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Bad breath in dogs: causes and cures

Updated on September 16, 2014

What causes bad breath in dogs?

Bad breath (halitosis) is usually caused by the actions of bacteria in the mouth. In a healthy dog's mouth the smooth surfaces of the tooth crowns, the abrasive forces of chewing, and antibacterial properties of saliva combine to maintain good oral health and prevent an overgrowth of bacteria. However, in certain situations, bacteria in the mouth may multiply, producing gases which cause bad breath in dogs. Bacteria may also contribute to plaque formation, a smelly film which coats the teeth. Your dog's dental plaque is soft and may be removed by tooth brushing or chewing. Dietary additives are also available to reduce or prevent plaque formation.

Over time plaque becomes mineralized resulting in the accumulation of tartar, which is not easily removed from the dog's teeth. Tartar accumulation with bacterial infection eventually leads to periodontal disease, a condition in which the attachments of the tooth to the jaw begin to be lost, resulting in gum disease, tooth loss, bacterial invasion of the bloodstream, osteomyelitis (infection of the jawbone itself), and occasionally pathological fracture of the jaw. As in humans, poor dental health is associated with poor general health and reduced life expectancy.

Tartar deposits and gingival pockets created by periodontal disease may also trap food, plant material, and hair. Decay of these substances often also contributes to the foul smell in a dog with bad breath.

Bad breath in dogs can also be caused by other systemic problems. Consult your veterinarian if your dog is unwell, not eating, drinking excessively, or suffering from signs of stomach upset.

Periodontal disease in a dog

Bad breath in dogs occurs due to bacterial decay in the mouth
Bad breath in dogs occurs due to bacterial decay in the mouth

Other causes of bad breath in dogs

Although dental disease is the usual cause of bad breath, other conditions can also play a role. For example, kidney failure may result in oral ulceration, tooth loss, and a malfunctioning immune system, all of which predispose to bad breath. This should be suspected if your dog is older, losing weight, or drinking excessively, and will require veterinary attention.

Dogs with severe respiratory infections (especially after inhaling foreign bodies such as grass awns) may have bad breath, but respiratory signs usually predominate, with coughing and shallow rapid breathing often being a feature. Gastrointestinal disorders, causing maldigestion of food and possibly vomiting and diarrhea can cause halitosis in pets by allowing bacterial overgrowth. Impacted anal glands (scent glands located underneath the dog's tail) can also give your dog an offensive 'fishy' odor to his breath if he has been trying to relieve discomfort by licking at them.

What can I do about my dog's bad breath?

Any dog with significant accumulations of tartar or that has periodontal disease will need to first be treated by a veterinarian. Any of the treatments described below will not be effective if you, the owner, are not working on a clean mouth. Your dog's tartar is impenetrable to dental treatments, and needs to be removed to allow good dental hygiene practices.

There are now a good range of dental care options for dogs. Which treatment or treatments you choose may depend on your dog's temperament as well as your own ability to commit time and effort to your dog's oral hygiene.

Diet

One of the most effective ways of keeping your dog's mouth healthy is also the simplest. Chewing creates abrasive forces on the surfaces of your dog's teeth that wipe away accumulations of plaque, as well as stimulating blood flow and promoting healthy gums. Unfortunately, some of our pets are not too keen on working hard for their food, and toy breeds in particular may insist on soft foods and refuse point-blank to eat anything that requires much chewing. This in turn can lead to nutritional imbalances later in life.

Certain treats and chews are designed to simulate a brushing action on the teeth and can aid good dental hygiene. They should of course be fed in moderation.

Dental chews

GREENIES Dental Dog Treats, Regular, Original Flavor, 27 Treats, 27 oz.
GREENIES Dental Dog Treats, Regular, Original Flavor, 27 Treats, 27 oz.

Of all the dental chews available, Greenies are the ones most recommended by veterinarians

 

Toothbrushing

As a veterinarian, I advise all my dog owners to brush their dog's teeth. Toothbrushing combined with a good diet are the most effective steps to prevent dental disease and bad breath in dogs. Unless you have a dog that is likely to take your fingers off if they pass his lips, I would strongly encourage you to attempt to introduce this healthy habit, no matter what your dog's age. It is essential to use a toothpaste designed for dogs that will not taste offensive to him or cause him to vomit if he swallows it, and to use a rush appropriate to the size of your pet's mouth. When beginning to brush a dog's teeth, remember to be patient and introduce the toothbrush and the dog toothpaste in a step-by-step manner at a pace your dog is happy with.

It is important to note that brushing your dog's teeth is only beneficial if you are able to do it every day. Several studies have shown that brushing less frequently than this is of little or no benefit to your dog.

See the video below for toothbrushing technique.

Dog bad breath poll

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How to brush your dog's teeth

Dietary additives

There are a number of supplements which have become available relatively recently which help prevent bad breath in dogs by promoting the antibacterial action of saliva, penetrating the dental plaque and killing the microbes responsible for tartar formation and halitosis. They will not remove pre-existing tartar deposits. These supplements are the best option available for dog owners that do not have the time to commit to daily brushing of their dog's teeth, particularly for people that own more than one dog, and also in cases where the owner may not feel safe brushing their dog's teeth.

Of the products available, PlaqueOff is the additive I have found to be the most useful and well-accepted by my canine patients. It originated as a human dental treatment after being discovered by chance by a Swedish dentist who noticed a sudden improvement in a patient that had had long term dental problems. The patient had begun to eat a certain type of seaweed over this time, and research subsequently proved that this was the reason for the reduction in plaque build up.

When using the product in dogs, there is usually a noticeable improvement in the smell of the dog's breath after about 3-4 weeks, and over a prolonged period of time there is far less tartar build-up in dogs using this food additive.

As with any other method of maintaining your dog's dental health, it is essential that you continue to use PlaqueOff long term as part of a routine healthcare regime.

PlaqueOff

Proden PlaqueOff Dental Care for Dogs and Cats, 180gm
Proden PlaqueOff Dental Care for Dogs and Cats, 180gm

Made using a seaweed extract, PlaqueOff is a very effective natural means of treating or preventing bad breath in your dog

 

Dental antiseptic gels

There are a few antiseptic gels available which are applied directly to your dog's gumline. As with the additives described above, they aim to act on plaque bacteria to prevent tartar formation. They are somewhat effective, but I don't believe they persist long enough in the mouth to act over 24 hours, and I have seen patients continue to develop large accumulations of tartar while their owners were applying these treatments. They are more convenient than toothbrushing and toothpaste as they are applied very quickly, but they still require you to be able to put your fingers in your dog's mouth.

Fresh breath and a healthy smile

With a bit of effort, your dog's breath can become inoffensive and his health will improve
With a bit of effort, your dog's breath can become inoffensive and his health will improve

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