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Ask the Vet: Bad Breath by Stefanie Wong, DVM
January 10, 2017

Why does my pet’s breath smell bad?

In this article, we will be focusing on the most common cause of bad breath, which is dental disease.  However, as you will see as you read on, bad breath is often only the tip of the iceberg!

Did you know that 85% of dogs and cats have periodontal disease (dental disease affecting the supportive structures of the tooth) by the time they are three years old?

How it starts:

As your pet eats, the bacteria within the mouth forms plaque, which adheres itself to the surface of the tooth. You or I would simply brush this plaque away before it became a problem. However that is not the case with the majority of our pets. Over the next three days that plaque becomes hard tartar or calculus, which is much more challenging to get rid of.

If you lift up the gum of your pet you can evaluate their teeth for plaque and tartar. Compare the two pictures below. The picture of the left is a healthy mouth. The picture on the right is a dog with severe plaque and tartar accumulation.

image source:

The biggest problem is not what can be seen with the naked eye however. Rather, it's what hiding below. Often if given enough time, these thousands of tiny little bacteria will travel below the gumline. When this happens, two things result:

  • Bacteria set in motion a process that “eats away” the supporting tissues around the tooth which in turn leads to bone loss as well as infection of the tooth root (also known as a tooth root abscess).

Note the bone loss (white = bone) around the tooth as well as a very large tooth root abscess (pocket of infection surrounding the root or bottom tip of the tooth). image sourece:

  • Bacteria have easy access to the bloodstream where they are carried to other organs within the body. Dogs with severe periodontal disease have been shown to have more severe microscopic damage to their heart, kidneys and liver than their counterparts with less periodontal disease. 

How is periodontal disease treated?

The good news about periodontal disease is that it is 100% preventable as long as preventative care is started early. Regular brushing (daily if you can, ideally every 3 days to prevent that plaque from turning into tartar) is the gold standard. If your schedule or pet does not allow this, we then recommend either changing their diet (i.e. to Hill’s t/d) or adding in treats (i.e. CET dental rawhides). Both of these will remove plaque by mechanical friction.

When do we recommend a dental cleaning?

If your pet’s teeth have severe tartar accumulation, that build-up is too widespread and too firmly adhered to the tooth to be removed by a toothbrush, diet or treats. A dental cleaning is the best way to get your pet back to a clean slate. 

Dental cleanings are performed under general anesthesia, because that is the only way to thoroughly clean below and above the gumline. We can’t ask dogs and cats to sit still while we use explorers to probe around their teeth and underneath their gumlines (which is part of a thorough and complete dental cleaning).

During your pet's dental, we will do a thorough oral exam, probe around the teeth for any pocketing, take x-rays if needed, clean the teeth with an ultrasound scaler and then polish them to leave a smooth surface (which is harder for plaque to adhere to).

There are risks with general anesthesia, but at Bishop Ranch Veterinary Center & Urgent Care we work hard to keep that risk as low as possible. We run pre-operative bloodwork and monitor your pet closely – continuously measuring their heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. If anything is even trending in the wrong direction, we take steps to immediately correct it. 

What about dental cleanings that don't need anesthesia?

We have seen an increase in businesses offering awake or non-anesthetic dental cleanings. The most important thing to know is that with these non-anesthetic dental cleanings they are only cleaning above the gumline. This does nothing for the bacteria beneath the gumline, where the majority of the disease hides. Furthermore, no polishing is performed, which leaves a rough surface that plaque can easily adhere to down the road. In general, we do not recommend these dental cleanings.  

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