Healthy gums and teeth are an important part of your dog’s overall health. Today, oral disease is actually the #1 health problem diagnosed in dogs. Therefore, it is important to understand your dog’s oral physical makeup and associated warning signs of gum disease or unhealthy teeth. Almost all oral problems are caused by bacteria build up in the mouth; it leads not only to bad breath but also periodontal disease, loose teeth, fatal heart, liver, and kidney disease.
Simple inexpensive procedures can be taken at home to prevent oral problems, determine if problems are already started, or treat and heal them. A dissertation of the dog’s teeth and mouth is first given before these actions are discussed in detail. Except for wisdom teeth, dogs have the same teeth types as humans: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars but their mouth, jaw, and saliva are dissimilar.
The incisors are located in the front and are the smallest of the set. There are 6 each in the upper and lower jaw. They are used for scraping and picking up things. Canine also nibbles at himself with the incisors at skin irritations caused by allergies and parasites such as fleas, mites, and lice.
The canines are the largest and used to grab and puncture whatever the dog is trying to hold such as bones, junks of meat or a foe’s flesh. There are 4 canines, one on each side of the upper and lower jaw.
The premolars number the most at 16 with four on each side of both upper and lower jaws. They are used for the general chewing of the food; as opposed to the 10 molars that are used for heavier grinding. There are 2 on the back of each side of the upper jaw with 3 beneath them on each side of the lower jaw.
Dogs are natural carnivores and therefore their mouth, jaw, and facial structure are different from humans whom are omnivorous. The dog’s mouth and jaw are much larger percentage wise to the overall head and facial size than a human’s. This allowed canine ancestors, including the wolf, to grasp, kill, and tear apart their prey. The upper and lower jaw basically only move up and down with very little forward/backward or side motion, the relative placement and shape of the teeth produce the shearing, tearing, and cutting motions necessary to efficiently consume the meat and bones that are their natural diet.
A dog’s saliva does not contain any digestive enzymes as human saliva; this attribute will become critical when we discuss procedures to promote canine healthy teeth and gums. Dogs do not need the digestive system to start in the mouth as humans since they “wolf their food down”; that is they grasp it, tear it, and swallow it quickly before their prey (mountain lions, bears, larger wolf pack, etc) or their family canine companions arrive to “share” the food. The salvia being very slimy acts as a lubricant to facilitate swallowing the un-chewed, undigested food.
With this background of the dogs’ oral characteristics let’s now discuss how to promote healthy teeth and gums which is so important to the dog’s overall health, longevity, wellbeing, and happiness.
First and foremost, you have to learn how to recognize that your dog and best friend is not feeling well and has some sort of health problem. This is much more difficult for dogs than your children, spouse, or close friends. Unlike most humans, dogs hide or do not display pain or discomfort because they feel it is an indication of weakness. The most common and recognizable symptoms of health problems in your dog’s mouth are bad breath, discolored teeth, tarter-plaque deposits on the teeth, red and swollen gums, loose teeth, and ultimately the unwillingness to chew and eat.
Bacteria buildup on the teeth and gums is almost always the cause of these disorders. It starts by growing on food trapped in the mouth after eating. This bacteria growth is the first kind of plaque that starts forming. It commonly forms in between the teeth, in the pits and grooves of the teeth but mostly along the gum line of bacteria now living in and under the gums. A biofilm forms on the surfaces of the teeth that is literally a mass of the bacteria. The mouth supplies a perfect ecosystem for the fast growth of the biofilm; it is moist, warm, has correct PH of 6 to 7, and contains nutrients that provide the necessary nourishment for fast bacteria growth. Early detection of plaque is difficult since it starts as a slime layer that is clear or white turning to a pale yellow only after an extended time. This is a very natural process and starts so quickly that it cannot be avoided or stopped from happening, but instead it must be constantly removed. This includes the layer on the surfaces of the teeth and bacteria that start growing in and under the gums. The bacteria can be variants of the strong and dangerous streptococcus strain, if left to accumulate it can reach a concentration that becomes extremely harmful to the overall health of the dog.
If the plaque biofilm is not removed it starts to mix with minerals in the saliva and calcifies becoming extremely hard turning into tartar; once this happens it is impossible to remove it by brushing. If not removed, this tartar layer which starts growing along the gum line forms pockets under the gums. These pockets provide an environment that promotes even more rapid growth of the bacteria leading to bad breath, red swollen and receding gums, periodontal disease, loose teeth, and very expensive veterinary dental bills. At this stage, the bacteria enter the dog’s bloodstream and can start life threatening diseases in the heart, liver, and kidneys. Eventually the dog will experience enough discomfort that they will quit eating and even change behavior towards other dogs and humans.
Fortunately all these oral problems are preventable. The key is to start early with a thorough and continuous oral care program. If you don’t begin early and problems are already present it is never too late to start. We have seen dogs as old as 10-12 years greatly benefit from starting an oral care program. “Rescue” dogs are notorious for having oral problems at an advanced stage benefit greatly from initiating a thoroughgoing systematic program. The fundamental principle is to achieve and maintain a clean bacteria free mouth, this can be facilitated by proper diet, brushing, oral sprays, or veterinarian cleaning with special instruments and procedures.
A good oral care program starts with visual inspections of your dog’s mouth. This should be daily but several times a week is sufficient. These inspections need not be an imposition, upsetting or unwelcome time for you and your dog. If possible start when they are a puppy but even older grouchy snappish dogs can be won over. Take play time or petting and bonding times to get your dog accustomed to you having your fingers near or in their mouth. Gently rub the gums for a few seconds that will set the stage for brushing.
By making sure your dog’s daily diet contains some sort of hard biscuits, dog dental chews, or raw bones you can help prevent and remove plaque and tartar formation. All natural and grain free products are the best. Chew toys can also help clean the teeth but make sure they are toxin-free and cannot be broken apart and consumed causing digestive problems.
As in humans brushing the teeth and gums is an effective means of combating plaque and tartar. Brushing is problematic for many dogs. As mentioned above you must be able to easily and comfortably work with your dog’s mouth. It has to be done at least once or even twice daily to be effective. Use as small as possible brush with soft or medium bristles. Do not use human toothpaste. Use plain water, commercial dog toothpastes, or make your own toothpaste. An effective mixture is baking soda, propolis, strawberries, & distilled water. If the taste isn’t suitable you can eliminate strawberries and add a little honey. Propolis is a very effective antibacterial agent (its health benefits are discussed in more detail below), strawberries supply malic acid to help whiten and also lowers PH that enters bacteria growth, and honey is good natural sweetener and amplifies all the great properties of the propolis.
The better solution is to use a dog oral spray that is formulated to eliminate the bacteria, soften the hard-calcified plaque layer, and work both above and below the gum line. An oral spray is much easier to administer than brushing and since the dog’s saliva does not contain digestive enzymes, once sprayed into the mouth it assimilates with the saliva and tends to work over long periods of time, especially if applied before bedtime. Ingredients to look for in these sprays are the following: peppermint, thyme, neem, grapefruit seed extract, grape seed extract, propolis, and chlorophyll. Make sure they are natural ingredients and “Made in the USA” is always a plus.
Peppermint is well known for its very potent and effective antiseptic and antibacterial properties. It was used by the ancient Greeks (1000 BC) and the Romans for its therapeutic and health benefits. England and the United States started commercial development in the 18th century. Peppermint contains significant amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin A and Vitamin C. This makes it one of the most utilized ingredients in commercial mouthwashes, breath mints, and toothpastes. Clinical studies and controlled tests have found it is extremely effective at killing anaerobic bacteria, the type of bacteria that thrive in a low oxygen environment such as the mouth causing bad breath, plaque, tartar, and gum disease leading to the loosing and loss of teeth.
Grape Seed Extract
Although grapes and wine made from grapes have been in existent since ancient times Grape Seed Extract (GSE) and its antioxidants properties were only discovered in the 20th century. GSE contains powerful antioxidants that recent clinical studies have shown to be effective in breaking down the biofilm formed by plaque. These antioxidants are 20 times more powerful than vitamin C or E and have been shown to be very effective in stopping the growth of streptococcus bacteria that is prevalent in oral periodontal diseases.
Thyme oil is one of the oldest known herbs being documented in the oldest existing Egyptian medical text dated 1550 BC. Its anti-microbial, antiseptic, antispasmodic and anti-inflammatory properties have been used by ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Jamaicans, Romans, and middle ages Europeans for treating bad breath, gingivitis, plaque and tooth decay. Thyme oil is up to 54% thymol which is a very strong effective and well documented antiseptic. Today it occurs in many well known toothpastes, mouthwashes like Listerine, oral cleansers and hand sanitizers which do not rely on alcohol. With recent concern about over use of antibiotics, thyme oil has been proven to be effective against staphylococcus bacterias including the potent and dangerous MRSA strain while not aiding in creating new resistant strains of microbes and bacteria.
Neem oil, also being one of the oldest medicinal oils, has been used by ancient civilizations for therapeutic purposes for thousands of years. It has potent antimicrobial and antifungal attributes. Multiple clinical studies have shown neem oil to reduce the bacterial level in the mount and eliminate or reduce the effects of oral diseases such as gingivitis, bleeding gums, and bad breath. A noteworthy benefit is its long history of no meaningful side effects.
Grapefruit Seed Extract
Grapefruit Seed Extract (GFE) has powerful natural antiseptic, antiviral, antibacterial properties, and does not decrease levels of beneficial internal flora. Compared to other plants and herbs it is relatively new being developed in the seventeenth century. In addition to its medicinal properties, GFE lowers the PH levels in the mouth disrupting the bacterial ecosystem slowing its growth.
Honeybees manufacture propolis by mixing resin from local plants with beeswax and pollen. It not only provides structural and sealing properties to the beehive but also provides protection from funguses, bacteria, and diseases from parasites. It has been used for therapeutic purposes for millenniums by ancient societies such as the Greeks and Eastern Indian cultures. Propolis has a wide range of antimicrobial, antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral properties in addition to helping the body absorb calcium promoting healthier teeth and bones such as the jaw. Propolis is being used more and more by the dental industry to fight cavities and oral diseases caused by bacteria. Propolis from New Zealand created by honeybees using the resin of the Manuka Brush has 60% higher concentration of the antiviral and antibacterial compounds than that from other regions of the world. This is one situation where it is recommended to use a non-USA product.
Chlorophyll is an essential biomolecule that creates the critical photosynthesis process in all plant life. It promotes improved health in many ways, including preventing infections helping wounds heal quicker, helps digestion, enhances the immune system, and helps cleanse and detoxify the body. It enriches the hemoglobin in the blood that in turn improves circulation and increases oxygen content improving overall vitality and health. As a key ingredient to an oral spray it helps move and absorb the spray into and under the gum line where it is critical to eliminate existing bacteria.
The best oral sprays will contain all or some combination of these ingredients. Even though they are all effective against oral problems they all work in unique ways, using different mechanisms, and at different rates. The oils enhance each other’s performance blending well forming a very homogeneous solution.
If after being on a good diet containing oral chews, daily brushing, and or use of an oral spray, the dog stills has bad breath, red swollen gums, and teeth with plaque and tartar, a visit to a veterinarian is required. They will usually anesthetize the dog and use ultrasonic means to remove the plaque and tartar. This is more of a ‘cosmetic” solution since it does not eliminate the root cause of the problem which is bacteria free healthy gums. Make sure they also treat the mouth with appropriate antimicrobial solutions. Once the teeth are cleaned a good oral program as outline above should be started.