Dental Health in Dogs – A Detailed Guide

A brown lab laying on its side getting its teeth brushed with a white toothbrush.

Dental disease is a common problem in dogs, just as in humans, and some studies show that up to 60-80% of dogs can be affected. Dental disease affects the teeth and gums, leading to pain, discomfort, inflammation, and broken or loose teeth. Dogs are very resilient creatures and will not easily show the signs of mouth pain, even in severe cases. Where they feel their choice is to eat or to starve, they will force themselves to eat regardless of how difficult it is. As part of our duty of care to our pets, we must look after their mouths too. 

What is Dental Disease?

Dental disease affects the gums and teeth – and sometimes even the rest of the mouth and tongue. You may have heard terms like gingivitis, stomatitis, periodontal disease, and tooth decay. These names just refer to specific sites of inflammation and different disease processes, but the overall impact on the dog is often similar. Mechanisms of dental disease include:

  1. Worn teeth – where dogs chew balls, sticks, or stones repetitively and grind down their teeth. This will happen over a number of months to years.
  2. Trauma – where a dog breaks or cracks a tooth during an impact or by biting down on something too hard. It is therefore important to ensure your dog does not have access to chewing objects that are harder than the teeth themselves, such as antlers.
  3. Build-up of food material and bacteria:
    • Bacteria in the mouth feed on food material and accumulate on teeth. This accumulation is called plaque and it produces a noticeably bad smell. 
    • These bacterial colonies then attract more food material and become harder and more like chalk. This white/brown chalk is called tartar.
    • As the plaque and tartar spread under the gums they will damage the roots and ligaments of the tooth- called ‘periodontitis’ or ‘periodontal disease’. This causes gum infections and irritation and will make the tooth loose. Eventually, the tooth will fall out.
    • Infection may spread and cause tooth root abscesses, which can become swollen and painful.
    • These processes happen at different speeds in different dogs. All dogs are individuals and have different genetics, saliva, bacteria, diets, and habits. Some dogs are lucky and are very resistant to dental disease. Others, especially smaller dogs, may have severe problems very quickly.

What are the symptoms of Dental Disease?

Initially, you may notice your dog’s breath smells, or that the pearl-white teeth of your dog are becoming yellow and covered with a brown chalky substance called ‘tartar’. This chalky tartar will start to push the gum away from the base of the tooth and cause the gum to become inflamed and red (gingivitis).

Where teeth are damaged due to trauma, wear, or gingivitis, you may notice that your dog is more sensitive with harder foods and chews, or perhaps favors one side of the mouth over the other. As we all know, dental pain can be some of the worst pain experienced, and it is no different for our dogs.

Dental disease is often graded from 0 to 4 in severity. A grade zero means there is no sign of dental disease, whilst a grade 4 shows significant dental disease, bone loss, and wobbly teeth. Grade 1 dental disease should be able to be reversed, but once the teeth are in grade 2 it is likely that some teeth will be lost.

Can dental disease kill my dog?

Dental and periodontal disease can be fatal to dogs if it prevents eating, as dogs starve to death. There is also evidence that severe dental disease can allow bacteria to get into the bloodstream, and this has been shown to worsen heart and kidney disease.

What should I do if I think my dog has dental disease?

The first and most important step is to seek advice from your veterinarian. Your local veterinarian can examine your dog’s mouth, and help you make a plan for care. This may include home care such as toothbrushing, or an in-hospital appointment for general anesthesia to clean the mouth and remove affected teeth.

How do I manage and prevent dental disease?

Dental disease can never be fully prevented, but the likelihood of severe problems can be minimized by taking practical steps at home, alongside following advice from your veterinary clinic. Homecare will help to keep your dog’s mouth healthy and will slow the rate at which dental problems develop. You can read our article on dental home care for more information.

Dental Procedures

Your veterinarian may recommend that your dog comes in for a dental procedure. This is just like you visiting the dentist, although it’s a bit more difficult with dogs. It’s well worth it – acting to remove plaque and tartar at an early stage will restore your dog’s dental health and if caught early enough, dental disease can be reversed.

The longer problems are left, the more damage will be done to the teeth, gums, and jaw. This rapidly becomes an irreversible problem. The only treatment for severely affected teeth is to remove them. In very specific cases, some teeth can be saved by root canal type or crown therapies, but this would be referred to a specialist and an unusual procedure in animals.

What is a veterinary dental procedure?

A COHAT or comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment may be recommended by your veterinarian.  Although it includes a thorough cleaning of your dog’s teeth it is much more than that!

This will usually involve a day’s stay for your dog at the veterinary hospital. All animals are given a general anesthetic for the procedure, and will have their whole mouth assessed from every angle. Dental x-rays will be taken to assess the health of the teeth under the gum where problems may hide. Any teeth that cannot be salvaged will be removed, and all remaining teeth given a clean called a ‘scale and polish’- just like you would at the hygienist. This will give your dog a fresh start and give you a clean slate to restart or begin home care. Click here to for a full list of what’s included in a dental procedure and pricing.

How does a veterinarian clean a pet’s teeth?

Veterinarians will clean all healthy teeth using the same type of ultrasonic scaler and hand scalers used by human dentists. This removes all plaque and tartar on the teeth and – most importantly – any hiding under the gum where it really does damage. They then use a polishing compound to remove any small abrasions on the tooth surface that might attract bacteria.

How long does the procedure take? How long is a pet under anesthesia?

If you have caught the dental problems early, then your pet’s anesthetic may only last 20-30 minutes. More challenging and severe cases needing multiple extractions may take up to 2-3 hours. Either way, your dog will usually stay in the clinic for the majority of the day to recover from their general anesthetic. In severely diseased mouths, multiple procedures may be needed. There are veterinarians who specialize in dentistry and complex problems and you may be referred from your local clinic to these centers.

How often would my dog need their teeth cleaned?

Daily tooth brushing at home is recommended. With good homecare, some dogs may not need their teeth cleaned more than once or twice in their lifetime. However, all dogs are individuals and some suffer worse with dental problems than others. In some cases, dogs may need a professional clean yearly or more often. After all, most humans brush their teeth twice daily and still visit the hygienist for a scale and polish to make sure no areas have been missed.

How long does it take a dog to recover from a dental procedure?

Most dogs will need a few hours at the veterinary clinic after the procedure to fully wake up, and will recover fully from the anesthetic within 24-48 hours. Those who have just had a scale and polish will be back to normal within 2-3 days. Those who have needed teeth removing may need 1-2 weeks for the gums and tooth sockets to fully heal.

The vast majority of dental procedures have minimal complications and dogs recover quickly and without major issues. And don’t worry, even if your dog has every single tooth removed, they will still be able to eat just fine – they might just need softer food instead!

Why do dogs need a general anesthetic for a dental procedure?

It is best practice – and in some regions required by legal and professional standards – to give a dog a general anesthetic for dental procedures. We cannot explain to the dog what is going to happen, or tell them to lie still while we examine the mouth. Even the best trained dogs will not allow a full mouth examination from every angle while keeping still, let alone poking and prodding and taking X-rays. 

In addition, a good scale and polish is usually uncomfortable, because if done properly it involves getting under the gums to where lots of that plaque and tartar will be hiding. This is  uncomfortable. Tooth extractions are also surgical operations that require drilling of bone. Many humans need a general anesthetic to allow this procedure!

All dental procedures must be done under a general anesthetic to ensure dogs do not suffer unnecessarily.

Is my dog too old for a dental procedure?

Age alone does not carry an increased risk of complications under general anesthesia and surgery. If dental disease is present, then your dog is in discomfort and is suffering, and this will only get worse if not corrected, regardless of how old your dog is. 

That said, older dogs are more likely to have underlying health issues, but as long as these are identified and properly managed, then they should not stand in the way of most dental procedures. This is an important conversation to have with your veterinarian who will understand your specific circumstances, but age alone should not put you off. Most dental procedures are very safe and complication-free.

Is it safe to have a veterinarian clean my dog’s teeth?

Whilst anesthetic complications are possible, they are rare. Any decision your veterinarian makes is a balance of the risk of a procedure against the benefits that the procedure will bring. Since most dental procedures are low-risk, and the benefits to your dog can be huge, it’s generally best to go ahead with a dental cleaning by a veterinarian. Some people use pet owners’ natural fear of anesthetics to promote anesthesia-free cleaning, but this does not reach the most important areas and doesn’t medically help your dog-  although their teeth might look a bit nicer for a while. An anesthesia-free cleanings of your dog’s mouth is not recommended.

How much do dental procedures cost?

The answer to this will depend heavily on your location, the size of your dog, and the work that your dog needs doing, as well as other factors like other health conditions. It is best to ask in advance for a tailored estimate of costs for your situation. More information can be found on the dental pages of our three locations, Harrisonburg,Manassas, and San Diego.

Why are pet dentals so expensive?

Depending on the work required, and factoring in the requirement for general anesthesia, dental procedures can be expensive. Anicira is a nonprofit organization specializing in expanding access to veterinary care. If your pet is in need of dental work and you cannot afford it, we have assistance programs and financing plans. Please contact us here or call us for more information.

What would I need to do in advance of my dog’s dental procedure? Can my dog have food and water before a dental procedure?

  • We recommend fasting on the day of the procedure, so please don’t give any breakfast before coming in. 
  • Food the evening before is fine, but nothing solid overnight or in the morning./li>
  • Water should be left out at all times. Keep a note of any medication your dog may be taking and let the clinic know when you gave the last dose when your dog is admitted to hospital.

Dental Disease in Summary

Dental health is vitally important to a dog’s overall wellbeing and should be a regular part of your homecare routine for your pet. Simple home management can make a big difference and delay or prevent the onset of severe dental disease. Dental disease comes in a broad variety of types but all can cause great pain for your dog. Interventions at home and in conjunction with your veterinary clinic are essential for keeping your dog happy and healthy. If a dental procedure is advised by a veterinarian, you should get it done without delay.