A dog’s mouth is a battlefield of competing bacteria. It is here where digestion starts and strong defences are needed to keep the environment working well. Unfortunately, it is also the point of entry for harmful bacteria and other microbes that can take hold and damage your dog’s teeth and gums.
But just how often do a dog’s teeth need cleaning? Well, in my view your dog’s teeth should be checked by a vet or dental professional annually. Ideally you want to avoid the need for its teeth to be ‘cleaned’ as this is an invasive, nerve-wracking, and often painful procedure.
A pass can be achieved through the regular practice of good dental hygiene, and by feeding your dog the correct diet. Routines include brushing your dog’s teeth, massaging the gums and supplying toys and chews that do the same.
The microbial war in your dog’s mouth
A dog’s saliva is thought to have healing properties. This is due to the ‘good’ bacteria and beneficial proteins that are present in its mouth. These help to naturally ward off infection. That is why you often see dogs licking themselves when they are injured or in pain.
The battle begins when ‘bad’ bacteria and other organisms are introduced, through diet and whatever else dogs put in their mouths. These can be harmful to man and beast, for example, the rabies virus and salmonella.
The bacteria most associated with periodontal disease in dogs, however, are variants of streptococcus, which are found in most animals. There are many strains of streptococcus bacteria that thrive in an environment where carbohydrate levels are high. They feed off the sugars that are broken down by saliva.
Streptococcus creates layers of sticky, acidic biofilm that adhere to the teeth and erode the enamel, causing cavities. Microscopic layers form within 24 hours and are collectively known as plaque. When sufficient layers have been produced, they become visible as an off-white or yellowish substance at the base of the teeth.
Besides tooth decay, plaque causes additional damage by sticking to the enamel under the gum. This can result in gingivitis or gum disease, a condition whereby the gums and tooth sockets become inflamed and enlarged. This in turn causes teeth to become loose and ultimately, to fall out.
If left unchecked, two things happen. Plaque becomes tartar, a brittle brown substance that is difficult to remove. By this stage your dog will be experiencing toothache and general discomfort when eating. The pH balance in its saliva will be too acidic, adding to the tooth decay, and its breath will start to smell.
Symptoms of poor dental hygiene in dogs may include:
- red, swollen or bleeding gums,
- visible plaque and tartar, causing the teeth to appear discoloured
- tooth decay or tooth loss
- constant bad breath
- a loss of appetite or reluctance to eat due to pain
- persistent panting and salivating or drooling
Sadly, if these symptoms are ignored, further systemic damage can result. Canine dental disease can cause liver damage, sepsis in the blood, bone infections and even heart problems. It has also been known to cause blindness, as infection spreads from the mouth to the eye sockets.
There are four stages of periodontal diseases, and it is estimated that the vast majority of household pets have some form of it. The disease can shorten your pet’s life by two years or more.
When should your dog have its teeth cleaned
Stage 1 of dental disease can be classified as gum disease or gingivitis. The gums are inflamed and swollen and there may be clear, visible boundaries between the healthy and unhealthy portions of the gums.
At stage 2, in addition to the gum disease, sufficient bone loss has occurred to show up on x-rays. Plaque and tartar are visible, and your dog’s breath is unpleasant. At this, and subsequent stages, professional cleaning is necessary to prevent further damage. If caught at this early stage, it may be possible to reverse the disease.
By stage 3, up to 50% of bone is lost, the dog’s gums bleed regularly and it has chronic bad breath. Teeth may become detached from the gums, forming periodontal pockets, which create opportunities for further infection.
The dog is in considerable pain and will most likely need to have teeth removed. At this stage, cleaning and other dental work will require that the dog be anaesthetised.
Stage 4 is potentially fatal as the risk of systemic infection and internal organ damage rise. This is caused by bacteria entering the bloodstream and spreading unchecked throughout the body. The dog is in severe pain, will find it difficult to eat and will consequently lose condition rapidly.
Good dental hygiene for dogs
There are a number of general practices that will help to prevent the onset of dental disease in your pets.
Do not feed your dog a diet rich in carbohydrates. Firstly, their digestive systems were not designed to process sugars and starch. Secondly, these create a friendly environment for the growth of streptococcus in the mouth. Thirdly, they create an acidic pH level in the saliva that will attack tooth enamel.
Restore the good bacteria in your dog’s mouth. Foaming cleansers, sprays and gels have been developed that deliver probiotics to the mouth.
Lower the acid levels in your dog’s saliva. Sprays and gels are also available for this purpose. They should be administered several times a week, making it difficult for streptococcus to take hold.
Natural alkaline remedies, such as bicarbonate of soda, white vinegar and citrus peels can also be used. Apply them to a swab and gently massage the teeth and gums.
Drinking water that is slightly alkaline will help to maintain the correct pH levels in the dog’s mouth, and body in general. Ensure that your dog finds this fluid palatable, else it may be less inclined to drink water at all, and become dehydrated.
Regularly remove plaque before it can cause a build up on the teeth and gums. This can be achieved through frequently brushing or wiping the teeth with a swab. Ideally this should be done daily but if there are time constraints or massive resistance from the dog, 2-3 times a week will suffice.
There are several flavours of toothpaste available so you should be able to find one that appeals to your pup’s taste buds. It is best to start brushing a dog’s teeth at a young age so that it becomes accustomed to the routine.
Provide items for your dog to chew on during the day, such as toys, bones and dog chews, designed specifically for this purpose. Ensure that the toys and chews are produced without harmful chemicals and preservatives, by reputable manufacturers. Purchase them from reliable sources.
Dogs in the wild eat a carnivore diet, including bones. The act of chewing bones helps to clean their teeth and stimulate their gums. Choose bones without sharp edges, such as oxtail or joint bones.
The bones should always be raw. Cooked bones are more brittle, and more likely to splinter. Besides, cooking robs them of all their nutrients.
Massage your dog’s gum to improve circulation. This will strengthen the mouth’s defences, enabling them to respond quickly to combating disease. This can be achieved through manual massage with a swab or tooth brushing.
Specially designed feeding bowls are available on the market. They contain rubber protrusions that massage the gums and gently polish the teeth, while the dog eats. This helps to prevent the build up of malign substances on the teeth and gums, and has the added advantage of slowing down dogs who demolish their food within seconds.
Do a regular visual check on your dog’s teeth and have them seen by a professional at least once a year. This should be part of a routine, annual general check-up when your dog gets its annual vaccine and boosters.
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