Do you ever forget that your dog’s head is attached to the rest of his body? What goes on in your dog's mouth can directly effect the rest of his body. And your dog’s oral health is a big part of his overall well-being.
Today we are going to discuss oral hygiene and periodontal disease in adventure dogs. Because the mouth is often forgotten, and dental disease is a common and painful condition.
A good number of clients I work with seem to forget that periodontal disease is painful. And when I diagnose their dog with periodontal disease and tell them it is painful, I get a lot of push back. I often hear “well he eats just fine” or “he doesn’t act painful” or “he never whimpers or cries.” Remember that dogs, from a survival instinct will hide their pain.
And if you let your dog’s mouth get to the point where he is obviously symptomatic or painful then I can guarantee you that your dog has a massive infection in his mouth. This results in chronic pain, bone loss, and infection. At this point brushing his teeth is useless and we are going to be dealing with irreversible damage.
Why are we talking about teeth on an adventure dog blog?
The reason we are discussing this here in a wilderness first aid blog is because periodontal disease can affect your adventure dog’s performance. And dealing with a tooth root abscess that “pops up overnight” on the trail when you are days away from veterinary care is one of the last things you want to worry about.
Dental disease can be debilitating in people. In fact, they have dental first aid kits just for this very reason. Does your human first aid kit have a temporary cavity filling in it with some ibuprofen? If you are one that is predisposed to cavities you may want to consider it. That shit hurts. The day you have a tooth ache you are knocking on your dentist’s door. When your dog has a tooth ache… his symptoms are going to be nonexistent or go unnoticed.
Again, do not forget that from an instinctual stand point your dog may try to hide his pain. And realize that a dog’s symptom of pain is going to look very different from ours. If you need a refresher on this topic feel free to check out this blog post that I wrote on symptoms of pain that can go unnoticed.
What is periodontal disease, exactly?
We all have bacteria in our mouths. Genetically some have more than others. The same rings true for dogs. Bacteria accumulates and increases over time with age, diet, lack of good hygiene habits etc. When bacteria accumulates on the teeth and is left undisturbed (not brushed off by a brush or the tongue, chew toy etc) it provides an infrastructure where tartar can build and accumulate. As the tartar accumulates the gums can become inflamed and even infected. When the bacterial load and tartar gets to a certain point an infection starts. The infection can ascend up the tooth and to the root of the tooth. When the infection becomes severe enough it literally begins to eat away at the surrounding bone. This is when the tooth begins to loosen, and an abscess can form during this whole process. You think that sounds bad? What is worse is that the infection can spread to the surrounding teeth.
Have you ever had a tooth root abscess? It was painful for you wasn’t it. If it is painful for you then it was painful for your dog whether he complains about it or not.
What’s worse? Remember all the bacteria that is accumulating in your dog’s mouth? The damage doesn’t end there. That bacteria can go anywhere in the body it wants. Especially once it gets in your dog’s blood stream. It can go to his heart, his organs…. Its job is to replicate and spread. And if you don’t do something about it to reduce it or stop it will do just that- it will go where ever it wants and infect whatever it pleases.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of dental pain, again, are sometimes hard to spot and it sometimes can be confusing. As dogs get a bit older and start “calming down” you might find they are sleeping more. Keep in mind that they could be sleeping more because they are in pain. Lethargy is a symptom of pain. Difficulty eating, swelling over the affected tooth, and unexplained weight loss are also classic symptoms. Make it a habit to watch your dog eat. If he is drooling excessively, dropping food or favoring one side of his mouth this could be an indication that he is sore. Also realize that “dog breath” is not normal… at least in the sense that it smells foul or infected. Bad breath is the first sign that something is going in your dog’s mouth.
Who is at risk?
This can happen to any dog at any age. Usually middle-aged adult dogs to seniors. However, your dog’s genetics might predispose him to develop periodontal disease at a younger age. Toy breeds tend to have a higher risk, but I see Labradors, boxers, pit bulls, Shepherds etc with bad teeth at all different ages. This is why it is important to know what is normal for your own dog. Make it a habit to periodically look in your dog’s mouth (more on this in a sec). And…have you been practicing your physical exams?
Because of this slow (or fast) accumulation of bacteria this disease tends to progress over a longer period of time. However, disease processes are tricky, and they will essentially reach the "point of no return," if you will. Where your dog has been acting okay and all of a sudden… BAM! He starts showing symptoms. This usually happens when the disease has finally done enough damage to the point where your dog can no longer mask his symptoms… and he in turn begins showing symptoms of pain. To us it seems like it came on all of a sudden, where in fact it was brewing quietly in the background all along.
And you most certainly do not want this to happen to your dog when you are traveling, or hiking and you are far from veterinary care. A dog with periodontal disease might require a course of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory before surgery to remove the infected teeth.
Typically, they will feel much better after a course of antibiotics, however you must understand that this is only a Band-Aid. If we do not remove the source of the infection (the tooth) the symptoms will come right back once the dog goes off antibiotics.
One final point on this… Remember the unfortunate truth that dogs have a much shorter life span than people. So, in just 3-6 months things can progress and change quickly. There are some dogs that require dental cleanings every 6 months for this reason. Usually this is also because the owner is not doing any cleaning or oral hygiene practices at home to maintain the health of the mouth… which leads me to my next point….
How can you prevent this from happening to your own dog?
BRUSH. DAILY. No excuses! I have zero patience when clients tell me they do not have time to brush. It literally takes three minutes. If you have time to feed your dog (and if you don’t have time to feed your dog, you have no business owning one- dog ownership is a privilege!) … but if you have time to feed your dog then you have time to brush their teeth. I brush Walter’s teeth every single night before I feed him. The routine helps me stay accountable, and he looks forward to it because he knows he is getting fed afterwards. Brushing daily is the single most important thing you can do. Yes, greenies and other oral health treats are fine… but they do not hold a candle to brushing.
They now make water additives, wipes, sprays, and foods to also help with oral hygiene. I find that practicing a multi modal approach is best… but again, nothing can work as well as physically brushing your dog’s teeth every 24 hours. We need to get that bacteria population reduced, people!
Finally, it is a good habit to look in your dog’s mouth on a regular basis and take note of his oral health. IMPORTANT: MAKE SURE YOU PULL THE CHEEK BACK AND LOOK AT HIS BIG CHEWING MOLARS. Dogs love to accumulate tartar on their premolars and molars, and these are very important teeth for chewing. We often have to pull the molars in patients with dental disease due to calculus buildup, infection, and bone loss.
Also take note of the symmetry of the tartar buildup- if they have more tartar buildup on one side vs the other just know that they might be favoring one side due to pain.
So, do not forget that your dog’s mouth and head are attached to the rest of his body. If you are hiking or traveling with your dog and he or she has periodontal disease you might notice reduced stamina, weight loss, malnutrition, stomach upset and diarrhea, refusal to eat, and overall under performance. If we are exploring back country, we need our dogs to operate at peak performance and in the best possible health!
Feeding the best foods, acclimating him to the weather, ensuring he is properly conditioned for the trail are all important concepts – and it’s what everyone worries about and wants to talk about- however do not forget to look at the whole picture. A puzzle isn’t complete with one piece missing. Don’t let oral health be the missing piece, because the consequences can be detrimental.
Do you brush your dog's teeth? Comment below!!
Libbie Fort, DVM