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Why does my dog's breath smell so bad?

Posted 12 April, 2011 by Dr. Kelly Erickson with comments

Why does my dog's breath smell so bad?

Ever go in for the kiss your pet gives you and you just want to die? Or the time he sits panting at your dinner table and you no longer have an appetite from the stench?  I bet you remember when your beloved pet’s breath didn’t smell quite so bad and it was actually kind of “cool” to smell his little “puppy breath”? Well, here’s why:

Dental disease in pets is the most common cause of foul-smelling breath in animals. After all, they don’t brush and floss after every meal or even every day for that matter.

Dental care has become very important in maintaining a healthy pet. Many studies and years of research have shown that some liver, kidney and heart disease is the direct result of buildup of bacteria that are commonly found in the mouth of animals. Bacteria are attacked by the pet’s immune system forming complexes that help to “escort” the bad bacteria out of the body. These complexes are in the bloodstream which is filtered by the liver, kidneys and must “fit” through the valves of the heart. Often, these complexes become entrapped or caught in the tissue of these organs and build up over time, resulting in kidney, liver and heart disease, the top three reasons pets become sick, die or are euthanized. They cannot live without a functioning liver or heart and even though the kidneys can compensate because there are two of them, often they both will shut down and fail over time. Plus, the “waste” from these bacteria that live in the mouth produce the odiferous, noxious gas that you smell as the putrid odor of infection in your pet’s mouth, he is kissing you with….. He doesn’t know any better.

So what’s a pet owner to do? Brush, brush, brush. Yeah Right! That’s what your vet tells you and truthfully, it works. I know it is difficult but if you train a puppy or kitten at a young age that it is a necessary evil, you can prevent this buildup of plaque and tartar (which house bacteria stuck on the teeth itself leading to gingivitis (inflamed gums) where the bacteria enter into the bloodstream). Yep, daily brushing is recommended just like for all of us, however, pet toothpaste is a must because fluoride can make pets sick if swallowed). Ok, so there are “pet flavored” toothpastes like mint, tuna and poultry (seriously?) and some animals actually look forward to their tasty daily brushing. However, there are some animals that just won’t allow you to catch them, hold them still or even “think” of opening their mouths to stick a brush in it (cats….anyone?). What’s an owner to do about this or that has a new pet that is already an adult and never had its teeth brushed?
Relax, there are several options:

1) Start with a soft toothbrush or finger brush (cats) available here at PawsPlus. Dip the brush in garlic salt water and allow the pet to taste and get the feel of the brush in the mouth. This may take a few trials.

2) Start slowly getting the pet used to the feeling of the brush over the gums and teeth, just getting the outside surfaces of the teeth (crunchy food removes most of the tartar/plaque on the inside of the teeth). Five passes back and forth over all of the teeth is ideal, both top and bottom. Don’t forget the teeth all the way in the back, hence the longer brushes available for those Rottweilers and larger breed dogs with bigger mouths. 

3) If brushing is not an option, plan on at the very least getting a yearly cleaning. Your pet will be sedated and his teeth will be cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler (just like they use on us) and fine cracks will be polished out with high speed polisher. Dental xrays may be necessary to identify painful infections under the surface of the gums. Some infected teeth that are not salvageable will need to be extracted so your pet’s infection and pain can finally be cleared up. Antibiotics may be necessary prior to or following a dental to clean up infection, your vet will be able to help you decide what is best for your pet.

4) Once teeth are professionally cleaned, you can begin brushing your pet’s teeth yourself. Brushing when tartar and plaque are present won’t help much, you are only washing the surface that is covering the bacteria and it is impossible to get above the gum line in an “awake” patient without hurting the animal. Tartar/plaque is removed during a professional cleaning and often must be “chipped off” to remove it from the tooth’s surface. Many animals will not tolerate their mouths being messed with long enough to do a thorough cleaning, much less get in between teeth, above the gum line, and extract infected, painful teeth. Many animals have been physically injured while being restrained in “anesthetic free” dental services. 

5) There are some over the counter products that promise to remove tartar and plaque but they are not even close to being as effective as a full dental cleaning.  They may help some in animals that absolutely cannot undergo sedation for a dental cleaning because of life threatening diseases or problems that prohibit sedation, your vet can help devise a plan for this type of animal given its history, physical examination, and response to therapy.

Dental care is as essential to your pet’s health as it is to yours. When was the last time you had a tooth infection or cavity and how did it affect your life? Your pets cannot tell you it hurts, so they often have long standing, painful infections which can lead to more serious systemic problems such as weight loss, decreased immune protection, and don’t forget liver, kidney and heart disease. 


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