Bad breath & oral health in dogs

Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Bad breath is something that can occur in all mammals, including dogs. It can be short-lived because they have eaten something unpleasant, or it can persist and become an ongoing problem.

What is bad breath in dogs?

The simplest way to avoid dog bad breath becoming a problem is to feed a well-balanced diet and keep a good oral hygiene routine. If a dog is eating well and appears to have clean, healthy teeth and gums but still the dog has bad breath, they should go to the vet. There may be oral health issues that the owner cannot spot, such as cavities below the gum line or gum infection.

Untreated gum disease (also known as periodontal disease) can, if not dealt with, let bacteria into the bloodstream and then the organs, such as the heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. There they may set up infections that can interfere with organ function, potentially causing serious issues like heart disease.

Some diseases have bad breath as a symptom, such as diabetes or kidney disease. All of these illnesses require veterinary treatment. If you realise ‘my dog has bad breath’ and can see no obvious cause, as the first step a vet should rule out illness.

Here we look at how to tell what might cause your dog to have bad breath and ideas on how to get rid of dog bad breath.

What is oral health in dogs?

Oral health, the wellness of your dog’s teeth and gums is central to their wellbeing. Making sure that the mouth is clean and healthy helps keep the entire dog in good condition, also reducing the likelihood of the unpleasantness of a dog’s bad breath. Periodontal disease is a common problem, with studies showing that 80% of dogs have suffered from at least one stage of gum disease by the time they reach three years of age. This makes gum disease probably the most common mouth issue that occurs in dogs.

Other issues that can cause problems for the dog’s mouth include cracked or broken teeth, injuries from chewing unsuitable hard items and oral tumours. All of these oral health problems require a visit to the vet to properly diagnose and treat.

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The good news when it comes to gum disease, or if your dog has bad breath, is that it is possible to reduce the risks of permanent damage. Carrying out periodic examinations, both at home and by a qualified vet, and making sure that your dog’s teeth are regularly cleaned both cuts the chances right down and is a way to ensure your dog’s mouth stays healthy is prevention.

What causes bad breath in dogs?

The most common causes of bad breath in dogs are poor oral hygiene and periodontal disease. Teeth get a covering of plaque and tartar if not kept clean. This allows bacteria to develop which cause bad breath. If this is not removed, the gums become red and inflamed and start to be pushed away from the teeth. More space is created for bacteria to attack, leading to cavities, infections, tissue destruction and tooth loss. Pus pockets can form, and the dog’s breath will be very, very bad. Smaller dogs seem to be more prone to these problems, as their teeth are smaller and close together, and can have a higher build-up of plaque and tartar.

Bad breath may follow the dog eating something nasty. This could be a rubbish bin raid, dead animal or faeces. Particularly adept at causing bad breath when eaten are the faeces of cats and dogs – from another dog or even their own. This is coprophagia and is something many dog owners battle at some point with their dogs. Other problem items a dog can eat include unsuitable bones and sticks, which can lodge in the mouth or teeth. Some toxic substances like antifreeze or rodenticides can give a noticeable taint to breath if consumed. If you are unsure what your dog may have eaten, a vet visit is the safest option.

A number of serious diseases can have bad breath as a symptom, which is why a vet should examine a dog with bad breath but no obvious cause. Among the issues bad breath can herald are diabetes, kidney disease, and liver disease. All of these very serious conditions require veterinary treatment.

Also requiring urgent treatment if the cause of dog bad breath, cancer can occur as oral tumours. These often grow too fast for blood vessels to keep up, meaning areas of tissue die. These dead areas provide a home for bacteria, causing a foul odour. Any unusual lumps and bumps in the mouth need checking by a vet.

The food a dog eats can affect their breath. Different food types have varying pros and cons when it comes to keeping mouths and teeth healthy. Poor quality foods can also have a detrimental effect on the dog's general health, which can lead to problems. If food is not digested properly, bad breath can occur.

What causes oral health problems in dogs?

The most common offender concerning oral health in dogs is gum disease, and one of the most frequent causes of bad breath in dogs.

After eating, leftover morsels of food mix with saliva and bacteria and coat the surfaces of the teeth, forming a sticky layer known as plaque. If not removed, this mixes with minerals found in saliva and hardens around the tooth as tartar, the brown-yellow hard coating often seen when owners realise ‘my dog has bad breath’ and look in their mouth to asses their dog's dental health. This gives an ideal surface for more plaque to stick to, and so the problem worsens. The gums are irritated and prone to bleeding, becoming pushed away from the teeth. This exposes more space for bacteria in the mouth to attack, again making the problem worse. This first stage of periodontal disease is gingivitis, and the condition is reversible at this stage.

The next stage is periodontitis, and this is when it becomes irreversible. Tooth cavities can form, both above and below the gum line. The gums erode and their tissue is destroyed. Teeth become loose and may fall out as the bone of the sockets holding them disappears. Pockets of pus may form, and abscesses around tooth roots and breath are likely to be foul. This is very painful for the dog. Dogs are very stoic and many will keep eating for as long as they can manage, but a reluctance to eat due to pain can lead to weight loss if not tackled.

Breed has an effect on the chances of developing gum disease. Smaller dogs and brachycephalic, flat-faced breeds are more prone to problems. This is due to a higher chance of overcrowding of teeth in the jaw. They also are more likely to not shed puppy teeth properly, or have extra teeth present. This means more areas for plaque to build up and cause problems, and cleaning the teeth effectively is more difficult. Brachycephalic dogs frequently breathe through their mouths, drying out and irritating oral tissues.

Other causes of problems are injuries from chewing unsuitable items such as stones or sticks. These can result in injuries to the gums, tongue or palate, and cracked or broken teeth.

If you find a lump in the mouth combined with dog bad breath cancer is a potential cause. Oral tumours are fast-growing, and the lack of sufficient blood supply means that bad breath often occurs with these tumours.

What are the signs and symptoms of bad breath in dogs?

The most obvious symptom is a smell coming from the mouth. This can be fruity and sweet, unpleasant, or foul.

A healthy mouth has clean teeth that are not broken or cracked. The gum lines appear smooth and even, and the gums will be a pink colour. When looking in an unhealthy mouth, the teeth may have a brown covering of plaque and tartar, and the gums red and inflamed.

A dog with gum disease may leave traces of blood on chew toys or have blood streaks in their saliva.

A dog with a painful mouth may be reluctant to eat, particularly if fed hard kibble. They may paw at their mouth. They may drool more than usual and be reluctant to have their mouth examined.

Sweet or fruity-smelling breath, together with increased drinking and urination, breath that smells like urine, or foul breath with vomiting, not eating and yellowing gums all indicate possible serious health conditions, and a vet should be consulted.

What are the signs and symptoms of bad oral health in dogs?

A healthy dog mouth has clean white teeth, with no obvious cracks, cavities or broken teeth. The gums are an even pink colour, with no red spots, swellings or lumps and bumps. There should not be any sign of bad breath.

Signs of problems with oral health include:

  • Bad breath

  • Yellow-brown hard covering (tartar) on teeth

  • Reddened, irritated or bleeding gums

  • Swellings or lumps in the gums

  • Pus leaking from the gums

  • Cracked, broken or missing teeth

  • Drooling

  • Reluctance to eat, particularly hard kibble

  • Pawing at the mouth due to discomfort or pain

  • Reluctance to have mouth touched or examined

How to get rid of a dog's bad breath

If you are not sure what is causing your dog’s bad breath or suspect one of the possible health-related causes, then a vet check-up is the first part of a dog bad breath cure. Once any underlying medical cause is diagnosed and being treated, your vet can advise on a dog bad breath treatment plan. An annual vet dental check is a good idea, as they can clean your dog’s teeth if needed, and spot any oral health problems early.

The simplest dog bad breath remedy for the most common causes of bad breath is to clean your dog’s teeth. Many pet stores carry finger brushes designed for this, and flavoured toothpaste is available to make the idea more palatable to dogs. Never use human toothpaste, as some ingredients are not suitable for dogs.

Making regular brushing part of the routine, preferably from a puppy, reduces the likelihood of periodontal disease. Suitable chew toys and chew treats will help remove plaque and tartar from the teeth. If you are unsure which chews are safe, your vet will be able to recommend some options. Carrot and apple are great natural low-calorie choices.

If your dog likes snacking on nasty things like dead animals, rubbish and faeces, keep a close watch when temptation is near so they cannot access anything you do not want them eating. This also stops them from picking up something that could lodge in their mouth or teeth. One bad breath home remedy for a dog having a temporary breath issue is to add chopped mint or parsley to their food, as these plants are natural breath fresheners.

The best method of how to cure bad dog breath is to do everything possible to prevent it from occurring. Keeping your dog in good overall health will help prevent bad breath. Making sure that they receive plenty of appropriate exercise for their condition, size and age helps keep the whole dog in good shape. Feeding an excellent species-appropriate diet made with top quality ingredients keeps the digestive system working well and the dog’s body in healthy condition. All Pure dog food recipes use human-grade ingredients to create a tasty, highly digestible and nutritionally balanced meal for your dog.

How to treat bad oral health in dogs

For any oral health issue that is causing an obvious problem, the vet is the first destination. They can properly examine your dog’s mouth under anaesthetic, and clean their teeth thoroughly. Any teeth that need extraction can be removed, and any other oral health problems can be diagnosed and a treatment plan devised. A regular dental exam from the vet is an important part of keeping your dog’s mouth as healthy as possible.

The best method to prevent gum disease, and a great answer to the question of how to get rid of a dog’s bad breath, is to brush your dog’s teeth regularly. It is best to get them used to having this done as a puppy if possible but with time and patience, most dogs come to accept the process. Make sure to get every single one of your dog's teeth, they've got more than us!

Start by picking a time when your dog is calm and relaxed, as you do not want them to wriggle and learn that can stop the brushing. Keep sessions very short and reward them with something nice after you have finished. Repeat each stage for 2-3 days to ensure they are happy before progressing.

Rubbing a finger gently along the dog’s lip, outside of the mouth, gets them used to a hand there. When the dog is quite happy with this, you can slip your finger under the lip to rub the tooth and gum gently. When your dog accepts this happily, introduce the brush. Soft-bristled brushes and brushes that fit over your finger are available from pet stores or your vet.

Soak the brush in warm water and repeat the gentle gum stroking process, this time using the brush tip to touch the gum. Try to angle the head at 45 degrees to clean along where the gum meets the teeth, and use a gentle circular motion. Start with the front teeth, and move back towards the molars as the dog becomes more accustomed to having their teeth brushed.

Once the dog is happy with the toothbrush, you can add toothpaste and brush! Daily is best, but aim for 3-4 times a week at least. Doggy toothpaste is available in a variety of flavours to make the process more palatable. Never use human toothpaste, as some ingredients are toxic to dogs. One dog bad breath home remedy that you can use to make life more pleasant while working on brushing teeth is to add chopped mint or parsley to their food, as they are natural breath fresheners. Some people think that biscuit helps clean their dog's teeth but this is widely thought of as a myth.

In addition to brushing – or instead of, if your dog really doesn’t like the idea – provide suitable dog chews and rubber chew toys, as these will help to remove plaque from the teeth before it can cause problems. Some people think that eating kibble will help remove plaque. This is not true, as the kibble will leave food morsels behind, rather like expecting our teeth to be clean after eating a biscuit! If unsure what is suitable for your dog, consult your vet for advice.

As with all health considerations, feeding a top-quality, nutritionally balanced diet will help all areas of your dog’s health and wellbeing.

What is the best dog food for bad breath?

As Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS advises, brushing is the “gold standard” for fixing halitosis in dogs, but feeding your dog a fresh diet can also help to prevent doggy breath.

The main cause for bad breath in dogs is bacteria on the teeth and gums. Just like in humans, these bacteria feed on sugar and food particles that are left in the mouth. Kibble contains a high amount of sugar, which when left on the teeth, encourages the bacteria to feed and multiply. Feeding your dog kibble and not brushing their teeth daily would be like if you ate biscuits and went to bed without brushing your teeth. By the morning you’d have hideous smelling breath. (And quite a few cavities if you did it every day.)

The best dog food for bad breath contains fresh ingredients and no added sugars, to make sure there’s less for the bacteria to feed on. Some vegetables and certain textures of fresh food can also help to maintain a cleaner mouth. But even the best dog food for bad breath should still be paired with a good oral hygiene routine.

Our Pure recipes contain natural ingredients, such as carrots and apples, and the preparation of meals can help to clean your dog’s mouth. Also, our food contains linseed, which is a functional ingredient with many healthy benefits: it keeps gut mobility working, the skin supple, the coat shiny and it's packed full of calcium, magnesium and zinc to support good oral health.

A key step to fighting halitosis is keeping hydrated and letting water wash away any food particles stuck in the teeth and gums. By adding extra water to your pooch’s Pure dinner, you can hydrate and wash your pup’s mouth simply by feeding them. Plus, our digestible meals are highly nourishing, ensuring your pup gets the nutrition needed for strong teeth, healthy gums, and a strong immune system.

Many customers have seen how Pure has helped defeat doggy breath and improve their pooch’s oral health. The simple switch to Pure helped senior pup Brogan banish bad breath in a few days, and within weeks her gums and teeth were paw-fectly clean, healthy, and vet-approved.

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