Gum disease in dogs explained

Everything you need to know about canine gum disease, including how to help prevent this common condition.

Gum disease in dogs is extremely widespread and research suggests it will affect most dogs by the time they’re three years old. Knowing what causes gum disease, and how to treat it, is key for keeping your dog’s mouth as healthy as possible. 

What is periodontal disease in dogs?

Periodontal disease is the technical name for gum disease. Over time, the bacteria in a dog’s mouth can cause a build-up of plaque and tartar, which damages the gum, tissue and bone that supports their teeth. It’s often invisible until the advanced stages, because most of the damage occurs below the gumline.

Causes of gum disease in dogs

Plaque naturally accumulates on our dog’s teeth. If it’s not removed by brushing, this plaque hardens and turns into tartar, sometimes called dental calculus. The bacteria within plaque and tartar can then cause an inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. If this isn’t dealt with, then the plaque and bacteria start to move further down below the gumline.

The natural defences of your dog’s immune system will start to attack the plaque, but this can also cause damage to the soft tissues and bones that support the teeth within your dog’s jaw. 

Gum disease can be worsened by a range of factors, including:

  • Poor dental hygiene
  • Misaligned jaw (malocclusion)
  • Breed (smaller breeds and brachycephalic breeds such as Bulldogs and Pugs are more frequently affected)
  • Genetics (it may run in dog families)
  • Advancing age
  • Diet – sugary foods can speed up the decline

Signs of gum disease in dogs

The symptoms of gum disease can vary widely. Some dogs may have very white teeth but end up with advanced damage below the gumline that’s only evident on X-rays. If you spot signs of gum disease in your dog, or you’re worried about their dental health, it’s always best to speak to your vet for advice.

So, what does gum disease look like in dogs? The progress of the disease is usually split into four stages:

Stage 1: Gingivitis in dogs

The first stage of gum disease in dogs, known as gingivitis, is a mild inflammation of the gums. Symptoms at this stage aren’t always obvious, but can include bad breath, bleeding gums or gums that look red and puffy.

Stage 2: Mild periodontal disease

At this point in your dog’s gum disease, some teeth have started to come loose from their sockets. There may be some bone loss evident on X-rays. Signs to look out for are the same as Stage 1, but also include receding gums.

Stage 3: Moderate periodontal disease

By this stage, up to 50% of the structures supporting the teeth have been lost. There will be clear signs of bone loss on X-rays. The symptoms at this stage also include more advanced gum recession, accompanied by loose teeth.

Stage 4: Advanced periodontal disease in dogs

Advanced periodontal disease (periodontitis) means that more than 50% of the structures supporting their teeth are lost. The bacteria from your dog’s mouth can also enter their bloodstream, potentially leading to a range of heart, liver and kidney issues. It could also cause jaw fractures, abscesses, fistulas and eye problems.

Signs of advanced periodontal disease in dogs include loose or missing teeth, exposure of the roots of a dog’s teeth, or pus around the base of the teeth.

Behavioural changes could also indicate gum disease in dogs at any stage. Things to look out for include:

  • Reluctance to chew toys or treats
  • Chewing differently or dropping their food
  • Signs of pain such as flinching when you try to brush or examine their teeth

Treatment for gum disease in dogs

If your dog’s gums are bleeding, or you notice any other signs of gum disease, book an appointment with your vet. The first thing they’ll do is carry out a dental exam. They may also take X-rays to see how far the disease extends below the gumline. The treatment offered by your vet will depend on the stage of gum disease that’s diagnosed. Early-stage gum disease can be treated fairly easily, but this becomes more complex as the disease progresses.

For mild cases of gum disease in dogs, they might just need a thorough professional dental clean, including below the gumline. This should be carried out under anaesthetic. For more severe cases, your dog may need advanced dental procedures and potentially extractions. Your vet may also prescribe antibiotics to clear up any infections.

What to do if your dog has gum disease

For all cases of gum disease in dogs, daily dental care, including cleaning your dog’s teeth at home, is recommended to prevent or halt the condition. Your vet can show you how to brush your dog’s teeth, and help you choose which products will suit them best.

Brushing your dog’s teeth daily is ideal, but most vets recommend a minimum of three times a week. Dental wipes, chews, prescription diets and oral rinses can also help minimise bacteria and reduce the risk of periodontal disease developing.

Annual veterinary checks are also important, and your vet will let you know when your dog needs a professional dental clean. Some dogs need these once a year; others, more or less frequently. Cleaning without anaesthesia is not recommended, as this can cause pain and doesn’t allow for any issues below the gumline to be resolved. If your vet finds there is gum disease, this may be covered under your insurance policy providing your dog has an annual dental check-up and any recommended treatment is carried out within six months.

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