Fully Vetted: Why does my pet’s breath stink?

Published 4:07 pm Tuesday, February 6, 2018

One of the most common questions we veterinarians hear is, “Why does my pet’s breath stink?”.  There are many reasons that your pet’s breath may be less than minty fresh.  A thorough physical examination is the first step in determining the cause of bad breath. 

The most common cause of bad breath in pets is periodontal disease.   Periodontal disease occurs when bacteria in the mouth attaches to the surface of the teeth, causing a film called plaque.  Plaque develops quickly, within hours after the teeth are cleaned.  Within days, the plaque starts to mineralize, producing calculus.  As the process continues, the gums become irritated, and infection can spread into the bones surrounding the teeth, resulting in pain and tooth loss. Spread of infection can also lead to heart, liver, and kidney disease.   

Other causes of dental disease in pets include broken teeth, infected teeth, abnormal tooth alignment, oral tumors, and retained baby teeth.  Some diseases, such as kidney disease, diabetes, and respiratory and skin infections, can also cause bad breath.

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The best way to treat the plaque and calculus that cause periodontal disease, and to have a thorough exam to evaluate for other abnormalities, is to have a dental cleaning performed under general anesthesia.  I am often asked why anesthesia is necessary…after all, we humans don’t have anesthesia for our teeth cleanings.  Well, we humans understand that our dentist visits, while not always comfortable, are necessary for our health.  Our dentists usually explain what they are doing, and we refrain from moving excessively or biting them during the procedure.  Because we cannot explain this to our pets, they will move in order to avoid the procedure, or even bite because of the sensation of the cleaning instruments in their mouth. General anesthesia also provides a stress-free and pain-free way to address any additional procedures, such as tooth removal, that may be necessary.  Although there are always some risks associated with anesthesia, modern anesthesia and monitoring techniques have significantly minimized those risks, so that the benefits of oral health far outweigh them.

While regular examinations and dental cleanings are an important part of your pet’s oral health, it is also important to take a proactive approach to dental care at home.  Daily brushing is an ideal way to help prevent plaque buildup.  Some pets allow and even enjoy having their teeth brushed, while others will not allow it.  It is important to work within your pet’s individual constraints to determine if and how often to brush the teeth—if your pet resists brushing, there are many training videos available online.  If your pet simply won’t allow it, don’t risk getting bitten!  Many dental health products are available, such as treats, chews, water additives, and special diets.  These products can be a valuable component of your pet’s dental health plan, but should never be substituted for veterinary care.   Consult with your veterinarian to discuss the best options for your individual pet.

February is national pet dental health month.  Visit AVMA.org for more information.

Dr. Kelly Sulik owns and operates Animobile Mobile Veterinary Services in Tryon, N.C. She can be reached at animobiledvm@gmail.com.