“Believe it or not, bad breath is NOT normal.”
People with dogs often joke about their dog’s stinky breath, but bad breath in pets isn’t as harmless as it seems. Just like in humans, bad breath is a symptom of bacteria and plaque buildup in the mouth. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that dental disease is the most common health problem in dogs and cats.
How common? Well, you can see early signs of dental disease in about 80 percent of dogs, and about 70% of cats over age 3, according to a 2011 report from the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
Symptoms + Complications of Pet Dental Disease
Bad breath may not seem like a big deal—until it progresses. “Believe it or not, bad breath is not normal,” says Rachel Szumel, DVM, small animal veterinarian in California. “If it stinks, there’s infection and inflammation in there and should be evaluated by a veterinarian.”
When pet dental disease progresses, it can lead to pain and bleeding around the teeth. Worse, it may eventually result in difficulty chewing and refusal to eat.
“I see many dogs with no symptoms apparent to the owner, but after I treat the extensive periodontal disease … the owner notices the dog seems much more spunky and playful,” says Dr. Szumel. “If only they could tell us that their mouths are sore!”
Risk Factors for Dental Disease in Pets
Neglected teeth will put any pet at risk for dental disease, but certain pet breeds are more at risk than others.
“Small dogs are more prone to dental disease,” says Sara Ochoa, DVM, small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and veterinary consultant for doglab.com. “They have very small mouths and teeth that are usually very crowded. This makes it easier for bacteria and tartar to build up on your dog’s teeth.”
This is especially true of small, snub-nosed dogs, such as Boston terriers, pugs, and shih tzus. “These breeds are also more likely to have abnormalities, such as retained [baby] teeth, impacted teeth, malocclusions such as an underbite, and teeth with abnormal roots,” says Dr. Szumel. “All these contribute further to the development and progression of periodontal disease.”
Small dogs aside, any pet with crowded or misaligned teeth may be at a higher risk of pet dental disease.
Preventing Pet Dental Disease
It may surprise you to learn that this very common dental disease is actually manageable, and even preventable. “The best way to prevent dental disease is to brush your dog’s teeth daily,” says Dr. Ochoa.
You can buy special toothbrushes and toothpaste just for your dog or cat. They usually come in flavors that your pet would enjoy, such as malt. In addition, pets benefit from an occasional professional cleaning, and some pets may need some crowded or misaligned teeth pulled.
Got a pet who resists the toothbrush? “There are dental chews and water additives that you can give your dog,” says Dr. Ochoa. Water additives for pets are often tasteless and odorless, and they help clean the teeth and gums to eliminate (not mask) bad breath.
“I recommend looking for the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal on any product claiming to provide a dental benefit,” says Dr. Szumel.
Otherwise, talk to your veterinarian: They can help you find the best brush and toothpaste for your pet. They can also provide you with tips to help your pet adjust to regular brushing.
For more on pet health, check out the 6 biggest pet health myths here.
- Banfield reports on state of pet health. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011 Jul;72(7):859-65.
- Banfield reports on state of pet health. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2011 Jun;238(12):1520-49.
- Cat nutrition from whisker to paw. Pet Food Institute. (Accessed on July 7, 2020)
- Dog nutrition from nose to tail. Pet Food Institute. (Accessed on July 7, 2020)
- Pet dental care. Schaumburg, IL: American Veterinary Medical Association. (Accessed on July 7, 2020)