What’s Up With My Dog’s Breath?

“You have dog breath.” — “Why, thank you!”

The term ‘dog breath’ conjures up a rank sour aroma in our minds, powerfully repelling. This is one of the great injustices in animal health care today. The term ‘dog breath’ unfairly creates the idea that bad breath is an unavoidable truth for our four legged companions, but this is far from the truth!

An overwhelming majority of pet owners do not employ any type of home oral hygiene routine for their cats or dogs. What would happen to your teeth or your breath if you didn’t brush your teeth for a month? Now, what would happen to your mouth if you didn’t brush your teeth for 2 years? 7 years?
10 years? This is what we are subjecting our pets to. ‘Dog breath’ should more appropriately be called ‘lack of appropriate hygiene breath’ or ‘medieval breath.’ Animal dental care has lagged heavily behind animal health care for far too long.

Fresh smelling breath is not the only reason that we should turn our attention toward animal dental hygiene. Research in humans and animals alike is linking dental disease to systemic diseases. Current research provides us with evidence for associations between periodontal disease and systemic diseases (heart disease, kidney disease, respiratory disease,
etc) and some research has shown improvement in systemic disease following treatment for periodontal disease. Further research is needed to determine the full extent of the relationship.

Hmm, maybe I should start doing something for my pet’s teeth, but does it have to be brushing? What about all of the dental foods, treats, chew toys, water additives, wipes and sprays? As a veterinarian, I get asked this question often. My response is this, if there were a treat, a spray, a water additive, or something that was easier than brushing but just as effective, would we still be brushing our own teeth? Some of these things help, just like carrots and apples are good for our teeth, but there is no replacement for brushing.

How often should I brush my pet’s teeth? Is once or twice a week enough?

Every little bit helps and the more you brush your pet’s teeth the better but consider this, plaque hardens into tartar in 24-36 hours. Daily brushing is the best way to help prevent dental disease from developing and to prolong the interval between regular dental cleanings.

Okay, but who has the time to brush their pet’s teeth everyday? Brushing your pet’s teeth doesn’t need to be as time consuming as brushing your own teeth. You only need to focus on brushing the outside of your pet’s teeth.
The insides of their teeth accumulate tartar at a much slower rate than the outside of their teeth as a result of the action of the upper teeth moving against the outside of the lower teeth and the action of the tongue moving against the insides of the teeth. To brush your pet’s teeth effectively, you need only hold their mouth closed and lift their lip on one side, put the brush against the molars at the back of the mouth and brush in circles to the front of the mouth. Then switch and do the same thing on the other side. The whole process should take about 15 seconds.
That’s 90 minutes a year to give your pet a happier, healthier, longer life!

If you’re still on the fence about this whole brushing thing, consider
this: the cost of a dental procedure can range between a few hundred dollars and several thousand dollars, depending on the rates of the veterinary clinics in your area and the amount of oral surgery (extractions, etc) that your pet requires. Let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that every time your pet has a dental procedure, it costs $500 and your pet has a dental procedure yearly (some pets, just like people, need to see the dentist more frequently, some less frequently). Now, let’s estimate that brushing your pet’s teeth daily will extend the interval between dental procedures to a year and a half. That reduces the cost of dental procedures from $500/year to $333.33/year… a savings of $166.67/year. That’s $166.67 for approximately 90 minutes of work. These numbers are very rough estimates and are on the low end of the spectrum, but you get the idea. Some people need to see the dentist every 6 months despite daily brushing and some people do fine for years. The same goes for our pets. My own dog goes about 3 years after a dental cleaning before I notice any ‘dog breath.’ In fact, people that meet my dog often comment, “Wow, her breath doesn’t smell at all.”

One more benefit that can’t be ignored – less frequent anesthesia.
Although anesthesia is far less risky than it once was and the risk of complications is low, reducing the number of times a pet has to go under anesthesia is a nice benefit. This is of particular value for pets with diseases that put them at higher risk for anesthesia, such as heart conditions, kidney disease and liver disease.

What about anesthesia-free dentistry? This is a topic that deserves its own focus, but the bottom line is this: more than 50% of a tooth is below the gum line and anesthesia-free dentistry can only address part of what is above the gum line, leaving significant dental disease unaddressed.
Anesthesia-free dentistry is cosmetic only, with no real health benefit.
For more information on anesthesia-free dentistry (also called non-professional dental scaling) refer to the following website:
http://www.avdc.org/dentalscaling.html

What can I do today to start taking care of my pet’s oral health?
Call your veterinarian and schedule a consult for a dental procedure. If your pet already has significant dental disease, brushing now will cause pain and may make your pet averse to brushing. Have a dental procedure performed by your veterinarian before you start brushing your pet’s teeth so that you are starting with a clean slate.

Renee Hartshorn, DVM