Gum disease in dogs

December 17, 2021 - 6 min read
Dog chewing on stick

Keeping teeth and gums in a healthy condition is as important for dogs as it is for humans.

Gum disease (AKA periodontal disease) is the most common health problem affecting a dog’s mouth. By the age of two, up to 80% of dogs already have some form of dental disease.

If not treated properly, the advanced stages of gum disease can cause chronic pain, eroded gums, and teeth loss. It can also lead to more serious conditions affecting major organs like the heart, kidney, liver, and lungs.

Not all pet insurance policies cover dental illness and disease. Our pet insurance policies include dental coverage for accidents and unforeseen illnesses, like those related to periodontal disease.

Why Do Dogs Get Gum Disease?

Gum disease affects dogs in a similar way to humans. When saliva, food, and fluids combine in a dog’s mouth, they help create ideal conditions for bacteria to grow. This bacteria forms plaque, which causes tooth decay and gum disease.

Dogs suffer from gum disease more than humans because they have more alkaline in their mouths, which leads to plaque-forming bacteria.

Bacteria use the sugar found in food to produce acids that eat away at the tooth enamel. Food containing high levels of sugar will help the enamel break down faster, which eventually leads to a cavity (or hole) forming in the tooth surface.

There are different forms of gum disease. Bacteria inside the mouth cause inflammation of the gums, and this mild form of gum disease is known as gingivitis. Gingivitis causes the gums to become red and swollen and leads to bleeding.

When gingivitis goes untreated, it can develop into a more serious periodontal disease. This affects the tissues that support the teeth and hold them in place. Gingivitis is considered by many to be the first stage of periodontal disease.

What Are the Signs of Gum Disease in Dogs?

It can be difficult for dog owners to recognize the early signs of gum disease, and when they finally do, it can already be advanced.

A dog may be suffering from gum disease if they show some of these signs:

  • A loss of interest in chewing or playing with toys

  • Loss of appetite or weight

  • Becoming fussier with food/preference for certain types of food

  • Blood in the water bowl or on chew toys

  • Loose teeth

  • Reddened or swollen gums

  • Bleeding gums

  • Bad breath (halitosis)

  • Chewing on one side of the mouth

  • Sneezing and nasal discharge (can be a sign of tooth infection)

Find out more about the most common dental conditions in pets and how to spot them.

What Puts Dogs at Risk of Gum Disease?

Poor oral hygiene increases the risk of gum infection in all dogs, and this is especially true for small dogs.

They are more prone to developing gum disease due to the small size of their jaws, which can lead to the overcrowding of teeth.

Small breeds that suffer more from dental disease include:

Older dogs are also more at risk of dental problems. They have weaker immune systems and are less capable of fighting off the effects of bacteria from gum disease.

What Is the Best Treatment for Dog Gum Disease?

Treatment will depend on how serious and advanced the gum disease is.

Dog Mouthwash

Dog mouthwash can be used to keep a dog’s oral health in good shape. It’s specially formulated for dogs so that it’s safe to ingest.

Dog mouthwash is helpful in minimizing bacteria, improving breath, and eliminating the persistent build-up of plaque.

Anti-Inflammatory Pain Relief

A vet may prescribe non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to deal with any pain caused by gum infection. Anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics will most likely be needed after any surgery that is required.

Antibiotics

Antibiotics can be used to fight tooth infection, particularly tooth abscesses that can occur due to periodontal disease.

Dogs with severe dental disease are often placed on antibiotics in the days leading up to and after a dental cleaning.

Dental Cleaning

Dental cleaning is a more serious procedure to remove the build-up of plaque and tartar. Your dog will be put under an anesthetic, as this is the only way to safely clean and remove teeth.

While they're under anesthetic, a vet can take X-rays that can reveal any other problems affecting teeth and bones. This is important when diagnosing periodontal disease because many of the symptoms are hidden beneath the gum line.

Just FYI: Preventative dental cleanings are not covered under ManyPets insurance, but they are covered under our optional wellness plan for routine care.

How to Prevent Gum Disease in Dogs

There are a few things you can do to fight gum disease.

Dental Checks and Cleaning

You should make sure you book regular oral exams and cleanings for your dog or cat. Having your pet's oral health checked at least once a year by a vet is important.

Annual dental check-ups might also be a condition of your pet insurance; if you don't have them, some providers could decline claims for dental treatment. (This is not the case with ManyPets.)

Early stages of gum disease will require the removal of plaque, but more advanced forms of gum disease may need some form of surgery.

Daily Brushing

You should aim to brush your dog’s teeth twice a day using animal-safe toothpaste. Done correctly, daily brushing and flossing will help remove most plaque from a dog’s teeth, but even a couple of times a week would be better than nothing at all.

There are special toothbrushes and toothpaste available for dogs. It’s helpful to introduce teeth brushing when a dog is still young, so they'll quickly get used to having their teeth brushed as part of their daily routine.

Our wellness plan can reimburse you for costs related to at-home dental care.

Healthy Diet

Don't give your dog too many sugary foods, as it'll cause bacteria to build up on their teeth.

Toys and Treats for Chewing

Dog owners can buy toys designed to clean a dog’s teeth as they chew on them. They help satisfy a dog’s natural desire to chomp while making their teeth strong.

These dog chews combine enzymes and chewing to actively remove plaque and tartar build-up from teeth and gums.

What Happens If Gum Disease Is Left Untreated?

Gum disease can lead to further infection of the mouth. Chronic periodontitis is irreversible and can result in tooth damage and loss, as the disease is characterized by the tooth becoming detached from the gums and socket.

Periodontal disease can lead to painful tooth abscesses; it should be treated quickly. Your vet might prescribe antibiotics, but in some cases, the infected tooth will need to be removed through surgery.

More serious illnesses can also develop from gum disease. Poor oral hygiene has been linked to health conditions like diabetes and heart disease.

Studies have shown that dogs with diabetes tend to have higher levels of periodontal disease. The more severe the periodontal disease is, the more serious diabetes gets. This, in turn, worsens periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease also increases the risk of heart disease and other organ damage. The bacteria in a dog’s mouth can enter the bloodstream; if their immune system fails to kill off the bacteria circulating in the blood, it can reach the heart and infect it.

Dogs Live Longer With Healthy Teeth and Gums

Healthy teeth and gums indicate that your dog is in good physical condition. Regular dental care can help dogs live longer, happier lives as they grow older.

You should combine a regimen of a healthy diet, dental care, and toys to combat dental disease. Examine your dog’s gums and mouth regularly for signs of disease, and arrange regular dental check-ups with your vet.

It’s important to remember that many pet insurance policies don't cover dental conditions. And even the providers that do offer some dental coverage usually won't cover preventative cleanings or routine at-home care — at least not through insurance. (ManyPets, for example, can help cover these items through our wellness plan.)

The bottom line: It’s vital that you take good care of your dog’s teeth and gums.


Digby Bodenham
UK engagement team lead

Digby is an experienced journalist in various fields but has specialized in insurance for more than six years. Before joining ManyPets in 2013 he was part of the editorial teams of various magazines, including Retail Week and Drapers. He has a degree in journalism and a cat called Potato.