Who You Calling Dog Breath? Canine Oral Health FAQs

Anne-Marie Hays

Last Updated: February 24th, 2020

dog with bad breath making a frowny face

Let's face it. Bad breath is bad breath, whether it is emanating from man or beast. While it can be hard to tell another human to reexamine their oral hygiene routine, you do have the power to improve the health, well-being, and reputation of your own doggo by doing just that. With expert advice, we have compiled answers to some of the most commonly asked questions about mitigating stinky dog breath, at-home canine oral hygiene routines, and visits to the doggie dentist. 

1. Where does bad "dog breath" come from?

"Persistent bad breath is always a sign of a health problem in dogs," says Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM, a member of the Pet Life Today advisory board. "The most common reason is an accumulation of plaque and tartar that, without appropriate treatment, leads to gingivitis (gum inflammation) and eventually the breakdown of the bones and other tissues that support teeth. Other reasons why a dog might have persistent bad breath include oral injuries and infections, foreign material lodged in the mouth, and oral cancer.  

Brushing won’t remove existing tartar, so it’s best to make an appointment with your veterinarian for an evaluation and possibly a professional cleaning before starting to brush an adult dog’s teeth."

2. Can a dog's breath be an indicator of some bad health problems?

Yes. A dog's breath is an indicator of both oral hygiene and overall health. 

If you aren't sure whether you need to be worried or not, here is a quiz that may help. It includes pictures to help you assess your pet's dental hygiene and symptoms visually. 

3. How often do I brush my dog's teeth?

"It’s recommended that you brush your dog’s teeth as often as your own — twice daily is ideal," says Rob Jackson, CEO and co-founder of Healthy Paws Pet Insurance. "However, if that seems unrealistic to you, aim for bi-weekly brushings." 

But you aren't alone in figuring this out. Nate Masterson is a pet health expert and natural pet product developer for Honeydew Products. He suggests discussing your pooch's tooth brushing routine with your vet because there are so many factors. However, he adds, "once there is a requirement to brush, an established routine of once or twice a week seems about right, but ask your doggy doctor. Many owners find the dog’s chops and teeth confusing, sometimes thinking something might be wrong when in fact things are completely normal."

4. What happens if I don’t look after my dog's dental hygiene?

"We've all caught a whiff of kitty or doggy breath that knocks us over," says Ms. Darlene Hernandez-Geekie, RVT of Veterinary Angels Medical Center. "You hear vets say, 'brush their teeth' and some pet guardians do this, but many wait too long to get them a check-up. Pet breath is telling you more about their health than what they just ate. Periodontal disease in pets is common and left untreated can lead to many other expensive health issues." 

5. How common is dental disease in dogs?

Banfield Pet Hospitals estimates that 77 percent of dogs have dental disease. It is very common. 

6. Are some dogs more at-risk than others?

The AAHA advises that owners of puppies who will be smaller than 20–25 pounds at maturity "should be informed that the level of dental care and prevention for their pet is likely to be more involved than that of a larger dog. Brachycephalic breeds also tend to have more dental issues due to the rotation and crowding of teeth."

Banfield Pet Hospitals found that the following breeds are at the highest risk for periodontal disease: 

  • Toy poodle
  • Yorkshire terrier
  • Maltese
  • Pomeranian
  • Shetland sheepdog
  • Cavalier King Charles spaniel
  • Papillion
  • Standard poodle
  • Dachshund
  • Havanese

7. How long should I give brushing a chance before I make an appointment?

"If your dog has a lot of dental tartar already on their teeth," warns Sara Ochoa, DVM, a veterinary consultant for doglab.com, "no amount of teeth brushing will get this off. They will need a dental cleaning just like what people get when they go to the dentist. This will be done by a veterinarian in the office. The dog will have to be lightly sedated for this procedure. No dog is going to lay down with their mouth open and allow their teeth to be cleaned."

She suggests, "If your dog's breath does not improve after just a few brushings, make an appointment with your veterinarian to make sure that there is nothing else wrong."

8. How often should I take my dog for a dental checkup?

The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends having your dog's teeth and gums checked at least once a year by your vet. 

9. At what age should I start taking my dog to get dental cleanings?

The AAHA recommends that dogs have a full dental cleaning, polishing and dental x-rays by age one for small to medium breed dogs and age two for larger breed dogs.

10. Is there an actual doggie dentist, or are the appointment and checkup just performed by a vet?

"Most routine dental care is provided by veterinarians in general practice," says Dr. Coates, "but these doctors will refer complicated cases to specialists who are certified by the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC)."

All vets have a different level of experience when it comes to veterinary dentistry skills. It depends on where they attended school. An article in the Journal of Veterinary Medical Education explains that while some veterinary programs offer formal dental training and exposure to advanced dental procedures, this is not true across the board. More than half of veterinary colleges in North America, Canada, and the Caribbean, provide less than four hours of instruction in veterinary dentistry. 

That's why routine care, like a cleaning, can be handled by your regular vet, but special cases can be referred to a specialist. The following are common reasons why you might be referred to a specialist certified by the AVDC

  • Advanced imaging, intra-oral x-rays, or a CT scan, requiring anesthesia
  • Advanced periodontal disease (gum disease)
  • Difficult extractions
  • Jaw fractures
  • Multiple extractions
  • Oral masses or tumors
  • Orthodontic consultation
  • Root canal therapy
  • Severe trauma
  • Stomatitis

The AVDC provides a helpful locator tool to find certified specialists across North America, as well as in other countries. Even more advanced skillsets are available from AVDC certified vets with advanced training and experience in oral and maxillofacial surgery (OMSF).

11. What happens at a doggie dentist appointment?

"The initial appointment may just be a consult to figure out what is needed to be done for your dog," advises Dr. Ochoa. "After that, your veterinarian should be able to explain what all will happen. Usually, for a full dental cleaning, your dog will be sedated, and their teeth will be cleaned just like people have every six months to one year. Most veterinarians also take dental x rays to make sure that there is no disease under the gum line. If there are any teeth that need to be extracted, your veterinarian will also do this." 

"The care provided during a doggie dentist appointment depends on the specifics of the case," shares Dr. Coates. "For example, some pets will need to have severely damaged teeth removed, but this won’t be necessary if their teeth and gums are in good condition." 

12. Why is dental sedation so common for dogs?

According to Dr. Coates, "Dogs must be under general anesthesia during a dental cleaning to protect against oral injury and inhalation of the fluid and debris that is generated during the procedure. After the pet is anesthetized, the veterinarian or technician will rinse the mouth with an antiseptic and then remove plaque and tartar from all tooth surfaces—including under the gums—using specialized equipment. They then polish the teeth, rinse the mouth clean, and oftentimes apply fluoride and/or dental sealants to protect the teeth and slow the redevelopment of plaque and tartar."

Jme Thomas, executive director of the Motley Zoo animal rescue points out that anesthesia-free dental care is available. "This means the dog is not put under anesthesia to have their teeth cleaned," Thomas explains. "This is great for maintenance but cannot address loose or infected teeth, so it can extend the time between surgical [dental appointments], but is not a replacement for them."

Dr. Gary Richter, a veterinary health expert with Rover, points out that "Periodic non-anesthetic dental cleanings can be an excellent part of a larger preventative dental health plan as well."

13. Are there any risks involved with doggie dental care?

Thomas shares a very personal warning for pet parents and guardians about a risk her pup encountered during a routine dental extraction appointment: Zelda was a happy and healthy toy fox terrier "with no health issues to speak of," explains Thomas, but she "needed some teeth extracted. She went into her dental [appointment] and came out burned on 50 percent of her body. These injuries subsequently killed her." 

"This is because they used a heating pad for heat support rather than the appropriate/dedicated tools available to veterinarians," explains Thomas. "While heating pads should not be used, many vets still use them because they are much cheaper than the appropriate, modern tools."

During dental anesthesia, "heat support is important," says Thomas, because "animals' body temperatures must be maintained during surgery — but there are proper ways to do this and a heating pad should not be involved." The problem with heating pads and other similar items being used during a dog's dental surgery, she explains is that they maintain constant heat. The proper veterinary tools cool over time and don't "have the capacity to malfunction or increase their temperature, like a heating pad does," she explains. 

She clarifies that "heating pads may be used in the recovery process when an animal is no longer anesthetized and able to move away from the heat source. This is the key factor in whether a heating pad should even be considered — and why they should never be an option for surgery."

"When bringing your animal in for a dental, or ANY surgery," Thomas advises, "ask them if they use heating pads for the surgery. It is your choice how you manage the answer, but if they say they use them during surgery, in my humble opinion, run away. 

If they say they use them as recovery when the animal is waking up, this is better, but the animal still needs to be monitored often because if they are struggling to wake up, they are in the same category as an anesthetized animal who may not be able to make a choice to move away if they are feeling too hot. This is where the heating pad maintaining a constant temperature or possibly increasing in temperature (if malfunctioning) causes concern over the items that cool over time." Click here to watch a PSA about what happened to Zelda

14. How much does a routine dental appointment for a dog cost?

A young, healthy dog's dental cleaning can cost $200 to $300, but that is just for a standard cleaning. Many other factors can increase the cost. 

15. What role does pet insurance play?

"Most insurance company's wellness plans will cover dental cleaning every year," advises Dr. Ochoa. This preventative care can help you save money in the long run. 

Dr. Coates advises that "Many pet insurance policies cover veterinarian-recommended dental care, but you have to read a policy’s fine print to determine what is and what is not included." Make sure you check it out with your provider so that you can be prepared for any out of pocket expenses. 

16. How else can I keep my dog’s teeth clean?

"In addition to brushing your dog’s teeth, there are many other ways to maintain his dental health," says Jackson. "Foods, treats, toys, chews, water additives, and oral sprays are all available to promote a healthy mouth. Greenies dental treats are a favorite among pet parents and dogs, and are VOHC certified. For hardcore chewers, Purina’s HeartyHide and PPVD rawhide treats fight tartar on teeth. If your pup has recurring problems, ask your vet about a prescription dog food specifically for dental health."

17. What foods are good for my dog's teeth?

Eating and chewing certain foods is a good way to help keep dog's teeth healthy and strong. Barking Royalty suggests that several foods are best for your dog's teeth: bones, cranberries, wild strawberries, parsley, fennel.

"Dental diets that are labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal have scientific evidence supporting their ability to help keep pet teeth clean and their breath fresh," adds Dr. Coates. "Contrary to popular belief, feeding your dog regular dry food won’t help with dental hygiene."

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