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Periodontal Gum Disease in Dogs: Causes, Prevention & Treatment

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Up to 80% of dogs over three years of age now show signs of some form of gum disease. Periodontal disease isn’t necessarily easy for pet parents to notice, so a proactive oral health routine, as well as knowing the early signs of dental disease are particularly important to know.

Here we explain periodontal gum disease in dogs, how it can be prevented and treated, and explain how this quiet disease can be potentially fatal for our best friends if left unchecked.

What is periodontal gum disease in dogs?

While humans will be most familiar with cavities and tooth decay being a key reason we visit the dentist, for dogs it’s slightly different. Dogs are less prone to cavities but tend to develop periodontal gum disease instead, which affects the tissue surrounding the teeth. There are four tissues that make up the surrounding area (called the periodontium). They are the gingiva, the cementum (covering of the root surface), the periodontal ligament (the ligament attaching the tooth root to the bone) and the alveolar bone (the bone that holds the tooth in place).

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What causes gum disease in dogs?

When your pet eats, bacteria in their mouth combines with proteins and food residue to form a sticky biofilm that coats the teeth, which forms plaque. Plaque is initially relatively soft and can be removed but over time if not removed, plaque combines with calcium, causing it to mineralise (harden) and form tartar. Tartar has a rough surface, which encourages more plaque to stick to the teeth. It’s the bacteria within plaque that begin to erode tooth enamel and causes periodontal disease in dogs. Tartar can form above and below the gumline and is very difficult to remove without a visit to the vet for a dental clean under general anaesthetic.

Stages and symptoms of gum disease in dogs

Stage 1 periodontal gum disease in dogs

In this stage, plaque bacteria come into contact with the gums (gingiva) causing mild gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), where the gums become slightly inflamed and swollen. At this stage you might notice your dog has red gums and bad breath (and will get progressively worse through each stage) - this is an early warning sign of periodontal disease and a good opportunity to head to the vet for a dental check-up.

Stage 2 periodontal disease in dogs

Vets commonly call this stage early periodontitis. With more plaque and tartar build up in the mouth, moderate gingivitis causes the gums to become swollen, red, beginning to recede and may bleed when brushed. Some of the bone supporting the teeth underneath the gums may be starting to deteriorate, potentially putting some teeth at risk of needing to be removed. These symptoms can be painful for your pet, so it’s best to see the vet as soon as possible if you notice these symptoms.

Stage 3 periodontal disease in dogs

At this stage, your pet is experiencing more severe gingivitis, bone loss around the tooth continues, plaque and tartar build up further and the gums become painful and bleed. The gums will have receded noticeably, and some teeth loosened. This is a serious health situation for a dog and requires advanced veterinary dental treatment for your dog to keep the teeth, although some may need to be extracted.

Stage 4 periodontal disease in dogs

Stage 4 is severe periodontal disease where tooth loss is almost inevitable. The tooth roots may become exposed causing teeth to loosen further. The health of the dog is also at risk, with high chance of infection from the mouth spreading to other areas of the body.

Is gum disease in dogs fatal?

One of the little mentioned reasons to take good care of your dog’s oral health is that poor dental hygiene can lead to heart disease and potentially a shortened lifespan of your best friend.

Plaque and tartar that builds up in the mouth can be riddled with bacteria. In cases of severe periodontal disease, bacteria can travel from the mouth via the bloodstream to vital internal organs. The bacteria can lodge in the heart causing endocarditis and/or valvular disease, which affects the heart’s lining and valves. While these conditions can be treated with antibiotics and ongoing medication for heart failure, it’s a serious risk to the health and lifespan of your companion that can be avoided by a good oral health routine.

The liver and kidneys are also susceptible to the effects of dental disease. Both organs function primarily to filter the blood, which allows bacteria from the mouth to easily spread to each of these organs. Infection and inflammation within the liver and kidneys can cause signs of systemic infection (such as fever, weight loss, and decreased appetite), while also interfering with their normal function.

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How to prevent periodontal disease in dogs

As periodontitis can be painful and distressing for pets and expensive for pet parents, prevention of periodontitis in dogs is vital. The following activities are positive steps for great oral health for your dog:

  • Daily tooth brushing, when done correctly, is the most effective way to prevent dental disease however this is difficult and often impractical for owners to perform
  • The use of dental sticks for dogs to help prevent and remove plaque build-up is an easier more practical way to improve your dog’s oral health
  • Regular vet check-ups to spot any early signs of periodontitis and start a treatment plan
  • If you notice your dog has bad breath, this can be an early warning sign of an underlying health condition. Again, see your vet for a diagnosis and treatment plan.

Treatment for periodontal disease in dogs

The treatment of periodontitis for dogs will vary, depending on how advanced the condition is.

For early stages of periodontal disease, daily tooth cleaning at home will be prescribed by your vet and will usually be enough to remove plaque build-up and prevent tartar from forming.

For stage 2, the vet will perform a dental scale and polish to remove the plaque and tartar. They may also apply antibiotic gel to any deep pockets in the gums to help resolve any infection

For stage 3, your vet will scale and polish the viable teeth, do their best to save any that can be saved via restorative procedures but will probably need to remove some teeth.

By stage 4, the only viable option may be to remove diseased teeth so that they are no longer painful for your dog and any infection can be resolved.

The information in this article was checked by ZamiPet Veterinarian and General Manager Dr Andrew McKay, BVSc, University of Melbourne, 2000. Vet Registration No: V3985

Disclaimer: This information is general advice only. Before starting any treatment or supplement with your pet, please consult your vet first for the best approach to getting your pet back to their best health.


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