Periodontal disease is the medical name for inflammatory gum disease in dogs. It is characterised by an inflammation of the deep structures that support the teeth within the gum. Sadly, it is extremely common and some studies have estimated that over 80 % of dogs have some form of periodontal disease. This is partly because they have very alkaline saliva which encourages the formation of plaque eventually leading to disease. It is also partly due to the fact that they do not naturally brush their teeth and so the plaque hangs around for hours.
The older your dog, the more likely they are to develop gum disease. It is also more common in the toy breeds because the jaws are smaller and so the teeth are crowded and harder to keep clean. Excessive grooming and poor nutrition are further risk factors.
However, the good news is that there is plenty that an owner can do to prevent it and save their pooch from a lot of pain and discomfort.
What Causes Periodontal Disease?
When a dog eats, the food particles tend to accumulate at the gumline – this is where the teeth meet the gums. They combine with saliva to form a sticky film and that is called plaque.
Plaque causes two problems for the gums. Firstly, the plaque combines with minerals to form a harder substance called calculus. This irritates the gum and causes it to become swollen and red (inflammation). If you notice that your dog has red patches on the gums where they meet the teeth, this is an indication that they are developing gum diseases. If nothing is done, the calculus will continue to build up under the gum which causes it to separate from the teeth. The spaces that are formed provide more opportunities for bacterial growth and pus is often produced. At this stage, it is not possible to reverse the damage and the next step is further tissue and bone loss.
Secondly, plaque provides an ideal environment for bacteria (commonly Streptococcus and Actinomyces) to thrive. Your dog’s immune system recognises that the bacteria are a threat and tries to fight them off by sending white blood cells to attack them. The white blood cells release enzymes to attack the bacteria but the enzymes also break down gum tissue which becomes inflamed. In severe cases, the gum tissue is completely destroyed and the bone becomes damaged too. At this stage, the loss of teeth becomes inevitable.
Symptoms of Periodontal Disease
The problem with periodontal disease is that there are no symptoms, to begin with. Dogs have a strong survival instinct that stops them from showing that they are in pain. It is a sign of weakness in animals and in the wild, it would make them vulnerable to attack by predators and other dogs. Sadly, it means that owners are often not aware that there is a problem until the disease is very advanced.
These are some of the first symptoms that you may notice:
- Redness of the gums
- Bleeding gums or blood on toys or in the feeding bowl
- Teeth falling out or loose teeth
- Problems picking up food or avoiding eating
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Ropey saliva streaked with blood
- Avoiding contact with the head
- Sneezing and nasal discharge which indicates the infection has reached the nasal and oral cavity
There are also serious complications that can occur. Dogs with untreated gum disease are more likely to develop heart, liver and kidney disease. Also, the jaw bone can become so damaged that a pathological jaw fracture occurs. Small dogs with delicate jaw bones are especially vulnerable.
There are several stages of periodontal disease. It usually starts in just one tooth but progresses to affect the others.
One or more teeth are affected and the gums will be inflamed but there is no separation between the gums and the teeth.
The disease has progressed causing periodontal cavities between the gums and teeth but no bone is involved.
The periodontal cavities go deeper than 5 mm and there is bone involvement.
This is advanced periodontitis and more than half of the jaw bone is affected. The gums are usually receding and the roots of the teeth are exposed.
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Getting a Diagnosis and Treatment
If you suspect that your dog has periodontal disease it is vital that you see your vet right away. There will be a close examination of your dog’s mouth. If a gap of greater than two millimeters is found between the gum and any tooth, a diagnosis of periodontal abnormality can be made. X-rays will probably be needed to confirm the extent of the damage.
Treatment will depend on how advanced the disease is. In the beginning, plaque control and prevention may be sufficient. Daily brushing with a special dog toothpaste as well as professional cleaning will help to stop the disease progressing.
In stage 2 or 3 periodontal diseases, the space between the gum and teeth needs cleaning and an antibiotic gel needs to be applied to encourage the damaged tissue to repair. Treatment for the more advanced stages is more radical and guided tissue regeneration, bone replacement procedures and periodontal splinting may be needed.
Following the initial diagnosis, your dog will need on-going good dental hygiene at home and regular check-ups at the vet. The sooner the disease is diagnosed and treated, the better the prognosis.
Preventing Periodontal Disease
It is your job to do as much as you can to protect your dog’s dental health. You should:
- Take your dog in for regular dental examinations. Their teeth may need a professional clean. They may also need x-rays.
- Brush your dog’s teeth every day. Be patient and use a special dog toothpaste. Most dogs at least tolerate this daily routine and some actually enjoy it!
- Watch your dog’s diet. Food that actively scrubs the plaque off the teeth is very useful for prevention. Some foods have additives that prevent plaque from hardening. Your vet can advise further.
- Offer safe toys and treats. Chewing on tooth-friendly treats is helpful. Rubber balls and toys and thin rawhide strips are perfect.
With careful dental hygiene and regular trips to the vet, periodontal disease is one of the doggy conditions that you can avoid.
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