Give Canine Gum Disease the Brush-Off

by Dolores Holle, V.M.D., Attending Veterinarian and Director of Canine Health Management at The Seeing Eye

People aren't the only ones who can develop periodontal disease. A dog can, too.

Periodontal disease results from the accumulation of tartar between the teeth and gums.

The inflammatory reaction of the gums to plaque and tartar is called gingivitis. Left unchecked, gingivitis can progress to periodontitis, which results in destruction of tissue around the teeth, resorption of bone, and eventual tooth loss.

It also can lead to kidney, liver, heart, and joint disease if bacteria spread from affected gums to the bloodstream.

Diseased gums cause pain, which can make a dog stop eating, lose weight, and develop malnutrition.

Bad breath can signal gingivitis. If you think your dog is suffering from periodontal disease, visit your veterinarian.

Dental prophylaxis

If there is disease, a dental prophylaxis is in order. This usually involves a one-day hospital stay, while your dog undergoes anesthesia and tooth cleaning, scaling, and polishing. Anesthesia is necessary because thorough cleaning and plaque/tartar removal aren't possible in a dog that is awake.

Cleaning must go beneath the gumline. Cracking tartar off at the gumline might make teeth look nicer, but the remaining rough surface is a welcome mat for additional tartar accumulation.

Your dog may also be given antibiotics to prevent bacteria (which will be disturbed during the cleaning) from causing infection elsewhere in his body.

Polishing is very important. A scratched surface is more likely to allow more plaque to accumulate, so a dental done without polishing actually can encourage, rather than delay, periodontal disease.

Tooth brushing

After the dental prophylaxis, delay or prevent further disease by brushing your dog's teeth every day. If your dog has never had this done, he will have to become accustomed to the new routine.

Initially, just rub your index finger along the gum line on the cheek and lip side of your dog's mouth. Reward him with lots of praise.

After several days, when he is used to this, progress to wrapping a moistened gauze pad around your index finger.

When he accepts this procedure, introduce a child's soft toothbrush, or a CET toothbrush designed for use in dogs.

With the brush at a 45-degree angle, brush along the gumline where the tooth meets the gum. Remember the molars in back; they tend to accumulate a lot of tartar.

The final step is to dip the moistened brush in a dentifrice before brushing. Baking soda or Viadent (a human product available in pharmacies), or Nolvadent or CHX gel (veterinary products) are recommended.

The sweet smell of success

The one or two minutes a day you invest in your dog's dental hygiene will pay back dividends of fewer dental woes, fresher breath, an unbeatable smile and, possibly, a longer, healthier life for your dog.