Dental problems in old dogs are not unusual. If you own a senior dog, it is paramount for you to keep an eye on your dog's teeth and report to your vet any suspicious findings. By getting acquainted with dental problems in old dogs, you are better equipped with vital information that will help you keep your older dog in good shape. A neglected mouth as the potential to lead to complications that may involve the dog's internal organs. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec points out three common dental problems in dogs.
Dental Problems in Old Dogs
As your dog’s body systems age and slow down, they become less able to fight off infections and other harmful agents from the everyday environment. The mouth is particularly crucial in this respect because it is an important route into the body for bacteria.
Mouth and teeth problems are some of the most common conditions requiring veterinary attention. Signs that a dog has dental problems include: bad breath or halitosis, reluctance to eat, pawing at the mouth, excessive drooling, teeth chattering in dogs, difficulty swallowing.
Gum disease and bad breath can become a feature of old age. Another feature of old age is becoming toothless. Chances are you have not seen an old dog chomping feverishly on a chew toy. Well, it is because old dogs tend to lose their teeth due to bone loss and dental issues.
The most common dental issues that lead to decreased number of teeth in an old dog’s mouth include: tartar build up and subsequent gum disease, periodontal disease and fractured teeth. Let's take a closer insight into these three common dental problems in old dogs.
Tartar and Gum Disease in Dogs
Throughout life, a wolf rips, tears and chews its food. Pet dogs just swallow. The result is a buildup of slime on the teeth where bacteria multiply, causing gum inflammation and bad breath.
In a nutshell, the surface of the teeth may be coated with plaque. This is a sticky, yellow to tan-colored material. It contains saliva, bacteria, and debris that includes white blood cells, carbohydrates and fats.
Plaque has to be removed because even a tiny amount of it contains hundreds of millions of bacteria, which can cause inflammation and infection of the gums. When plaque accumulates over a long time, it turns into a hard, mineralized substance known as tartar or calculus. This substance attracts more plaque and becomes a breeding ground for more bacteria.
Gum infections and associated bad breath will eventually occur in almost every dog, although toy breeds are at higher risk then large and giant breeds. This is because small dogs often eat soft food and chew less than big dogs. Additionally, their saliva has a slightly different mineral content that makes the tartar buildup more likely.
Tooth scaling and polishing are important and are not performed simply for aesthetic reasons, or to make your elderly dog more socially acceptable. Every time a dog with gingivitis eats, bacteria get into the bloodstream. A young dog’s efficient immune system kills these bacteria within 30 minutes. In older dogs with a less efficient immune system, bacteria can spread to heart valves, joints, and elsewhere causing serious infections.
You can remove plaque with regular brushing at home, but tartar has to be removed by your vet, who will use dental equipment to scale and polish the teeth. Preventive scaling and polishing to remove plaque and tartar prevents gingivitis (gum inflammation) from progressing into a more serious condition – periodontitis or periodontal disease.
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Periodontal Disease in Dogs
The word periodontal refers to the area next to a tooth – the gums and the deeper structures around the tooth. One of these structures is the periodontal ligament. This fibrous tissue attaches the cementum layer of the tooth to the alveolar bone, in which the tooth sits. Another structure is the periodontal pocket – the space between the gum margin and the surface of the tooth. The periodontal pocket is usually tiny, but can grow to a significant size if the area is affected by disease.
Periodontal disease indicates diseases or inflammations that occur around the teeth. It is the most common medical condition affecting dogs. Virtually every single dog will develop periodontal disease during its lifetime. Poor dental hygiene is the prime cause of periodontal disease in dogs. In addition, some breeds, are genetically predisposed. However, with good management from the owner, the onset of this disease can be dramatically delayed.
The onset of periodontal disease is gradual so dogs do not complain until pain occurs. By this time, much of the disease may have become irreversible and the only possible treatment is removal of the affected teeth. If the canine teeth are severely diseased, a hole, or fistula, may open up between the mouth and the nose, leading to sneezing. Consequently, bleeding from the nose is also possible.
Bad breath or halitosis is the most common sign. A thorough oral examination reveals the disease. When warranted, X-rays of the mouth can show the exact form of the disease, particularly in older individuals.
The main objectives of treatment are: to eliminate the pain and cause of infection, to reduce or eliminate any periodontal pockets, to produce a healthy attachment of gum to tooth and to prolong the use and function of teeth.
Fractured Teeth in Dogs
Chewing on objects such as sticks, stones, bones and other hard materials can crack teeth, especially molars. Normally, cracked enamel does not require treatment. However, if a crack involves the dental pulp, the dog will be in pain.
Chronic, hard-toy chewing or ball-playing wears down all of the teeth, including the canines. This may lead to exposure of the tooth pulp and a subsequent infection.
Fractured teeth are usually painful to touch. Pain will cause the dog to eat carefully and possibly to appear listless. A close examination under general anesthesia is recommended. Broken teeth that have developed a pulp infection are treated by root canal filling, or more often, by extraction.
Should owners pull a dog's loose tooth? As simple as it appears on first sight, the answer is no – dog owners should not pull a loose tooth from their dogs’ mouths no matter how loose the teeth seems to be. Sometimes the root of the teeth is much bigger than the visible part of teeth and what looks like a simple pull can easily turn into chaos – painful teeth or root fractures and gum lacerations.
It is only natural for an old dog's teeth to fall out. However, the conditions that promote dental loss can be, if not prevented, at least delayed through maintaining good oral hygiene. Maintaining good oral hygiene includes regular dental examinations – performed by both the dog parent and the vet, brushing the dog’s teeth – on a daily basis with a specifically formulated canine toothpaste and caring for the dog’s gums – massaging the gums, particularly the margin between the gums and the teeth.
About the Author
Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.