Gum disease in dogs isn’t too dissimilar from gum disease in humans. It all starts when your dog’s mouth isn’t kept clean, allowing the bacteria living inside it to multiply. These nasties go below your pup’s gums and start causing havoc with their gums and teeth which can lead to inflammation, pain, and even tooth loss.
We’ll walk you through exactly what gum disease in dogs is, how to spot it, and what you can do to prevent it from affecting your pooch.
Gum disease, also known as periodontal disease, is the inflammation of your dog’s “periodontium”. Periodontium is the gums and connective tissue surrounding your dog’s teeth, holding them in place.
Although inflamed gums might not sound severe, gum disease can lead to a range of complications including receding gums, toothache, tooth loss, and even jaw fractures and bone loss.
Despite their gums being the most obviously affected part of their body, severe cases of gum disease can also go on to affect other areas of your dog’s body and impact their overall health.
Gum disease is the most common medical condition affecting the doggy population, and it’s estimated that over 80% of dogs over the age of 3 have some form of periodontal disease.
One study found the number to be much higher, while one veterinary hospital found that 88.6% of all dogs through their doors had some form of gum disease.
However, the same study found that only 43% of owners knew what periodontal disease was, and only 17.4% of parents carried out any sort of preventative treatment for the disease.
Despite how alarmingly common gum disease is, it is preventable and can be reversed in its early stages.
However, the later stages of the disease are irreversible, and your dog will need regular treatment to manage the condition and prevent further infection and inflammation throughout their mouth and other areas of their body.
Simply put, prevention is the best medicine when it comes to gum disease!
This is because their jaws are smaller and their teeth are often cramped together, making it easy for food and bacteria to get stuck between their teeth.
These smaller breeds are also more likely to develop fractures in their jaws due to bone loss caused by gum disease.
Brachycephalic breeds of dog with flat faces and misaligned bites are also more likely to develop periodontal disease, which includes pups like Frenchies, Bulldogs, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels.
So far, there has been no evidence that a dog is more or less likely to develop gum disease based on their gender or neutering status. The only dogs more at risk of gum disease are those with small or narrow jaws, or brachycephalic dogs.
However, any dog of any breed or crossbreed can develop gum disease, and it is likely that your dog will develop gingivitis or gum disease if you aren’t brushing their teeth regularly.
The most obvious way that gum disease affects dogs is by impacting their oral health. The first effect you’ll notice is that dreaded doggy breath, a tell-tale sign something’s wrong in your pup’s mouth.
Your pooch will develop sore, red and swollen gums, and their gums might bleed when you brush their teeth or when they chew on something.
Despite the name, gum disease does affect other areas of your dog’s mouth. Periodontal disease will coincide with a buildup of bacteria, plaque, and tartar on your pup’s teeth which can move below their gumline and cause infections in your dog’s teeth and the bones that hold them in place. Moderate to severe gum disease will cause some of this bone and the roots of their teeth to break down, which will cause their teeth to loosen or even fall out.
Your dog’s body will try to fight the infection in their gums, but fighting the infection also means destroying the infected tissue. This means your dog’s gums, teeth, and bones will be damaged in the body’s attempt to fight off the infection.
As well as sore gums, your pooch might suffer from toothache. As well as the obvious pain this will cause your pup, it will adversely affect their wellbeing, from their appetite to their activity because the discomfort they’re feeling might make them averse to chewing.
Your pooch might lose interest in playing with their toys, become picky about eating hard food, or stop eating altogether. Plus, they might seem generally down and hide away because of the pain they’re in.
Discomfort in their mouth and feeling down are far from the only effect that gum disease will have on your dog, and severe cases of periodontal disease will impact other areas of their body as well.
Gum disease in dogs has been linked to an increased risk of cardiovascular issues, including heart diseases such as cardiomyopathy. There is an “unquestionable link” between gum disease in dogs and bacterial endocarditis, an infection inside of the heart which can stop the valves from working properly. Gum disease has also been linked to tissue changes and disease in the kidneys, liver, and the muscle of the heart.
This is all because the bacteria and infection in your dog’s mouth can travel below their gumline and enter their bloodstream, where it can spread to other areas of their body, leading to further infection and inflammation in other organs and tissues.
Because of its impact on the overall health of your dog, gum disease shouldn’t be taken lightly and prevented where possible. Luckily, periodontal disease can be prevented and treated in its early stages, reversing any ill effects and protecting your pup’s teeth and health.
There’s a gradual progression of problems that lead to gum disease in dogs, which all starts when leftover food and bacteria in their mouth come together.
Whenever your dog eats, little bits of food will get stuck in their mouth and in between their teeth. Bacteria living inside their mouth feed on these traces of food and multiply. The bacteria get all mixed up with your dog’s saliva and the bits of food to create a sticky, yellow substance called plaque which coats your dog’s teeth.
If this plaque isn’t cleaned away, it will calcify and harden into tartar within a few days. Tartar can’t be removed easily and brushing alone won’t get rid of it.
We humans can get tartar buildup on our teeth which a dentist can remove during a check-up, by scraping it away or giving us a scale and polish to thoroughly clean our mouth and prevent gum disease. It’s essentially the same for dogs, except it’s their vet that carries out the cleaning and your pooch will usually need to be put under general anaesthetic for the procedure.
Plaque and tartar must be cleaned away because as it coats your dog’s teeth it will damage them. It also goes below their gumline along with bacteria and causes inflammation and infection in the gums which we call gum disease.
In the early stages, this inflammation will be gingivitis. This is a milder form of gum disease and usually just causes red, swollen gums. Gingivitis can be treated and the effects reversed, provided your pooch sees the vet promptly for treatment.
However, if gingivitis is not treated and your dog’s teeth aren’t cleaned to remove the plaque and tartar, the infection can become much more severe.
When gum disease worsens, it becomes periodontitis which cannot be reversed and requires treatment, often through tooth extraction, to manage the condition and prevent any secondary illness or infection elsewhere in the body.
There aren’t many obvious signs of gum disease in dogs, particularly in the early stages of the condition.
However, you will probably smell the symptoms before you see them, as bad breath is one of the earliest and most obvious signs that your dog’s oral health is in decline.
Your pooch shouldn’t actually have halitosis, and that dreaded doggy breath is often a symptom of gum disease. Another indicator of gum disease is that your pooch’s teeth will have a yellow to brown discolouration, especially near their gumline.
Yellow, discoloured teeth
Avoiding chewing hard toys or food
Red, swollen gums
Bleeding gums (look for blood on their chew toys)
Although some dogs might become picky about food and chew toys when suffering from gum disease, most pooches will carry on chomping as normal. Which doesn’t make it easy as a parent trying to tell if your fur baby is unwell!
Excessive sneezing and nasal discharge can also be a sign of gum disease, especially in small breeds. This is because severe gum disease can cause bone loss, which leads to the bones separating the oral cavity and the nasal cavity to become damaged or destroyed. This damage leading into the nasal cavity can cause chronic sneezing and a runny nose.
Your vet will examine your dog’s mouth to assess the level of disease, and this will involve checking their teeth as well as x-rays of their mouth to take a look at the roots and bones below the surface. From this examination, your vet will diagnose gum disease on a scale between 1 to 4, 1 being mild disease and 4 being the most severe.
Stage 1 is the earliest and mildest stage of gum disease, or gingivitis. At this point, there will be some swelling and redness in the gums, and there might be some tartar on your pooch’s teeth. Your pup’s teeth and bones are still undamaged and their gum disease can be treated and reversed.
Stage 2 is the first stage of periodontitis, the more severe version of gum disease. Your dog’s gums will be red and swollen, and they would have lost some of the bone and connective tissue that holds their teeth in place.
Stage 3 means your dog has lost up to 50% of the bones and tissue that holds their teeth in place. If you look inside your dog’s mouth, it won’t look much different to stage 2 gum disease because the damage is all below the gumline and isn’t visible to the naked eye.
Stage 4 is the most severe stage of gum disease and it means your dog has lost more than 50% of the bone keeping their teeth in place, so they will probably have a few loose teeth. Their teeth will look yellow or brown and you will be able to see the tartar built up on them. Your dog’s gums will also have visibly receded.
The most effective way to prevent gum disease is to simply brush your dog’s teeth regularly, just like you do to protect your own teeth and gums.
Brushing your dog’s teeth using a toothbrush and specially-formulated canine toothpaste will clean away any bits of remaining food and reduce the bacteria in their mouth, as well as scrubbing away any plaque that’s forming on their teeth. This prevents the buildup of plaque and the formation of tartar which would cause gum disease.
Just remember you should never use human toothpaste when brushing your dog’s teeth because the fluoride inside it will make your dog sick. Pups don’t know to spit their toothpaste back out, so you must use a specifically dog-safe toothpaste that’s designed to be swallowed.
Ideally, you should brush your dog’s teeth daily or once every other day. However, just taking the time to brush them a few times a week can make a huge difference in preventing gum disease and other oral health problems in your furry friend. Some brushing is better than none, after all.
Giving your dog dental chews and toys can also help to minimise plaque and prevent gum disease. However, even a good chew toy or dental chew won’t provide as thorough a clean as regular toothbrushing.
This is because your pooch might not make a habit of chewing their treats, and gulping down a dental chew won’t really help clean their teeth since the act of chewing an abrasive treat or toy is what helps to scrape off plaque.
The reason that chewing isn’t quite as good as brushing is because your dog might prefer to chew on one side of their mouth when gnawing on a toy, and won’t use every single tooth to chew, so some plaque and bacteria will be left behind.
Pet food manufacturers have tried to claim that eating hard kibble food will clean a dog’s teeth but this simply isn’t true. If it was, most dogs wouldn’t have gum disease!
Claiming that simply eating hard food will clean away plaque is like saying we humans should eat some biscuits instead of brushing our teeth.
Chowing down on biscuits won’t clean their teeth and it will leave behind starchy bits of food that the bacteria in their mouth love to eat.
Your dog should have their mouth examined regularly by your vet. Because there is often no sign of gum disease until it becomes irreversible, it’s important to monitor their mouths so you can treat gum disease at the earliest opportunity.
These check-ups will include a visual examination and probing to check your dog’s gums, similar to how your own dentist will give your gums a poke to assess them. Your vet may also x-ray your dog’s jaws to check the condition of their teeth below the surface.
The best way to prevent and treat gum disease is to regularly brush your dog’s teeth, and make sure they get a dental check-up once a year, the same way you would have your own teeth checked by the dentist.
Simply brushing your dog’s teeth every day or every other day will help to prevent plaque from forming on your dog’s teeth, halting its progression into tartar or gum disease.
The most important part of treating gum disease at any stage is cleaning your dog’s teeth to prevent further infection. If your dog needs a professional teeth clean, they will need to be placed under general anaesthetic while the vet performs a full scale and polish.
Your pooch might also be given anti-inflammatory medication to help relieve the swelling and discomfort in their gums.
Since going under anaesthetic can be stressful and put a strain on their body, particularly for older dogs, you and your pooch will both want to avoid it. Regularly brushing your dog’s teeth will help to prevent gum disease, which means you can also avoid expensive and stressful vet visits for professional teeth cleaning.
Gingivitis or stage 1 gum disease can be prevented with frequent teeth cleaning, and it can also be treated and reversed with a thorough cleaning and some anti-inflammatories.
Periodontitis or stage 2-4 gum disease cannot be fixed. Instead, your dog will require treatment to minimise further damage to their oral cavity and to manage the condition going forward. If your dog has stage 2 or 3 gum disease, professional teeth cleaning will be needed to halt the progression of the condition towards stage 4 and its most severe state.
In severe cases of gum disease, your dog’s teeth will be damaged or infected. When gum disease reaches stage 4, there is little to be done except to remove any affected teeth to help prevent the infection from worsening and spreading beyond your dog’s mouth.
The best way to prevent gum disease in dogs is simply brushing your dog’s teeth regularly at home. Tooth brushing has always been the gold-standard in maintaining good oral health for dogs, and it can be done easily and inexpensively at home.
Despite the fact cleaning your dog’s teeth doesn’t take long, it’s super effective at preventing gum disease, plaque, bad breath, and all kinds of oral health issues. Most importantly, it means your dog is much less likely to need a stressful trip to the vet for a full scale and polish.
Eating a dental chew can also help to reduce plaque and tartar, and munching on a raw meaty bone can naturally clean some plaque from your dog’s teeth because of the abrasive texture of the bone.
Chewing toys, bones, and treats isn’t nearly as effective as brushing though because while brushing, you can make sure you clean every single tooth whilst chewing will only clean whatever teeth your dog uses to gnaw on their chews and toys with.
However, making sure your pup is chewing a rubber toy or enjoying an occasional dental chew will still help to minimise plaque and clean their teeth in the days between brushing. It’s just no replacement for brushing their teeth!
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.