Does Your Pet's Breath Pass the Sniff Test?

Bad breath can be a sign of more serious health issues in your dog or cat.

Medically Reviewed by Will Draper, DVM on August 06, 2015
3 min read

You're a model dog owner. You take your four-legged friend for long walks, play fetch, read labels on dog food, and never miss a veterinarian appointment.

But you're probably not keeping up with your pet's dental care. A recent survey shows that while 57% of dog owners admit their pet has bad breath, only 6% schedule a cleaning to take care of the problem.

Here's why you should: Bad breath is more than just a sign your pooch needs a good tooth-brushing. He might have a more serious issue, like an oral infection or gum disease. In fact, more than 75% of dogs get gum disease by middle age, which can affect more than their tooth health.

To keep your pal's mouth in tip-top shape, follow these guidelines.

See your vet for a dental exam. Visit your veterinarian at least once a year for a dental exam (under anesthesia, if necessary) and complete dental X-rays.

"Only a fraction of the tooth can be seen on the exam," says Andrea Hilden, DVM, of Animal Care Center of Green Valley in Arizona. "The rest of the tooth is covered by the gums and bone, and without dental radiographs, a large percentage of painful disease processes can be missed."

If your dog has a history of dental disease, see your vet more often. If you notice bad breath, make an appointment immediately.

Set up an at-home routine. "Discuss with your veterinarian a complete at-home dental wellness care plan that includes brushing but may also include water additives, dental chews, specialized diets, oral gels, and rinses," Hilden says. "When it comes to keeping your dog's mouth clean, a multifaceted approach is often the most beneficial."

Brush as often as you can. Once you get the go-ahead from your vet, begin a tooth-brushing regimen (using a toothpaste created for dogs, not humans).

"Make it attainable," Hilden says. "If you're not brushing your dog's teeth at all, don't expect to start brushing all teeth every day without fail. You and your dog need to develop a routine."

Hilden recommends using a reward-based system.

Look for symptoms. Remember, any odor from the mouth, swelling of the face, drooling, bleeding from the mouth, discoloration of the teeth, chipped or broken teeth, or eating more slowly than usual are most likely warning signs of a painful problem. Schedule an appointment with your dog's vet right away. Whatever you do, don't attempt to brush your pet's teeth after you notice a problem, Hilden says, even if it's as simple as bad breath.

Dental care for cats is extremely important, says Cindy Houlihan, DVM, of The Cat Practice in Birmingham, MI. Here are tips to keep kitty's mouth fresh. 

See a vet twice a year. "Every cat should have a dental exam every 6 months," Houlihan says. "The earlier we detect and treat dental disease, the better the outcome."

Look for signs of pain. "One of the immediate effects of dental disease in cats is pain," Houlihan says. But since cats tend to hide their pain, most caretakers aren't aware of the problem. Look for changes like loss of appetite, lack of activity, sensitivity to touch, sitting on top of his paws, or acting withdrawn and hiding.

Brush daily. Start early in your cat's life, and be regular about it. Try brushing sections of the mouth -- brush the left side in the morning and the right in the evening. When brushing, look at the teeth and gums and tell your vet about any redness, swelling, bleeding, and cracked or broken teeth.

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