How to Recognize if It's More Than Just Bad Breath



Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs

Owners can be very diligent when it comes to attending to the needs of their pets. They want to feed them the best quality food; ensure they have lots of entertaining toys; take them for regular walks or, in the case of cats, encourage them to gets lots of exercise; brush them regularly to help maintain their coat, or take them to be groomed. One aspect of daily care, though, that is often overlooked, is attention to what is happening inside the mouth.

A dog or cat might be middle-aged before an owner even thinks about the mouth and usually, the trigger factor is the horrific breath that emanates from the mouth when an owner wants to snuggle. This so-called “halitosis” is a strong indication that all is not well inside their mouth. There are numerous potential causes of the bad breath and none of them are good. There may be infected ulcers inside the mouth; there might be a foreign body – like a stick caught between the canine teeth (fangs); there might be an abnormal growth that is beginning to fester; but most commonly, the cause relates to infected or diseased gums and teeth.

Most owners are acutely aware of the medical need to brush their own teeth multiple times a day and to floss at least once. Part of this regime is driven by our own concern about how we present ourselves to the people around us, but also because our dentist has lectured to us that keeping our mouths clean is of paramount importance to keeping our entire bodies clean. Our mouths are an excellent source of infection and dogs and cats are no different. The myth that a pet’s mouth is super clean couldn’t be further from the truth. Just ask someone who has been bitten by a cat or dog and within hours found themselves in the hospital with a severe infection.

At some point in our pet’s life, on an annual visit to the veterinarian for a physical examination, the state of what is going on inside the mouth will be pointed out to us as needing attention. Often this comes as a surprise to the owner, without appreciating that the mouth is the window to the body and that looking after the gums and teeth is very important.

What is most important to appreciate is that not only do the bacteria that reside in the mouth cause problems with the gums, teeth, and bone but also with the rest of the body. When the infection gets bad enough, the bacteria are literally picked up by the bloodstream and showered all through the body. This leads to heart valve disease, kidney, and lower urinary tract disease and liver disease to name a few possible complications. One of the reasons it can be difficult to balance the blood sugar levels in a diabetic (person or pet) can be due to infection in the mouth.

Ideally, the best time to focus on your pet’s mouth is when they are a puppy or kitten. Multiple times a day, every day, practice opening their mouths and gently run an infant’s toothbrush along the outside edge of the upper and lower teeth. The rationale behind doing this is that when they have their adult teeth in place, usually at 6 months of age, then they will be accustomed to having their teeth brushed daily. If one doesn’t start when they are very young, it can be quite a challenge to initiate tooth brushing later in life.

After every meal, the food remnants mixed with saliva and resident bacteria form what is referred to as plaque on the teeth. Over an extended period of time, mineral in the saliva will begin to solidify the plaque, forming tarter and this usually starts at and below the gum line. Often times there is as much tarter below the gums as the brown crusty material you will see above the gum lines. This tartar accumulation will only increase, making matters much worse. This leads to gum recessions, deep pockets around the teeth, abscesses, teeth rotting and breaking, as well as jaw fractures. This type of infection and inflammation is quite common, especially in small dogs and cats, but is preventable. Most importantly, it is a painful process and we clearly don’t want our pets in constant pain.

When your pet gets to the age when your veterinarian makes the recommendation to have the teeth cleaned, the best care you could offer your pet is to have the cleaning completed. It does require a general anaesthetic, because to clean a pet’s teeth is more complex than with people -  no pet will lie on a table with their mouth open for 40 minutes. The other concern, especially with cats, is that once the tartar has been completely removed, it is common to find one or two teeth that have become rotten and need to be extracted, and that clearly would require an anaesthetic. However, the anaesthetic process in veterinary medicine is the same as in human medicine with monitoring equipment, IV fluids, and close supervision – making it a safe procedure.

Once the teeth have been cleaned, the best way forward is to consider brushing your pet’s teeth regularly as a preventive. If this is not feasible, then the use of special diets, formulated to clean the teeth, is very effective and your veterinarian can make some excellent suggestions. The key is prevention, not just to avoid the horrific smell, but to avoid a painful mouth and infection spreading throughout the body. The mouth truly is a window to the body.