Our pets might not smile, but they do need dental care. What starts with a little tartar buildup and bad breath, if left untreated, can progress to tooth loss because of periodontal disease.

Additionally, the bacteria associated with the disease can travel to other parts of the body and cause damage there. Daily brushing, regular dental cleanings, and special rinses and foods are your best line of defense against periodontal disease in dogs.


Periodontal disease is defined as the progressive inflammation of the supporting structures surrounding the teeth. It happens when inflammation of the gums (called gingivitis) conspires with inflammation of the bone and tooth support structures (called periodontitis) to undermine a tooth’s support system. This is by far the most common cause of tooth loss among dogs.

It is incredibly widespread. Indeed, more than 85 percent of dogs over 4 years old are affected to some degree by periodontal disease. Here’s how it happens:

  • The process starts when bacteria form plaque on the teeth.
  • Within days, minerals in the saliva bond with plaque to form tartar, a hard substance that adheres to the teeth.
  • The bacteria then work their way under the gums and cause gingivitis, which is an inflammation of the gums.
  • Once under the gums, bacteria destroy the supporting tissue around the tooth, leading to tooth loss.

Bacteria associated with dental disease can travel in the bloodstream to infect the heart, kidneys, and liver, which is why periodontal disease, though seemingly localized to the mouth, can have widespread effects. In fact among humans, periodontal disease has been correlated with shorter life spans. There’s evidence that this association may also be applicable to dogs, cats, and other animals.

Signs and Identification

The signs of periodontal disease include:

  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Redness or bleeding along the gum line
  • Drooling, which may be tinged with blood
  • Difficulty chewing (which may manifest as messy eating)
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loose or missing teeth
  • Facial swelling
  • Nasal discharge
  • Gum recession

Veterinarians can observe signs of gingivitis and tartar buildup by examining a dog’s mouth. However, since most periodontal disease occurs under the gums, the only way to truly assess the degree of periodontal disease is to perform an examination under anesthesia. Once the dog is anesthetized, a dental probe is used to measure loss of attachment around each tooth. Dental radiographs (X-rays) are considered indispensable for assessing bone loss, the presence of abscesses, and identifying other potential problems.

Affected Breeds

All breeds of dogs are susceptible to periodontal disease. Some purebreds, however, do appear to be particularly predisposed. Toy and miniature breeds are at higher risk for periodontal disease, as are some breeds of sighthounds.


Treatment depends on the severity of the disease. If a dog has mild periodontal disease (consisting of gingivitis without any bone loss), a thorough dental cleaning that includes the area under the gum (always followed by dental polishing) can help reverse the problem.

If there’s been loss of the supporting structures around the teeth, however, this process can’t be reversed as long as the tooth remains. Veterinarians may need to perform dental procedures to slow or resolve the process. This can involve one or more of the following techniques (among others):

  • applying antibiotics beneath the gums
  • root planing
  • root canal
  • crown restoration
  • extraction


Luckily, this is one disease that can be managed with plenty of preventative approaches.

Daily brushing can help remove plaque before it turns into tartar. A child-size toothbrush, gauze sponge, or finger brush are the most common tools. Human toothpastes should be avoided because most contain substances that pets shouldn’t swallow in significant quantities. Pet toothpaste is available in flavors such as chicken, seafood, and malt.

Mouth rinse solutions that target plaque bacteria and help promote healthier teeth and gums are also available.

There are several dental diets and treats that can also help keep plaque and tartar to a minimum. These diets tend to have larger or irregular kibbles to provide abrasive action against the tooth surface when chewed, or they may include ingredients to prevent tartar mineralization.

Routine prophylactic dentistry is recommended for all dogs. Depending on the severity of the problem, some dogs may require a dental cleaning and exam as frequently as every four months. This procedure is perhaps the most significant mode of prevention, as it allows veterinarians to thoroughly examine each individual tooth and prevent further deterioration.

Many pet owners worry about the risk of frequent anesthetic procedures in their pets. To be sure, it is not an issue to be taken lightly. Thankfully, modern veterinary medicine has made great strides in minimizing adverse anesthetic events with sophisticated anesthetics, equipment and patient monitoring protocols.

So-called “anesthesia-free” dental cleanings (sometimes offered by grooming facilities) are not recommended by veterinarians, as this kind of cleaning is considered cosmetic only. These procedures cannot effectively clean below the gum line or polish teeth surfaces, and only a veterinarian is trained to assess periodontal disease.

This article has been reviewed by a Veterinarian.