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Why does my dog have such bad breath? (And when to take action)

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Dog breath. The mere words conjure up a myriad of scents and none of them are good. But have you ever wondered what is normal and how often do dogs need dental cleanings?
 
We asked Parkside Animals Health Center’s founder Brenda Eisenhauer, DVM, to share some insights.  This Aurora vet clinic offers so much more than a standard veterinary practice and they look at the lifestyle and the current needs of the pet and its family. Is it an athlete? A couch potato?  A puppy or kitten?  A senior citizen? They then try to tailor their medical recommendations to each individual, but also address behavioral and nutritional needs.

What is Normal?

Most people think stinky “dog breath” is normal, but when your favorite pup pants into your face, it should never smell sour, rotten or like garbage.  These awful smells are usually the first indication something has gone wrong inside the mouth, or sometimes even inside of the body.  According to Eisenhauer, there are certain medical conditions (digestive, diabetes, kidney and liver) that can affect a dog’s breath, and may require blood work or other testing to sort out. 
 
However, much more commonly, the stinky breath is related to infection inside of the mouth.  This can happen for many reasons – the more obvious ones include a broken and infected tooth, and excess tartar and plaque that has caused gum and dental infection. 
 
Other conditions can be more breed-specific.  For example, dachshunds can have infection from their long upper canine teeth (“fang teeth”) creep up the roots and into the nasal sinuses.  Boxers and American bull dogs often have very deep ridges in their hard palate where fur and food gets trapped, creating sores and infection.  And sometimes pets have done something sneaky (chewed on a cord and burnt part of their mouth, or gotten their head caught in a car window or between banister railings and accidentally bitten their cheeks or tongue before getting out), causing sores and infection. 

What Should You Do?

Any change or continual worsening of the breath is cause for concern, and worth getting checked out.  A thorough dental exam will require sedation (it’s hard to see everywhere inside the mouth without sedation, and also impossible to take dental X-rays).  But what can you try at home?  For the really fetid breath, there is something going on inside that needs addressed medically.  But for the run-of-the-mill dog-food bum-sniffing breath, a bit of homecare can really help.  There are dental diets, chews and treats available that have been proven to reduce dental plaque and tartar just by the way they are built – they actually rub against the teeth and remove the bacteria and films that lead to dental disease.  A couple of words of caution – dental diets are only effective if they comprise at least 50 percent of the food your dog eats.  Also, dental treats and chews are never calorie-free – if your dog is prone to being a little heavy, these have to be used in moderation and in balance with your pet’s other nutritional needs. 
 
The best thing you can do at home, though, is to brush those teeth!  Dog toothpastes do not contain fluoride but DO contain enzymatic cleaners that help decrease plaque build-up, and come in yummy flavors like chicken, peanut butter, malt and vanilla mint.  Just like any new trick, your dog will need time to learn that the toothbrush and toothpaste are treats – they should be introduced slowly, with positive reinforcements (petting, scratches, and love), and then used gently once daily over as many tooth surfaces as your dog will allow.  
 
Even if you are able to keep that dog breath away, it is still important to have regular physical exams and dental cleanings, just like with children and adults.  Annual exams are often enough for younger pets, and the frequency of dental care can be based on the breed of dog, age, and their individual predispositions toward dental disease.  Older pets often need exams at least every six months, as so many health conditions can be managed more effectively if caught early.  In addition, although the stinky breath may be there, many older dogs do not show other symptoms of advanced dental conditions at home, but a medical exam can pick up on more subtle signs that your pooch may be in pain.
 
Brenda Eisenhauer opened Parkside Animal Health Center six years ago after working in shelter medicine at area shelters. Though she was committed to getting animals healthy, shelter medicine often saw the worst situations with animals who had been given up by their families or were ill or neglected. She missed seeing pets in happy, healthy and loving homes and Parkside was opened to help meet that need. This Aurora vet clinic has become a place for happy endings.
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