Just like humans, dogs are vulnerable to gum disease, infections and tooth problems. In fact, 60% of pets more than 5 years old suffer from serious dental disease, and in certain breeds of dog (Maltese, Poodle, Dachshund and Chihuahua), the proportion is as high as 80-90%.
Bad breath is caused by the action of bacteria in the mouth, and is an indicator of dental disease. If the problem is not attended to at this stage, it can progress until tooth loss, bleeding from the mouth and/or decreased appetite are seen.
Sometimes dental disease can lead to far more serious problems elsewhere in the body. Bacteria multiply readily in the mouth, and as the gums become inflamed and start to bleed, these bacteria gain access to the blood stream. They circulate throughout the body (a condition called "septicaemia") and lodge in organs, causing abscesses to form. The tissues most prone to this are the heart valves, organs that filter blood (kidney and liver), and tissues with many, very small vessels (lungs and joints). This process can lead to problems such as severe arthritis, or major life-threatening illnesses, such as kidney or heart failure.
So what can I do?
Have your pet's teeth examined by your veterinarian, and proceed with a professional dental clean if it is recommended. However, long-term control and prevention of dental disease requires regular home care.
Dental home care may include:
Tooth brushing (at least 3 times a week). This is the best form of dental hygiene and many products are now available to assist you.
Raw, meaty bones (using Mother Nature's tooth brush). The chewing of tough cartilage and bone scrapes tartar and plaque off teeth; however, over time it may also cause tooth wear and fracture, leading to possible dental disease.
Dental exercisers, chew toys and special diets (e.g. Hill's t/d diet). These all assist in reducing plaque, but are rarely enough to treat advanced dental disease.
The important thing to remember is to start early. Puppies quickly learn to accept dental home care as part of their daily routine, allowing you to develop proper dental hygiene early enough to prevent problems. However, older animals can also learn and benefit from the same processes. Regular and frequent attention to your pet's teeth will avoid annual visits to the vets for a professional dental clean, and will also improve your pet's overall health.