Smelly dog breath? Here are 6 potential reasons why

August 4, 2023 - 4 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
Face of an old beautiful Irish Setter pet dog as panting in summer

Does your dog have bad breath? Sure, it could be those tasty "snacks" they keep nabbing from the kitty litter (yuck). But could it also be a sign of a deeper health issue?

Before you load up on doggie dental treats and toothbrushes, you should know what's normal and what's not.

Causes of Bad Breath in Dogs

As dogs age, especially if they don't have a great dental routine, their breath tends to suffer. In the next section, we'll get into the nitty-gritty of why.

Dental Disease

Bacteria, abscesses, and rotting teeth can really put a damper on your dog's breath. In the worst case, it can be life-threatening.

It all starts with gingivitis, a buildup of plaque and tartar around your dog's teeth. Left unchecked, this buildup can lead to Periodontal Disease, inflammation of the tissue (aka "periodontium") that surrounds the tooth.

Periodontal disease can progress into "Periodontitis," where bacteria wreak havoc on soft tissues and even the bone attaching your dog's tooth to their jaw. Tooth extractions are pretty common in this phase.

In extreme cases, the bacteria from Periodontitis can spread into your pup's bloodstream and cause serious health issues for internal organs such as the heart, liver, and kidneys. Yikes.

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Stuck Foreign Objects

We're willing to bet you haven't tried flossing your dog's teeth. (If you successfully figure out how to do that, we're all ears.)

Food that's stuck in your pet's teeth can start to stink. The culprit could be kibble, but it's more likely human food or other foreign objects.

Repeat after us: no fudge for Fido. It's probably also a good idea to brush up on safe and unsafe foods for dogs.

Dog with banana

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Notice a chemical or sweet smell on your dog's breath? Unless they just devoured a sugar cookie (hint: not safe!), it could be diabetes.

Dogs with diabetes don't produce enough insulin, and their bodies don't utilize glucose (sugar) in their cells. Instead, their bodies resort to breaking down fat for energy, producing a compound called ketones that circulates the blood. Untreated diabetes is dangerous. Get to the vet!

Liver Disease

Noticing yellow gums, vomiting, and diarrhea along with that stinky breath? It could be due to a buildup of toxins in your dog's body from a malfunctioning liver.

Chronic Kidney Disease (CKD)

Does your dog's breath have hints of metal or ammonia?

It could be a symptom of kidney disease. As your dog's body struggles to filter the blood of waste products, urea builds up in the bloodstream. This can result in bad breath, among other symptoms.

Oral Tumors in Dogs

As infections within oral tumors develop and mouth tissue dies, stinky breath often ensues. Other indicators of oral tumors in dogs include difficulty eating and drooling. See your vet asap; if it's a malignant tumor, it could be serious.

When to See Your Vet

Particularly if your dog's breath is suddenly rank or they're also exhibiting the following symptoms, get them to the vet:

  • Discolored, loose or broken teeth

  • Red, puffy, receding or bloody gums

  • Receding gums

  • Abnormal drooling

  • Reluctance to chew

  • Weight loss

  • Loss of appetite

  • Excessive drinking or urination

  • A sudden change in behavior

  • Lethargy

Even if it's JUST bad breath, it's better to be safe. And make sure you're taking your dog to their annual visits, where your vet will check on your dog's teeth. It's best to stay on top of your dog's oral health before it becomes a problem.

How to Prevent Bad Breath in Your Dog

Hide Unsafe Foods and Foreign Objects

Keep unsafe human foods away from your pup. If you have a puppy or a "counter-surfer," you'll need to be even more careful.

Popcorn kernels, bones, and particularly sugar-laden junk foods can create or exacerbate dental issues.

Brush Your Dog's Teeth

It sounds boring, but nothing. Beats. A toothbrush.

Regular brushing with a dog-safe toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush can really help slow and reduce plaque buildup.

Woman brushes dog's teeth with toothbrush,

New to dog tooth brushing? Try building up slowly. Use a finger brush or a paper towel wrapped around your finger to dab pet-safe toothpaste over its teeth.

Keep sessions short and positive. Over time, your dog should get used to it. They might even get excited (don't crush our dreams)!

Supplement With Dental Chews

Again, there is really nothing that comes close to the effectiveness of dog-safe toothpaste and toothbrushes used properly. But if you can't see that happening with your pup, it might be worth looking into some alternative strategies.

“In some cases, your safety and your dog’s stress will be limiting factors when it comes to tooth brushing, meaning you may need to resort to other methods of preventative dental health,” says Dr. Kirsten Ronngren, DVM, MRCVS

Opt for products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) Seal of Acceptance, which have been shown to be particularly effective.

Make Your Annual Vet Visit a Priority

Regular checkups are at the forefront of this to spot any problems and nip them in the bud. Your vet can also offer advice on how to combat any problems that might start rearing their ugly (bacterial) heads.

Face of an old beautiful Irish Setter pet dog as panting in summer

Depending on the current state of your dog's teeth, your vet might recommend a full dental cleaning under anesthesia at their clinic, which is the gold standard for treating periodontal disease.

Feed Your Dog a Healthy Diet

A well-balanced diet can be helpful for your dog’s breath and is crucial for their overall health. Your vet can offer tailored dietary recommendations to support your dog’s individual health requirements.

How Pet Insurance May Help

No, we won't show up at your door to brush your dog's teeth every day (sorry!). But we will give you as many tips as we can, and one of those tips is to get a dog insurance policy that can help with unexpected vet dental bills that can put a "dent" in your budget (bad joke, we know). 

Keep in mind that pet health insurance policies never cover all aspects of dental care. Some companies will cover accident-related dental treatments only, while others (including ManyPets!) will cover qualified dental treatments* stemming from both accidents and illnesses. Remember, it’s crucial to stay on top of your dog’s everyday dental care to ensure you’re covered when accidents arise.

Our second tip? Look into getting a non-insurance Wellness Plan that may reimburse you for qualified preventative dental care expenses, so you can enjoy a (hopefully) brighter and less stinky future with your pup.

Leanna Zeibak
Content Manager

Leanna Zeibak is a Content Manager at ManyPets. In her spare time, she paints pet portraits and bakes far too many chocolate chip cookies.