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Five tips to prevent and treat dog gum diseases

Black dog stood in long grass looking happily at the camera with his mouth open
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dog gum disease is extremely common. Whilst the exact number of dogs suffering with gum disease is unknown, it’s likely to be at least 60% of the doggy population, and maybe as much as 100%. Gum disease is not only painful, it leads to other dental diseases such as periodontitis, which can cause tooth loss. Preventing gum disease is best, so let’s look at how we can stop dog gum disease from happening,

What is dog gum disease and what causes it?

Gum disease (properly called gingivitis) happens when the body’s immune system reacts to bacteria known as plaque that sits on the tooth surface. This plaque can also harden into tartar (also known as calculus), which shelters the bacteria and provides it with somewhere to stick to. 

With plaque and tartar in the mouth, the gums become red, inflamed, and sore. They may bleed and, after time, the gums come away from the tooth surface, allowing the bacteria to bury deeper - a disease called periodontitis.

All dogs have these bacteria in their mouths, but whether or not they go on to cause gingivitis and periodontitis is down to a number of things. Genetics, diet, breed, age, home care, and other factors all influence how quickly plaque will start to cause gingivitis. In some breeds, gingivitis can occur in dogs under a year old – in fact, one study of Yorkshire Terriers showed that 98% had one or more teeth with periodontitis at just 9 months old!

How can I prevent gum disease from happening in my dog?

Gum disease can start very early in life and cause severe problems. Prevention should start as early as possible and ideally should consist of several types of care. 

1) Brush your dog’s teeth

Brushing your dog’s teeth at least every other day has been shown to reduce plaque and calculus build-up, as well as help to heal any existing gingivitis. Learning how to brush a dog’s teeth and doing it regularly helps to physically remove plaque and prevents it from accumulating, and it also stimulates healing in the gums.

You’ll want to start as young as possible and start slow so your dog can get used to it. Use a child’s soft toothbrush, a dog toothbrush, or a finger brush. Dog toothpaste comes in a variety of flavors which may help dogs enjoy toothbrushing, although it may not make the brushing more effective. Make sure you keep this a positive experience for your dog – little and often is better than going all-out and scaring him!

2) Use doggy mouthwash

There is some evidence that using mouthwash for dogs reduces the formation of plaque and calculus, and therefore gingivitis. Mouthwash may be added to drinking water or included as a post-toothbrush routine as with humans. 

Whilst there are many types of mouthwash on the market, chlorhexidine-based washes have the best evidence in dogs, so get one with 0.12%-0.2% chlorhexidine if you can. You can look for a suitable product on the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) list of accepted products, which lists products that have some evidence of effectiveness.

3) Change their diet

Hungry dog looking at bowl of dried dog food

(Image credit: Getty Images)

Your dog’s diet can make a difference to their dental health too! Studies have shown that the larger kibble size in some dry dog food reduces calculus as dogs have to chew them more thoroughly. Diets with added sodium tripolyphosphate also help – this chemical prevents plaque from hardening into tartar. In fact, one study showed that dogs fed a diet developed for dental health every day had a 36% reduction in gingivitis compared to the dogs on a normal dry diet.

There’s also some evidence that dogs fed a home-cooked diet will have worse plaque and tartar than those on a commercial dry diet – even if the commercial diet isn’t specifically designed for dental health.

4) Feed daily dental chews

Many daily dental chews have enough evidence to say they’re useful in the fight against gingivitis. Research has shown that feeding a daily dental chew can reduce plaque, tartar, gum disease, and bad breath.

There are lots of dental chews out there, though, and some have better evidence than others. For the best dental chews for dogs, look for those that have the VOHC seal of acceptance in order to be sure you’re using an evidence-based chew. 

You should also take care with your dog’s weight. Some dental chews can be calorific, and cause weight gain. Always give the right chew for your dog’s size. The calorie information should be on the packet but, if it’s not, you can look the information up on the manufacturer’s website. Reduce your dog’s daily meal allowance by the same amount of calories to balance out the chew.

5) Get regular check-ups at the vet

Whatever you manage to do at home, remember that regular checkups at the vet are important too. Your veterinary nurse, tech, or vet will be able to examine your pet’s mouth for bad breath, gingivitis, and tartar build-up, as well as look for any broken, loose, or malformed teeth that might be causing a problem. 

It’s also important to realise that a thorough dental check-up is best done under anaesthetic, and your dog can have a scale and polish whilst they’re under to clean up the bits you’ve missed. Even if nothing appears to be wrong, annual cleaning under anesthetic is sensible, especially in at-risk dogs. I always say to clients “you brush your teeth twice a day and you still visit the hygienist, right?”

Conclusion

Dog gum disease affects 60-100% of dogs, many of them as young as one year old. It’s painful, and can lead to tooth loss. Luckily, there are steps you can take to prevent gum disease or even reverse it. If you have any questions, your veterinary team would be happy to help you. 

Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS

Dr Joanna Woodnutt is an experienced vet with an interest in companion animals. She recently left full-time practice to work as a relief vet and write articles about pets.