It’s surprising that we accept a rotten smell from our dog’s and cat’s mouth and dismiss it as harmless doggie breath or tuna breath. That smell, which in a human makes us recoil, indicates disease in a pet. Kidney failure and advanced diabetes can cause changes in breath odor, but most often bacterial infection along the gums and bones surrounding the teeth is the culprit.
Teeth should be white and shiny. Tartar forms when plaque, which is a biofilm of bacteria, mineralizes in 24-48 hours. Plaque is easily removed by brushing daily. Certain treats, dry foods, and water additives can also help to reduce plaque and tartar.
Look for the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal on a product, which means it has been clinically tested and proven to be effective.
Chewing on hard objects can cause teeth to break, which is painful. If the pulp is exposed, the tooth will get infected and eventually develop an abscess (infection with pus) at the root. In dogs, the big upper premolar all the way in the back of the mouth is the most likely tooth to fracture. Cats more often fracture their upper canine (fang) teeth. A broken tooth with pulp exposure requires extraction or a root canal and crown to treat.
Do not give your pet bones, hard plastic chew toys, antlers, hooves or ice to avoid broken teeth!
Gums should be a healthy uniform pink, even at the gum line. Red puffy gums indicate inflammation and infection. Bacteria from the mouth, which are a nasty bunch, gain access to the blood stream and the rest of the body through the inflamed gums, and cause heart valve problems, liver and kidney disease, and other issues that affect wellbeing and longevity. Daily brushing to remove plaque, and addressing tartar through a professional dental cleaning as needed, is important to keep gums and the rest of the body healthy.
Just as humans visit the dental hygienist every 6 months or so, dogs and cats need regular professional veterinary dental care to remove tartar and address potential periodontal pockets in the gums or bone loss around teeth from infection. Because no pet will hold still to have every surface of every tooth scaled- including the area under the gums- and not swallow or inhale the bacteria laden water, general anesthesia is used. Thankfully modern anesthesia is very safe, and certainly safer than having a chronic mouth infection.
Breath should be fresh- minty is unrealistic, unless your pet actually eats mints, which isn’t advised. But healthy teeth, healthy gums and a clean pain free mouth are attainable!
Dr. Astrid Kruse graduated from Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. After completing a year long rotating small animal medicine and surgery internship, she joined the staff at a large general practice hospital on the North Shore, where she enjoyed forming long term connections with her patients and clients. She is happy to be a part of the team at Domino Veterinary Hospital in Concord, MA. Her special interests include dog and cat internal medicine, preventative health care, rabbit and guinea pig medicine, soft tissue surgery, and dentistry in all species.