As a small animal vet, most clients I work with in the clinic do not look in their dog’s mouths. Which, I understand that is my job. But you guys are not like most owners. If you have interest in canine first aid and learning everything you possibly can about what you can do to be a proactive dog owner- then I know you will have interest in this blog post.
So, what can the mouth tell you, exactly?
SO MUCH! It can tell you about their hydration status, their blood volume and blood pressure. It can indicate when and if there is an infection brewing, how oxygenated their blood is, if they have a belly upset, and even if they are experiencing organ failure or a metabolic disorder. Plus, if you tuned into our blog post last week you already know that looking in the mouth can tell you lots about their oral health. And we aren’t just talking about tartar buildup and gum health either. There are certain cancers that can develop in the mouth. So, peaking in there on a routine basis is highly beneficial. It is crazy to think that some dogs only have their mouths looked in once a year by the vet. Especially now that you know and understand that taking a look can help you catch a disease process, condition, ailment, or cancerous growth early.
So, if you need more convincing on why you should be looking in your dog’s mouth here you go: Looking in the mouth can help you solve problems. Our dogs cannot verbally speak to us. They cannot tell us when they hurt when they don’t feel well or when they feel nauseated. Looking in your dog’s mouth can help you help your dog. But… you have to do it consistently and you have to do it while they are NORMAL. If you form the habit of looking in their mouths on a consistent basis when they are healthy, and things are normal… then you will be able to quickly figure out when and if things are off. SO, this is a very important concept to understand before we get started.
Next, looking in the mouth can help you advocate for your dog’s health. When you practice this concept consistently, again, you find things sooner. When you find things sooner you can bring it to your vet’s attention sooner. If you are out hiking and camping and you have this solid understanding ahead of time, you can seek help sooner or evacuate sooner when you think something is off. The importance here is being aware and proactive enough to know when something is off, so you can take action sooner.
Finally, the third benefit is that it is a quick and easy symptoms checker. Literally, 15 seconds is all you need to take a peek in the mouth and figure out what your dog is trying to tell you. It is as easy as lifting the lip and taking a peek, a feel, and perhaps a smell. If you have your senses and a set of hands you can figure out what is going on in one minute.
So how do you do this?
Well the first to note is hydration status. Pretty straight forward. If the gums are sticky and dry or tacky that could indicate a low hydration status. A healthy, hydrated dog will have gums that hold moisture. Pretty straightforward right?
Now let’s complicate things a bit. What about hyper salivation? This might seem a bit counterintuitive so bear with me. But a dog can be dehydrated, and the gums can seem moist because of hyper salivation. If you lift your dog’s lip and you note bubbly foamy saliva over his molars and the back corners of his mouth that could indicate that he is feeling nauseated. Again… friendly reminder that you should practice knowing what is normal for YOUR dog in order to be able to determine this. Don’t forget that your own dog is your best teacher!
Next, mucous membrane or gum color. Gums should be pink. Pale gums can indicate low blood volumes. Low blood volumes can indicate that your dog is losing blood quickly (acute)- for example from trauma or a bleeding internal mass. Pale gums can also indicate low blood volumes from a disease process where they are losing blood more slowly (chronic) over an extended period of time. An example of this would be a disease process that is making him create less red blood cells, or his immune system is destroying his red blood cells. Later phases of shock can also cause pale to grey gums. Finally, blue/grey gums and tongue can also indicate low oxygen volumes, as in a potentially obstructed airway.
On the opposite end, bright red or brick red gums can indicate an entirely different disease process. Brick red gums can indicate infection or excessive inflammation. Sometimes with severe or progressive heatstroke we can also note a change in gum color where they become very red. Finally, early phases of shock can also cause the gums to turn this brick red color.
Capillary refill time can be used in conjunction with taking note of gum color. To find the capillary refill time you simply depress the gum with your thumb and release. You will see the gum turn white from the pressure of your thumb. Now, count in seconds the time it takes for the gum color to return back to pink from white. Normal capillary refill time is slightly less than two seconds. Increased time or delayed CRT can indicate low blood volume or different phases of shock. Decreased time or a quick CRT can indicate infection or an early phase of shock.
Changes in the smell of the mouth can also indicate a problem. The obvious here is a smelly mouth that can indicate infected teeth (which is what most would think). However, a smelly mouth can mean so much more than just a localized infection in the mouth. It can indicate a bacterial infection in the stomach, disorders of the GI tract, organ failure, and even metabolic disorders. Keeping tabs on your dog’s breath is so important, and catching settle changes sooner so you can bring it to your vet’s attention is imperative. You most certainly don’t want to discover this when you are camping in back country and far from veterinary care.
So, in saying all this it is important to realize that you must check your dog’s mouth regularly, so you have a solid feel for what is normal for him or her. Without experience you cannot distinguish what is abnormal from what is normal over night.
Starting out, I challenge you to look in your dog’s mouth every day for one week (you should be brushing their teeth anyways!). After you have completed this week of daily looking then you may back down to once a week if you feel comfortable with your established baseline. Just make a mental note on Monday of each week to take a look around in there once you are done brushing. Get comfortable pulling the upper lip back on each side, looking at the insides of the cheeks, roof of the mouth, under the tongue, the incisors, and the gums. Gauging any tartar, gum color, smell, moisture of the gums etc.
It is imperative that you establish this baseline in the comfort of your home while your dog is healthy. I promise you this baseline will help you immensely in a stressful situation where you need to figure out what is going on quickly and take the next appropriate action step. Also, remember that the mouth is a quick fifteen second indicator with incredible value, however do not forget to look at the whole picture. Factor in symptoms, heart rate, respiration rate etc. Then you will have all the information you need to take action. And take the appropriate action.
The more work you do upfront the more comfortable you will feel out in the field. Preparedness gives you the confidence you need and practicing simple tasks like looking in the mouth gives you increased awareness. Increased awareness can help you avoid incredibly stressful situations and even avoid accidents or disease progression all together.
So, look in your dog’s mouth today and start establishing a baseline! And if you have any questions about your findings do not hesitate to reach out to me with questions or concerns.
And until next week, I hope you get out and explore more with your adventure pup.
Libbie Fort, DVM