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Why does my dog’s breath smell?

There are a number of reasons why a dog’s breath might smell, a condition also known as halitosis. Underlying illness, such as kidney disease and diabetes, can cause animals to have malodorous breath. Diet and food allergies can also lead to the development of halitosis. In order to determine the cause of any smelly breath, your dog should have a thorough physical examination by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause of bad breath. However the most common cause of bad breath in dogs is dental disease. 80% of dogs by the time they reach 3 years of age are showing signs of dental disease.

What is dental disease?

Dental disease is a term used by veterinarians to describe a group of dental afflictions which contribute to poor oral health. This includes gingivitis, periodontal disease, tooth fractures and tooth root abscesses and infections. Although ‘doggy breath’ might seem normal, in fact dogs should have neutral smelling breath, and any bad odours are likely to be due to oral disease or underlying illness.

How do dogs get dental disease?

A healthy dog’s mouth will have all white teeth with a pink, shiny gum line. Often owners notice this when they get a puppy, as their teeth will be glistening white. However over time, many dog’s teeth begin to stain yellow or brown with tartar accumulation and the gums can become swollen and red as gingivitis develops. This is not a natural process of ageing, but the result of bacteria and food building up on the teeth over time. If this plaque is not removed, dental disease will progress. Left untreated, bacteria will spread down to the roots of the teeth, causing loosening of the ligaments attaching the teeth leading to painful, wobbly teeth. The bacteria can then enter the blood stream, increasing the risk of heart disease such as endocarditis. This cascade of disease can be prevented with good oral hygiene.

Pay particular attention to your dog’s teeth if they are a smaller breed. As small breed dogs age, their risk of dental disease increases with periodontitis and plaque tending to accumulate on the upper and lower molars (back teeth). Brachycephalic breeds (i.e. flattened face as seen in pugs, French bulldogs etc) also tend to have increased risk of dental disease due to the poor conformation (shape) of their mouths and crowded teeth, making it harder to keep their teeth clean even with conventional preventative methods.

How can I prevent dental disease?

Similar to how young children are taught to clean their teeth, puppies should be taught from a young age to tolerate having their teeth brushed. The best way to remove plaque from a dog’s mouths is regular, mechanical brushing, just like with humans! This can be done with either a special dog toothbrush or a soft bristle human toothbrush, with or without dog toothpaste. Gently brush in circular motions over each tooth, including the ones right at the back. Doing this every day is the best way of preventing dental disease. If you struggle brushing your dog’s teeth, or you have an older dog who isn’t tolerant of brushing, your veterinarian can advise other products such as gels and water additives which may help oral hygiene.

Another option to encourage good dental health for your dog are high quality dental chews – the global Veterinary Oral Health Council lists dental products that meet standards for safety and reducing plaque/tartar.

What should I do if I suspect my dog suffers from dental disease?

Firstly, take your dog to your vet for a check-up. A dog with moderate to severe dental disease will be in pain, so it is important to seek appropriate veterinary treatment to help your pet. The veterinarian might suggest a dental examination and treatment under anaesthetic. This is where the veterinarian, under anaesthesia, probes each tooth, checks for disease, performs a thorough scale and polish (including under the gums, as this is where a lot of bacteria sit) and will fix any other dental issues such as fractured and rotten teeth. Just like in humans, regular dental check-ups can prevent worsening of dental disease.

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Updated on December 3, 2021
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