The whole tooth
Dental care for dogs
After wagging tails, sharp teeth are probably the most common image associated with dogs. Our canine buddies have a set of beautiful teeth requiring as much care as ours do. This aspect of dog care is often ignored by dog parents. It is no wonder then that many dogs suffer from dental disease.
Dental disease doesn’t just affect your dog’s teeth; it is a significant cause of internal issues too! Periodontal disease, one of the most common dental issues in dogs, can increase the dog’s risk of jaw fractures, congestive heart failure and oral cancer, and can cause damage to the liver, kidneys and eyes. Most dogs show signs of it by just 3 years of age, the earliest sign being bad breath (dogs may have a slightly smelly breath, but it shouldn’t be bad enough to make you barf). Other signs of dental issues include a reluctance to eat, vomiting whole food, unusual drooling, chewing from one side, bleeding or inflamed gums, tooth discolouration and visible tartar (after a certain point), blood in the water bowl or on their toys, weight loss and irritability.
Periodontal disease happens due to a build-up of plaque (invisible layer of bacteria) and tartar (thickened and mineralised plaque) on your dog’s teeth, and it happens in stages. Stage 1 is gingivitis, which is reversible with proper care and hygiene. The more progressed stages, though not reversible, can be managed with veterinary intervention, and the progression of the disease can be slowed down.
It is, therefore, essential that you check your dog’s teeth frequently and clean them regularly, starting from puppyhood. Here’s some information about your dog’s teeth and how to keep them in good condition:
About dog teeth:
Adult dogs have 42 teeth that arrive in two sets like human teeth. The first set — deciduous teeth — has 28 teeth that grow fully by ten weeks of age. These are very sharp to aid the puppy in chewing food as the jaws aren’t as strong at this stage. These teeth slowly become loose and fall off, making way for permanent teeth that grow fully by eight months of age. Adult dogs have 20 teeth on their upper jaw and 22 on the lower one.
Going from the front to back in one-quarter of the jaws, the permanent teeth include the following:
- Incisors — used to nip and bite; useful for scraping meat off the bone and for grooming
- Canines — long and pointed fangs which shred and puncture flesh (Canines are named so for these) and are used to lock the jaws on things
- Premolars — used for crushing and shearing food. Dogs will often chew on meaty bones with their premolars
- Molars — used to chew and break down food, especially hard parts of their diet, like bones and hard treats
If you observe your dog’s teeth, you will notice that even those at the back are pointed, unlike the flat teeth in herbivores, which are used for grinding food. Dogs do not chew their food much, unlike, say, a cow. They break it down into smaller bits simply enough that it can be swallowed.
Are certain breeds predisposed to dental disease?
Unfortunately, yes. Breeds that have smaller mouths, leading to crowding of teeth (since all dogs have 42 teeth and they need to fit those in a smaller space) have a predisposition to dental issues. Small breed dogs such as the Chihuahua, Chinese Crested, Pomeranian, and Lhasa Apso are at a higher risk of developing dental disease. The deciduous teeth (puppy teeth) of small toy breeds often fall off late or need to be extracted because the adult set has come in without the deciduous teeth falling off.
Brachycephalic breeds (breeds with a short, flat muzzle) like the Bulldog, Boxer, Pug, Mastiff, and Shih Tzu are also prone to oral issues, especially gum problems.
Breeds like the Sheltie (Shetland Sheepdog), Dachshund and Collies are prone to misalignment of the jaws leading commonly to overbites, but in some cases, underbites. These can cause the teeth from the upper and lower jaws to grind against each other, leading to wearing of the tooth and soft tissue injuries.
Greyhounds and Whippets are prone to several genetic conditions that can cause issues in their tooth enamel, exposing them to a higher risk of dental infections and tooth loss.
Apart from overbites/underbites, most dental issues can be avoided/ delayed by following good dental hygiene practices from an early age.
Managing dental health at home
The path to great teeth for your dog begins at home. Although it is not necessary to brush your puppy’s teeth, you can start getting them accustomed to having their teeth handled and cleaned when they are very young, so that cleaning their teeth is not stressful once they’re older and actually need it. It is widely advised that you brush your dog’s teeth daily once the permanent set comes in (though you can go as low as 1–2 times a week). However, brushing is not the only option to keep those teeth shining. Let’s see what you can do to maintain dental hygiene at home:
Probably the most common practice for oral hygiene in dogs is brushing. Dogs have toothbrushes designed to enable you to clean their teeth without causing injuries. You can also find finger caps in the market. These rubber caps slip over your finger and have bumps on them that can brush your dog’s teeth. Ensure you use a product specific to dogs, including toothpaste. Human toothpaste contains ingredients like xylitol that are toxic to dogs. Furthermore, dog toothpaste comes in flavours like peanut butter or chicken, which are more inviting for your dog.
You should brush your dog’s teeth for about 30 seconds per side. If your dog allows it, you can go up to a total of 2 minutes. Target the outsides of the canines, premolars and molars since most of the plaque accumulates here. Make sure you check the inside of the lower canines. This area is often covered by the tongue and gets ignored.
If you have a dog that resists brushing, you can use dental wipes. They can be put over the finger and rubbed over your dog’s teeth. While they cannot get into every nook to remove plaque, they still do a great job cleaning your dog’s teeth and are often less stressful to use (for both you and your dog) than a toothbrush. Since there are no bristles to cause scrapes, you can also wipe down the gums.
Treats and chews:
While there are several dental treats on the market, it is advisable to use natural chews for your dog. Spongy bones like the femur and spine do a great job of cleaning teeth, and these are more inviting and engaging for your dog than a tooth brushing / wipe session. You can also give your dogs pizzles, ears and trotters.
All-natural meat chews have enzymes that promote oral health, and the scraping of the teeth against the bone removes plaque. Ensure you do not give your dog chews like antlers that are too hard for them without appropriately introducing them first. For senior dogs or puppies, use chews like trachea, which are softer and will not damage delicate teeth. Please do not give your dog rawhide chews- they’re the absolute worst for your dog’s health.
Disclaimer: I have no personal experience of using additives. I know people who use them but have not used them for my own dogs.
Your vet may advise you to use dental additives in the dog’s water bowl. These are used for managing dental health over a long time and are often given to dogs with progressed dental disease. They are supposed to work like a mouthwash and promote good breath. They are available as powders, liquids and gels, and some of these can be applied directly to the dog’s teeth. A common side effect of these is digestive issues, so please use your discretion in choosing this option for your dog.
Other home remedies:
- Dogs fed a natural diet usually have better dental health than those fed commercial diets, as long as bones are included.
- Probiotics create a healthy environment in your dog’s mouth too. Good bacteria limit the growth of plaque-causing bacteria, preventing severe infections. Add probiotics to your dog’s food.
- Bone broth is highly nutritious for dogs. The minerals in it help build stronger teeth and gums.
- MCT oil is considered great for helping with gum trouble, as is diluted green tea, which is also believed to aid in preventing the erosion of tooth enamel (dogs should not be given caffeine; please use decaf green tea only and consult a nutritionist for quantities specific to your dog).
Dental health at the vet:
Ask the vet to check your dog’s teeth at every checkup visit. They can spot subtle signs of dental trouble and begin treating your dog for it before it becomes a severe issue.
In cases with advanced dental disease or a loose tooth, your vet will need to extract a tooth (or more) or perform a procedure known as dental scaling. Dental scaling involves the removal of plaque and tartar above and below the gumline. The dog needs to be put under anaesthesia for this procedure, so all the preparation, including bloodwork, is done as it would be for minor surgery.
The process can be done manually or with equipment, or a combination of both. Afterwards, the dog’s teeth are polished to remove any tiny scratches that can harbour bacteria and lead to plaque and tartar in the future. Post-scaling, your dog will have some sensitivity around the gums and teeth. You will be asked to feed only soft foods and avoid bones/chews for the next few weeks. Since dental scaling involves putting the dog under anaesthesia, vets prefer combining it with other procedures for dogs that need them, especially for senior dogs.
Many vets suggest a professional dental cleaning for your dog every 3 to 4 years. However, since this is done under anaesthesia and is an expensive procedure, you should manage your dog’s dental health at home regularly instead.
Your dog’s teeth require just as much care as yours do. If your dog has indications of dental issues, please take them to the vet. If they don’t have dental trouble, manage their oral hygiene through proper and consistent practices.