By Dr Daisy A. May MRCVS BVSC (Distinction), Veterinary Surgeon
As a veterinary surgeon working almost exclusively with dogs and cats, dental disease is probably the most common issue that I see affecting our four-legged friends. In fact, rather shockingly, data suggests that around 85% of our dogs suffer with some form of dental disease . Let me repeat that one more time, for those at the back: if you’re a dog owner, there is an 85% chance that your dog is currently suffering with dental disease!
And the most common type of dental disease that our pups are suffering with? It’s a nasty little something called periodontal disease, accounting for an astonishing 60% of dogs out of that 85% .
Not brushing your dog’s teeth will inevitably lead to periodontal disease, sooner or later. Periodontal disease is a progressive dental disease that starts with the formation of dental plaque and ultimately ends in tooth, gum and jaw bone loss. By the end of this article you will have a detailed understanding of how periodontal disease happens, the consequences, and how you as a pet parent can prevent periodontal disease from affecting your canine companion through regular tooth brushing.
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Of course, we’ll also discuss how often you need to brush your dog’s teeth to prevent periodontal disease, as well as explaining the science behind this frequency: that is, exactly why it’s necessary to brush your dog’s teeth as often as I say you should! Because I’m not just a woman with an opinion, guys: I’m a scientist, a doctor (dog-tor?) and doggy dental enthusiast of many years. Yup – I’m that veterinarian who keeps toothpaste samples in my consult room, and has a supersize wall poster showing what your pup’s pearly (or perhaps not so pearly) whites should look like.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of periodontal disease, it’s helpful to be aware that the speed of onset of periodontal disease varies significantly between individuals; some dogs will develop periodontal disease by just a few years of age, whilst others may not suffer with significant dental disease until old age. It’s well known that genetics play a massive part in determining a dog’s relative susceptibility or resistance to periodontal disease.
With this in mind, it makes sense that certain breeds are far more likely to develop dental issues earlier in life compared to others. For example, one recent study identified that Toy Poodles, King Charles Spaniels and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Greyhounds and brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds such as Pugs and French Bulldog are significantly more at risk of developing periodontal disease . So, if you’re parent to a poodle or the human carer of a Cavalier, it’s even more important that you brush your pup’s teeth, and you should absolutely aim to do this daily.
Yes, daily. Yes, I know it’s a hassle and yes I know your dog doesn’t like it. But with a committed and motivated owner, correct training and technique, as well as a little persistence, I’ve found that 9/10 dogs will eventually come to accept daily tooth brushing.
If brushing daily isn’t possible for practical reasons, research has shown that brushing three times weekly will still have some positive impact on preventing dental disease for your pet. Unfortunately studies suggest that brushing twice weekly or less is unlikely to have a significant positive impact on preventing periodontal disease.
To understand why it’s necessary to brush your dog’s teeth frequently, ideally daily, it’s first necessary to have a basic understanding of how periodontal disease occurs, and to know that the basic goal of tooth brushing is to prevent plaque from being able to turn into tartar. As any dentist will be keen to explain, the first step of periodontal disease is the formation of plaque. Plaque is a sticky, clear (colorless) film of saliva, food particles and bacteria that forms on the surface of teeth within hours of you (or your dog) eating a meal.
If brushing is not undertaken to disrupt this temporary plaque film, it will turn into a far more permanent, firm substance called tartar (also known as calculus) within a few days. This happens because saliva contains minerals such as calcium and phosphate, which are deposited from saliva into the plaque film producing the hard, mineral substance that we call tartar. Tartar is very firmly adhered to the surface of the tooth and cannot be removed even by brushing or flossing. Unfortunately, since tartar has a rough texture, it also provides an absolutely ideal surface for more plaque to accumulate on. Tartar additionally irritates the gums, causing or exacerbating gingivitis (inflamed and/or bleeding gums).
Worse still, our bodies – and your dog’s body – react to tartar by sending white blood cells (the body’s ‘defender’ cells) to the mouth. These white blood cells attempt to fix things by attacking the bacteria in the plaque. Unfortunately, the proverbial missiles (tiny biological meat-grinders called enzymes) released by the white blood cells don’t just destroy the bacteria present in plaque and tartar. They also destroy the soft tissues of the mouth, most specifically the ligaments that attach the tooth to the jaw, and in advanced cases, even the bone of the jaw itself. This is why tooth loss will always ultimately result from untreated periodontal disease. If you notice that your dog is missing teeth, this is a sign that very severe disease is present and action will need to be taken as soon as possible to try and prevent further tooth loss.
In the early stages, periodontal disease is reversible through dental treatment by a veterinary surgeon under general anesthetic. However, if left untreated eventually irreparable damage to the ligaments that hold the tooth in place will occur and your dog’s vet will have no choice but to remove the affected tooth or teeth. For this reason, catching and treating periodontal disease early is obviously imperative.
Better still, you can prevent periodontal disease altogether by frequently brushing your dog’s teeth to prevent the plaque layer from ever being able to turn into tartar. As every vet and every dentist will agree, when it comes to doggy dental disease, prevention is absolutely far better than cure.
- Kyllar, M. and Witter, K. (2005) ‘Prevalence of dental disorders in pet dogs’, Veterinární Medicína, 50(11). Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237729793_Prevalence_of_dental_disorders_in_pet_dogs#:~:text=Dental%20alterations%20could%20be%20found,)%20abnormal%20attrition%20(5.9%25). (Accessed 21 October 2023).
- O’Neill, D.G., Mitchell, C.E., Humphrey, J., Church, D.B., Brodbelt, D.C. and Pegram, C. (2021) ‘Epidemiology of periodontal disease in dogs in the UK primary-care veterinary setting’, Journal of Small Animal Practice, 62(12), pp. 1051-1061. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9291557/ (Accessed 21 October 2023).
Dr. Daisy A. May, MRCVS BVSc (Distinction) – Veterinary Surgeon & Passionate Writer
Daisy qualified with distinction from the University of Liverpool vet school in 2019 and has a particular interest in canine and feline nutrition and dentistry.
During her academic years, she completed a wide variety of placements, including a competitive final-year elective at Chester Zoo. Since graduating, she has hung up her zoo medicine hat and focused her attention on smaller patients.
Outside of the clinic, you’ll find her with her laptop in a shaded part of the garden, authoring practical and easy-to-follow pet care articles to ensure top-quality advice is available to each and every pet parent at the touch of a screen.
Connect with Dr. Daisy A. May on LinkedIn and explore her vast professional journey and writings.