avoiding hard chew toys and tennis balls, and seeing your vet if you notice a fractured or discolored tooth.
Vets treat fractured teeth (with exposure of the sensitive nerve and tissues inside the tooth) with surgical extraction or a root canal to save the function of the tooth, LeVan says. “Veterinary dentists commonly perform root canals, which have a high success rate. Cast metal crowns may need to be placed on a tooth that has received a root canal to help protect it.”
A dog may be genetically prone to dental disease, but it doesn’t mean she’s doomed to a lifetime of bad oral health. “Environmental factors such as home care, concurrent disease, and diet are important as well,” Beebe says. Frequent exams with a trained clinician are key, he says.
In addition, “daily tooth brushing is the gold standard for at-home care to help prevent plaque, calculus, and bacterial build-up. Treatments such as water additives, dental formulated food and treats, and oral rinses are also helpful.”
Just remember not to use human toothpaste or products with fluoride or xylitol, as they can be toxic to dogs, Kan-Rohrer warns.
Signs of periodontal disease—and your cue to call the vet—include bleeding gums, loose teeth, and excessive drooling, Kan-Rohrer says. And that bad breath you find yourself downwind of is not normal, either.
Talk to your vet about your dog’s specific dental needs. You can visit www.avdc.org to find a board-certified veterinary dentist in your area.