What Can Go Wrong?
A number of things can go wrong in a dog’s mouth. Dogs are prone to getting lacerations on their tongue, lips and gums from fighting with other animals. They can get electrical burns from chewing on wires or cords, and chemical burns from licking corrosive household substances. Sticks, safety pins, needles and other sharp objects, including fish hooks and porcupine quills, can get stuck between teeth or lodge in the mouth or throat. In extremely cold weather, a dog’s tongue can be injured by freezing and ripping if it touches metal.
Some dogs have incorrect bites, meaning that their upper and lower teeth don’t meet properly. This is referred to as “malocclusion.” Bad bites can interfere with a dog’s ability to pick up and chew food. Misaligned or crowded teeth can injure the gums and soft areas of the mouth. Dogs can develop cancer in their mouth, such as melanoma and osteosarcoma. They also can get warts (oral papillomas) along their lips, which usually are painless. Painful tooth root abscesses can affect any of the teeth but most commonly involve the canines and upper fourth premolars. Loose and broken teeth are common in domestic dogs. Tooth root and gum infections can spread through the blood stream, causing a potentially life-threatening condition called septicemia.
How to Keep a Dog’s Mouth Healthy
Owners should open their dog’s mouth occasionally and take a look around, checking for sores, lumps or bumps, ulcerations, loose or broken teeth or inflamed gums. With the right tools and a little practice, an owner can keep his dog’s teeth, gums and mouth clean and healthy and its breath pleasant.
Diet and Treats
Dogs fed dry kibble tend to have better oral health than dogs fed canned or semi-moist food. Dry dog food is abrasive and mechanically helps keep teeth clean. Hard dog biscuits also help keep teeth and gums healthy. Some kibble is specifically formulated to prevent plaque and tartar buildup. Giving bones to dogs is somewhat controversial, even among experts. Cooked bones can splinter, although they are sold as dog treats at many pet supply stores. Cooked poultry bones are sharp and should never be given to dogs. Some owners give raw beef bones to their dogs; these are much less prone to splintering than cooked bones and can help keep teeth and gums in shape. Some owners give rawhide treats, with or without supervision. Chunks of rawhide can cause choking and intestinal obstruction.
Brush Those Teeth!
Dogs benefit from having their teeth brushed every few days, although daily brushing is even better. This should start in puppyhood, when the teeth and gums are healthy and so that it becomes routine. Adult dogs with periodontal disease will need daily tooth brushing.
- With What?
Toothbrushes and toothpastes made specifically for dogs are available at well-stocked pet supply stores. Finger brushes and longer soft nylon brushes are most common, but a terrycloth washcloth or piece of gauze also works just fine. Never use human toothpaste to brush a dog’s teeth. People can rinse and spit their toothpaste out; dogs can’t. The fluoride and foaming action of human toothpaste is unpleasant to dogs and can be harmful, because dogs swallow most of their toothpaste. Canine toothpaste is flavored for dogs and is safe when swallowed.
Many people sit on the couch or floor while brushing their dog’s teeth. Find a comfortable position. Put a towel under the dog’s head to catch the inevitable drips and drool. Dampen the cloth or brush with room-temperature water and toothpaste. Lift the dog’s lips, one side at a time, and gently rub the gums and outer teeth surfaces in a circular motion, paying particular attention to the area where the teeth and gums join (the “gingival sulcus”). It isn’t necessary to open the mouth and brush the inside of the teeth; a dog’s tongue does a pretty good job of keeping those surfaces clean. Talk to your dog soothingly throughout the process. A good belly rub and a healthy treat after each brushing will be appreciated.
Advanced Dental Care
Most dogs – especially Poodles and other small and toy breeds - need professional dental care sometime after they reach 2 or 3 years of age. A thorough dental examination, cleaning, scaling and polishing must be done by a veterinarian under heavy sedation or general anesthesia. Some dogs need teeth cleaning every year; good home mouth care can reduce the number of visits.