Monday, April 5, 2010

Know Your Dog's Enemies: When Bad Breath Can Kill!

Fortunately, lately there is an increased awareness of the importance of taking care of our dog's teeth. I am not going to get into a controversial debate on raw versus commercial food here, nor am I going to try to settle what is the best way to keep your dog's teeth healthy. Let's leave that for another time.

What I'm trying to get across here is the impact poor dental care can have on your dog's overall health. I want you to understand that the issue of dental disease goes far beyond ugly looking teeth and bad breath.

When bad breath can kill!

This is a fundamental issue that many people do not fully realize. If your dog:
  1. Has bad breath
  2. Drools excessively
  3. Has discolored teeth
  4. Has red, swollen gums that bleed easily
  5. Has loose, broken or missing teeth
  6. Seems to have a sensitive, painful mouth
  7. Is reluctant to eat or chew
  8. Is often pawing at the mouth
  9. Is aggressive or seems to be depressed
  10. Has an abnormal discharge from tooth, nose or eyes
  11. Has digestive upsets…
then stick around, hear me out and find out what you can do to stop a silent, deadly killer in your midst. This killer seems innocuous but it is often the start of a number of diseases (even serious ones) which involve major organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys and the brain – and could even contribute to many chronic disorders of inflammation and increase the risk of cancer. So, have I got your attention? Good. Let’s take a look…

What’s the killer in our midst?

Did you know that simple ordinary gum disease could actually kill your dog? You’ve probably heard about it as periodontitis and gingivitis or just experienced it as plain old bad breath. Looking at the list above you may even be surprised to know that much of it is due to your dog’s (poor) oral hygiene.

Today I want to tell you about why and how cleaning up your dog’s mouth can lead to an infinitely more healthy beastie and more vibrantly happy life. Hey that means improving your life too, by the way.

Firstly, let’s start with you and a few universal (dental) truths!

It’s incredible that some people and animals enter a risky and even life-threatening situation if their mouths are not kept clean. Hey, you may even already know that. But firstly I am going to explain – in very simple terms – why this is true, so you really understand the gravity of this seemingly benign problem.

I think it would be very safe to say that we’ve all had bruises, cuts and grazes on many parts of our bodies. The body’s systems are truly amazing. Any infection that occurs is fought. Your body is able to mount an attack on whatever the antigen or foreign body is. In time, splinters are sequestered and released from the skin, bruises dissipate, cuts heal and so on.

The mouth however is completely different. Here’s why

When you have that infection in your body your immune system mounts an attack. It helps get rid of the aggressor and voila, everything gets cleared away (unless there are extenuating circumstances!).

In fact, look at your fingers now. You have finger nails. That’s no surprise. Actually a lot of people liken fingernails to teeth. But they are completely different in nature. This is crucial to understanding the importance of oral hygiene and its key to holistic health.

Your fingernails are part of your skin. They are a different arrangement of skin tissue. They are contiguous or an integral part of your skin. If you get a cut near your cuticle it clears up easily without any help from you.

Your teeth and of course your dog’s teeth are THE ONLY PART OF YOUR BODY that is NOT contiguous or an integral part of the surface. In other words, your teeth are really treated more as a FOREIGN body in your mouth rather than part of the gums and oral tissues even they form a vital part of the whole oral system.

What does this have to do with oral hygiene?

This element and its impact is absolutely essential to understand. When you eat food plaque colonies are established and food matter settles in around your teeth in your mouth.  To keep your mouth in tip-top shape you have to get rid of the food and the plaque. It doesn’t happen by itself. It needs your help. This is why MECHANICAL removal of plaque, debris and food particles is crucial to good dental health. If you don’t remove it then what happens next may really surprise you. Your body actually sets up an inflammatory response.

Because your teeth are NOT part of the gums but essentially a foreign body, in order to get rid of the problem your own body’s immune system has NO CHOICE but to set up an AUTO-IMMUNE response to the plaque and the food. It is TRYING valiantly to get rid of the gunk that’s forming in the mouth. It can’t do it without the mechanical removal so it does the only other thing it can.

So what happens?

The products of this auto-immune response actually starts to destroy the gingivae. This is the least severe form of periodontal disease called gingivitis. This is where you (or your dog) has bad breath and some bleeding at the gum margins. Ever noticed a little blood when you spit out after brushing, or even tasted a little blood when you eat something a little hard? Now, I bet you brush your teeth at least once a day! What about your dog?

If the contaminants stay in contact with the gums for a long time and they are not mechanically removed then the disease starts to progress even further. The disease moves from just the edges of the gums and so-called periodontal pockets are formed. This is where bone destruction starts to occur. The gums start to get more and more spongy, the teeth start to lose their attachment to the bone and the bone literally starts to dissolve.

This is called periodontitis and is essentially very bad news. It is the start of tooth loss problems. Now it’s impossible to get rid of all the contaminants without professional help. And you know how expensive going to the dentist – let alone your veterinarian – can be?

You simply can’t clean down into the pockets without specialized equipment. And when you’re talking about helping your dog, now you even need an anesthetic. It all mounts up and it’s simply not worth it.

What can you do?

Firstly you can take as much care of your dog’s teeth (within reason and ability) as you do of your own.

Today I just want to talk about the dental aspects of these disease states. I could enter that age-old controversial debate about raw versus commercial food here. But I will avoid that – for now! I will leave that for another article because it really is worth exploring.

Clearly it means that you have to have some systems in place to ensure you can MECHANICALLY REMOVE the plaque, tartar (calculus or hardened plaque deposits) and generally just keep the mouth clean.

Here’s what you can do:

Brush your dog’s teeth! This is not an easy thing to do but the earlier in your dog’s life you start this the better. Start when they are a puppy.

Feeding your dog raw meaty bones is another way that is believed to help remove plaque from teeth. But there is controversy as to whether giving your dog raw bones to chew on is either effective or even a further health risk.

Bottom line!

It doesn't really matter how you keep your dog's teeth clean, as long as you do.

So there you have it

I hope I have helped you understand that dental disease goes far beyond ugly looking teeth and bad breath.

Thanks to a real live dentist!

I want to thank my friend Gabrielle who has a previous incarnation as a dentist. We wrote this article together. Actually I met Gabrielle in another joint project. I designed her book on Hot Yoga. And it’s gorgeous (even if I do say so myself).

There may even be some hot or Bikram yoga lovers out there who are also dog lovers. So if that’s you, then you can find Gabrielle’s Hot Yoga website and get access to loads of free resources and even see ‘our’ baby (her manual) at


I want to finish up with a few definitions to help you understand more of the article:

Your dental glossary

This is where it all starts. Dental plaque is a soft film of debris, mucus and bacteria that accumulates on the teeth. Plaque can be easily removed mechanically, either by brushing or chewing (on raw meaty bones). Fighting plaque can be considered to be the first line of attack for dealing with the risks of oral disease.


If the plaque is not removed, it hardens and forms calculus, also known as tartar. Tartar is firmly attached to the teeth and can no longer be removed easily. The rough surface of tartar also encourages buildup of further plaque and it is a downward spiral from there.

Dental plaque and tartar cause inflammation of gum tissue, resulting in gingivitis and periodontitis.


The accumulation of the bacterial plaque leads to gingivitis. Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums/gingiva. It is a treatable early stage of dental disease which presents with red and swollen gums that bleed easily.

Periodontitis/Periodontal Disease

When inflammation spreads to other teeth supporting tissues, it is referred to as periodontitis. Periodontitis results in bone loss, loose painful teeth and teeth loss. Once bone loss occurs, periodontal disease can be controlled, but not cured. It must have professional intervention. Remember this can be super-expensive.

Dental disease can be very painful for your dog. 

This alone should be a good enough reason to take care of your dog's dental health. To get a full understanding of how extreme pain and suffering dental disease can cause to your dog, check out page 2-4 of Pain and Pets: Consumer guide.


Further reading:
Pets Have Teeth, Too!
Natural Veterinary Dental Care
Periodontal Disease in Dogs
How to Prevent Periodontitis in Dogs
Canine Periodontal Disease Can Lead to Life-Threatening Infections

1 comment

  1. Thank you for all that you do to help us help our furry friends! And my heart goes out to you over the loss of Jasmine... We all have that "Dog of our Life"...Mine is also a rottie, her name is Sonia. She is almost 8, so I know that my time with her is of the essence. I wish I had realized much sooner than I did what a great person my dog really is. She is my heart. :)