Periodontal disease (periodontitis) is the most common dental issue in dogs. Caused by the accumulation of dental plaque and tartar on the teeth, which triggers inflammation, periodontal disease affects teeth and their surrounding structures (the gums and bone). Periodontitis can result in gum infections, bone loss, and, if left untreated over time, the loss of teeth and other serious health problems. Fortunately, periodontal disease is highly preventable.
Signs & Symptoms of Periodontal Disease in Dogs
One of the tell-tale signs of periodontal disease in dogs is halitosis, or bad breath. Some owners may pass this off as normal “dog breath,” but it’s not. It means something is amiss inside your dog’s mouth.
Other clinical signs to look out for include:
- Inability to chew, especially hard food or treats
- Broken or missing teeth
- Excessive drooling
- Bleeding gums
- Change in behavior
- Abnormal discharge from the mouth
- Favoring one side of the mouth for chewing
- Pawing at the mouth
- Inability to open or close the mouth
- A mass / growth inside the mouth
If any of these signs present themselves, consult your vet immediately. If caught early on, you can prevent further damage, medical problems, and possible tooth loss. You’ll also be alleviating the pain that periodontal disease causes.
How Did My Dog Get Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease begins when the bacteria in a dog’s mouth form a substance called plaque, which sticks to the surface of the teeth. The minerals in the saliva harden the plaque into dental calculus (tartar), which is firmly attached to the teeth. It’s not until a dog is around two to three years old that tartar begins to appear.
All dogs are susceptible to periodontal disease, but smaller breeds show a greater disposition. Smaller teeth trap traces of food more easily, and the accumulation of food between the teeth, when mixed with saliva and the bacteria that inhabit the oral cavity, turn into dental plaque and tartar. Smaller breeds also have less bone mass anchoring each tooth, so tooth loss as a result of periodontitis is more likely.
Diagnosing Periodontal Disease in Dogs
Each time your dog has a vet check-up, the visit should include a quick dental exam. If your dog has an oral infection, a complete oral examination should be given. Along with the visual check, your vet may take dental x-rays and use instruments to measure bone loss.
Tartar located above the gumline is noticeable when you look inside a dog’s mouth. It looks like brown concrete and starts at the base of the gums, covering more and more of the tooth’s surface as it builds up. It’s much harder to detect plaque and tartar that have spread under the gumline, but that’s when the real problem arises— damage to the supporting tissues around the tooth, which increases the chance of tooth loss.
Periodontal disease can be broken down into four stages:
- Stage 1: Slight swelling and redness of the gums (gingivitis) occurs. There may also be some visible accumulation of tartar. There is no loss of the tooth’s support at this stage.
- Stage 2: Early periodontitis is diagnosed when there is mild to moderate loss of the bone and ligaments that hold teeth in place. At this stage, the gums are redder and/or more inflamed.
- Stage 3: Moderate periodontitis is diagnosed when up to 50% of tooth support loss has occurred. (To the naked eye, the teeth in Stages 2 and 3 don’t look visibly different, but an x-ray will show a greater loss of bone at Stage 3.)
- Stage 4: Advanced periodontitis indicates bone loss of 50% or greater. During this last stage, tartar is very apparent to the naked eye, gums are retracted, the teeth are damaged, and there may be a need for extraction.
Treating Your Dog for Periodontal Disease
Treatment is dependent on the severity of your dog’s periodontitis. There are different treatment courses based on the different stages:
- Stage 1: Gingivitis can be treated with a professional dental cleaning and application of fluoride to prevent plaque accumulation.
- Stages 2 & 3: The teeth will need a deep scaling or scraping, both above and below the gumline, to remove plaque and tartar buildup. Then the vet will polish the teeth, creating a smooth surface that makes it more difficult for plaque and bacteria to stick to the tooth. (This procedure always requires general anesthesia.)
- Stage 4: Once the disease reaches this point, surgery is likely needed to treat the affected teeth, which typically means extractions.
Your vet will recommend extraction if the teeth have reached the point where they cannot be saved due to infection, bone loss, or pain.
Although dogs do not generally develop tooth decay, taking care of your dog’s teeth is critical. Regular brushing, dental chews, and chew toys are some ways to keep your dog’s teeth and mouth healthy.
Is There a Cure for Periodontal Disease?
Gingivitis is treatable and curable with daily (or even weekly) brushing and good oral health care. It’s when a dog enters the secondary stage of periodontal disease that the damage is irreversible. But even though you can’t reverse the damage, you can prevent it from getting worse with consistent at-home care as well as regular dental cleanings.
Is Periodontal Disease Contagious for Humans and Other Pets?
Periodontal disease is caused by an inflammatory reaction to bacteria that makes its way under the gums. It is not contagious.
What is the Cost of Treating Periodontal Disease in Dogs?
The cost depends on a variety of factors. Even a “simple” cleaning and polishing requires general anesthesia, so costs can be higher than expected. Inquire beforehand whether the office visit and anesthesia are included in the overall price quote. Before administering anesthesia, your vet will run some pre-exam blood work to ensure your dog is healthy enough to be sedated, another expense to be taken into consideration.
Extractions, if needed, add significantly to the total cost, which may jump into the thousands. The cost depends on how many teeth are extracted and how difficult the extractions are to perform.
Other costs to factor in may include additional tests, x-rays (which should always be taken, even if your dog is having a routine cleaning), and follow-up visits.
In short, dental care for dogs can be just as expensive as it is for humans. And as always, your geographic location factors into the cost: in bigger cities, everything tends to cost more, including health care.
Recovery and Management of Periodontal Disease in Dogs
The recovery time depends on the treatment needed. If a dog has undergone a simple cleaning and scaling, he should be back to his regular self by the next day (although anesthesia recovery time can vary). Even if the dog has undergone extractions, he will largely be fine the next day, but the extraction sites themselves do take about a week to heal. So the dog’s mouth may be sensitive during this time.
For dogs with periodontal disease in Stages 3 and 4, a full commitment from their owners is crucial. Pain and anti-inflammatory medication, as well as antibiotics to keep infections at bay, may need to be administered on a daily basis for a certain length of time.
Regular follow-up vet visits are necessary as well during these latter stages of periodontal disease.
Preventing Periodontal Disease in Dogs
With good oral hygiene, periodontal disease can be avoided, or at least minimized. It’s not reversible, so being diligent and keeping a healthy dental routine is important.
Preventive care includes:
- Brushing your dog’s teeth. Use a toothpaste and toothbrush designed specifically for dogs. Consult your vet for instructions. It’s very important that you do not use human toothpaste. Most brands contain fluoride, which is poisonous for dogs.
- Checking the mouth for bad breath or any abnormalities such as redness, tartar, or loose teeth.
- Feeding special foods and treats to help control tartar. Talk to your vet to find out what he or she recommends for your dog.
- Thorough annual oral examinations by your vet. If you have a dog prone to periodontal disease (Dachshund, Yorkie, Bulldog, or really any small breed), you may even want to schedule an oral examination every 6 months.
There are also topical medications that can be applied to the teeth and gums to prevent plaque buildup, but this must be done daily, on a consistent basis.
Is There a Vaccine for Periodontal Disease?
There is no vaccine to prevent periodontal disease in dogs.
Periodontal Disease in dogs is caused by the build-up of plaque and tartar on the teeth, which can lead to gum infections, bone loss, loss of teeth and other serious health problems. Diligent at-home dental care, along with regular dental checkups by your vet, can keep your dog’s mouth healthy. It is a daily commitment, but one that is necessary for dogs who are prone to, or already suffer from, periodontal disease.