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  • Jo De Klerk

    Dental Care For Your Dog

    What’s more lovely than a dog bounding up to greet you at the end of a busy day, with his mouth wide open, tongue flopping out and a bit grin on his face? But when he finally reaches you, the last thing you need is rotten breath in your face. Dental care is vitally important, not just to keep your dog’s breath smelling nice, but to keep their mouth pain free and teeth in good condition.

    It is a common misconception that dogs don’t need their teeth cleaned, as in the wild, dogs do not clean their teeth, and they are just fine. However, a domestic dog is not a wild dog. Wild ancestors were able to gnaw on bones to keep their teeth clean, whereas the diets that domestic dogs are fed very different.

    The Teeth

    The tooth is a bony structure, comprising of two parts; the crown, which you can see, and the roots, which are under the gum. Some teeth have one root, others two, and some molars have three.

    The first teeth to appear are the 28 deciduous (baby) teeth. These gradually fall out in the first year of life to be replaced with 42 adult teeth. The small teeth at the front are called incisors, and next to them are the large, pointed canines. In the wild, these teeth would be used by the dog to grab hold of their prey, as well as nibble pieces of meat off of the bone. Along the cheeks are pre-molars and then at the back, molars. These teeth are larger and flatter, and are used to grind harder food.

    Each tooth is made up of bone, coated in a protective layer of enamel. In the very centre of the tooth is the pulp. This is a fleshy section filled with nerves. If this becomes exposed, it can cause considerable tooth ache.

    Surrounding the tooth is the tooth socket. This is the area inside the skull in which the tooth root sits. It is held in place by a very strong ligament all the way around the tooth. This is called the periodontal ligament.

    Tartar and Gingivitis


    Tartar is a build-up of food and bacteria around the base of the tooth. This happens in all dogs who do not have their teeth brushed on a daily basis. Tartar leads to bad breath and a poor taste in your dog’s mouth.

    If your dog has tartar build up, they are also likely to have gingivitis. This is an inflammation of the adjacent gums, local to where the tartar is. The reason why the gums become inflamed is because the tartar is full of bacteria. Therefore, the body sends white blood cells to the area to fight the bacteria, but the influx of white blood cells causes the area to swell. Gingivitis can further progress to periodontal disease, whereby the periodontal ligament becomes weak from the inflammation, and no longer holds the teeth in place, resulting in tooth loss.

    Tooth loss does not happen overnight, and therefore the tooth is usually wobbly for an extended period of time before it finally falls out. This means whenever your dog chews on something hard, it causes significant discomfort in that area. For some dogs, this causes them to lose weight as they do not want to eat as much, whereas for other dogs, they will happily continue to eat, despite the discomfort and foul taste in their mouth.

    Tooth Care

    There is not one best method of keeping your dog’s teeth clean, but rather it is best to use multiple methods to maintain sparkly white teeth and fresh breath. Dental care should become part of a daily routine, started from the puppy stage, as this will prevent deterioration of the mouth.

    Routine Examination

    Examining the mouth for plaque build-up should be done on a monthly basis. Some dogs do not tolerate owners or veterinarians looking in their mouths, but this is usually because they are not used to it. If your dog doesn’t like it, try to make it a positive, fun experience. To examine the teeth, firstly lift up the front lips to look at the incisors. Tartar or plaque, which is a grey or brown sticky build-up at the gum line, decay, tooth discolouration or redness of the gums should be noted. Next, the corner of the cheek should be pulled far back to examine the premolars and molars for the same issues on both sides. Finally, the mouth should be opened wide from the front, to look on the inside of the teeth.

    Teeth Brushing

    Brushing teeth will help to keep them clean, reduce the amount of tartar, and keep the breath fresh. It will also ensure that you are checking the mouth on a regular basis and therefore any changes can be picked up early. To brush your dog’s mouth, you will need a toothbrush and toothpaste. You cannot use regular toothpaste however, as this can be highly toxic to dogs leading to erratic blood glucose levels and liver damage. Anyway, your dog will much prefer the meaty taste of a dog toothpaste, which you can buy off the internet, at veterinary practices, and many pet stores. Dog toothpaste works through enzymatic action. This is when enzymes in the toothpaste work to dissolve any new tartar build up on the surface of the teeth, thereby reducing bacteria and freshening breath.

    Dental Chews

    Dental chews are a nice way of keeping your dog’s teeth healthy, and a way which he is sure to appreciate. Your dog won’t be aware that this delicious treat is actually for his benefit. It is important to note that although giving dental chews is much easier than brushing, they are not a replacement for brushing. They should always be used in combination. Dental chews are formed to provide some form of abrasion or friction to the surface of the tooth so that tartar is broken or sucked off. As with all treats, they are not calorie free, and so calculating how many calories must be taken out of your dog’s normal food is important to do. Otherwise, you may end up with a rather overweight dog! Dental chews can be bought from pet stores and veterinary practices, however if you want a more natural option with fewer calories, deer antlers are an excellent option. Bones should not be given as they can shatter and cause obstructions.


    Like human toothpaste, dogs must never consume human mouthwash either. However, there are mouthwash-style products which can be used to help fight plaque in dogs. These liquid products are usually added in small volumes to drinking water, and work on the same premise as dog toothpaste; they are filled full of enzymes which aid in dissolving the plaque off the teeth or stop more plaque from forming.

    Dental Food

    Many of the top dog food brands have created dental diets. These are dry dog foods with large kibble bits in them. As the dog bites through the kibble, it helps remove the tartar from the teeth. The kibble pieces are usually a tiny bit softer than other dry dog foods, so that as the tooth is removed from the kibble, there is a small amount of suction.

    Dental Procedures

    If the mouth is in such bad health, your veterinarian may suggest having your dog in for a dental procedure. This is a day procedure where your dog will come home the same day. Once your dog is anesthetised, the vet will start by cracking off any large areas of tartar. He will then scale all the teeth to make them clean and white. Once they are clean, he will take a probe, and run it around each tooth. If the probe dips into the socket, then it means that the periodontal ligament has been damaged and the tooth must be removed. Some teeth have multiple roots, and some just a single root. This usually determines how difficult they are to remove. A sharp tool called an elevator is run around the root of the tooth to break the periodontal ligament before the tooth is pulled out. The socket is sometimes stitched closed afterwards, although some veterinarians prefer leaving it open. At the end of the procedure, the veterinarian will polish the entire mouth to remove any residual tartar. The end result is a mouth as shiny white as a puppy’s!

    Prevention is always better than cure, and so even though your vet can make your dog’s mouth look like a puppy’s again, keeping your dog’s mouth in good condition from puppyhood is always a better option. With diligent dental care from the outset, you can ensure your dog has a healthy, painless mouth with fresh breath.

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    Jo De Klerk

    Jo is a graduate of the Royal Veterinary College, London. She has a Masters degree in Tropical Animal Health, and has spent most of her career working in mixed veterinary practice.

    Recently, she has become involved in one of the UK’s fastest growing veterinary telemedicine services for dogs and cats.

    She is a published author of several books, and enjoys working as a freelance veterinary writer around her clinical work.

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