Put an End to Your Pet's Bad Breath

Happy dog in woman's lap
If your dog or cat has bad breath, a trip to the veterinarian is in order.

Feeling down in the mouth about your pet’s bad breath? Have you noticed that your pet’s pearly whites don’t look so white anymore, or that she’s eating kind of funny? These may be signs of mouth disease, and they may signal that your pet needs a professional dental evaluation.

Dogs and cats don’t open their mouths and point out their dental problems, but they can alert us in other ways. Bad breath, changes in the way they chew, excessive drooling, or loss of appetite are loud-and-clear messages that they are suffering and need help.

Bad Breath

If your dog or cat’s breath smells icky, there’s a problem. Bad breath, although common in pets, is never normal and indicates something is rotten. Common causes of bad breath, or halitosis, include decomposing food particles caught in gum pockets, oral tumors, and pieces of wood or cloth wedged between the teeth.

Periodontal disease is typically the root cause of this foul odor, and it all starts with plaque that accumulates on the tooth surfaces. If you don’t brush your pet’s teeth or offer veterinary-approved dental chews regularly, the plaque causes the gums to inflame and pull away from the teeth, creating pockets. These pockets catch and accumulate more food and bacteria, causing teeth to become loose and painful.

What should you do? If your dog or cat has bad breath, a trip to the veterinarian is in order. No over-the-counter product will cure the problem. Your pet will likely need a thorough teeth cleaning and polishing under safely administered anesthesia to remove plaque and tartar above and below the gum line. The veterinarian performs an awake oral exam first, then draws blood to perform laboratory work and check for any systemic problems. The pet is safely anesthetized using a tailored anesthetic protocol and closely monitored during the procedure. Anesthesia allows the veterinarian to conduct a more thorough dental exam and perform the following care:

  • Examine all tooth surfaces
  • Clean all tooth surfaces
  • Take dental radiographs to evaluate below the gum line
  • Clean out and apply local antibiotic to pockets
  • Treat any other problems at the time of the teeth cleaning
  • Apply sealant to decrease future plaque accumulation

These steps can’t be successfully done when a pet is awake and cause at least discomfort and more likely some pain on an awake patient. Pain control can be optimized with general anesthesia.
Some teeth and the surrounding gums will be healthy and not require more than cleaning and polishing, while others with early to moderate periodontal pockets will benefit from locally applied antibiotics. Those teeth that have lost more than half the bone support may be removed.

Once the mouth is evaluated and treated, and the patient wakes from anesthesia, you can take her home and begin a daily program of preventive care.

Oral Pain

Many dogs and cats suffer from oral pain. Some pets show their discomfort by chewing only on one side of the mouth, dropping food when eating, or rubbing their mouths on the ground.

Schedule a trip to the veterinarian any time you suspect your pet is suffering from oral pain. Some sedation is often necessary to perform a thorough oral examination and will also temporarily relieve the discomfort. Your veterinarian can treat most causes of oral pain in dogs and cats or refer you to a board-certified dentist to treat the cause of oral pain. The three most common conditions causing this pain are periodontal disease, broken teeth and tooth resorption.

Periodontal disease. According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, this condition affects more than eight out of 10 dogs and cats over the age of 3 because owners may be reluctant to brush their pets’ teeth or they are simply unaware of the need for daily preventive care. As with humans, it is suspected that the inflammation related to periodontal disease adversely affects the heart and kidneys. Fortunately there is treatment and prevention for periodontal disease.

Fractured teeth. Teeth can break for many reasons: chewing hard objects (such as antlers or horse hooves), car accidents, or fights with other animals. And trauma to a tooth (without breakage) can cause the tooth to die, turning it to a dull white or purple color. The pain from a dead tooth may be dull or marked. Even when a tooth breaks, pain may or may not be apparent to owners. Some pets suffer silently. Fortunately veterinary dentists are trained to use the same procedures and materials used in human dentistry to save traumatized teeth when possible. Check with the American Veterinary Dental College to find a board-certified veterinary dentist in your area.

Tooth resorption. Tooth resorption, or TR, is a common problem in cats, affecting nearly half of cats older than 3 years. Dogs are not as often affected. Once tooth resorption is advanced, it appears that part of the tooth has been “eaten away.” While the cause is unknown, the treatment is removal of the tooth.

To diagnose TR in the exam room, the veterinarian will take a cotton swab and apply pressure to the outside surface of each tooth. Any painful areas will require further examination. Fortunately, removing the affected tooth will alleviate the pain.

Happy, Healthy Mouths

Next time you cuddle up with your pets, listen to what they’re trying to tell you about their mouths. Routine veterinary exams, along with regular at-home dental care, will offer a better quality of life.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of HealthyPet magazine.

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