Dental Care for Older Dogs

A black lab walks around outside with a tennis ball in their mouth.

Taking good care of your dog’s teeth is important from puppyhood through his golden years. As your dog ages, a regular dental routine keeps his teeth and gums strong, his breath fresh, and can even prolong his life by several years. That’s because poor canine oral health contributes to serious heart, lung, liver, kidney and brain ailments.

If you lavish your dog with attention, but neglect his dental care—you’re not alone. It’s a chronic problem among dog owners. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) sponsors National Pet Dental Health Month every February to raise awareness about the importance of pets’ teeth. According to the AVMA, about 80 percent of dogs have some form of oral disease by the time they are three years old. Indeed, oral health issues are among the most common concerns older dog owners discuss with their veterinarians.

A laissez-faire approach to your dog’s dental health can be dangerous when your dog reaches his senior years. If you have an older dog, it’s time to review your best friend’s dental routine, and tend to his teeth daily to keep him healthy and ensure his toothsome grin lasts.

Understanding Your Dog’s Dental Health

Oral health care is as important for your dog as it is for you. Dogs require regular brushing, regular check-ups, and a healthful diet to keep their teeth healthy for the long haul. Without proper dental care, dogs develop plaque which builds up into tartar and in turn leads to periodontal disease (gum disease). In this inflammatory infection, bacteria attack the gums, ligaments and bone tissue that support the teeth. This can be painful, lead to tooth loss, and inhibit your dog’s ability to eat. Left untreated, bacteria from the infection can eventually enter your dog’s bloodstream and cause life-threatening complications in his vital organs.

Do Dogs Get Cavities?

Dogs do get cavities, but they are far less common in canines than in humans. Plaque and tartar are among the biggest concerns in dog dental health because they lead to gum disease and its dangerous complications.

Symptoms Of Gum Disease In Dogs

  • Bad breath
  • Bleeding gums
  • Swollen, red gums
  • Yellowish-brown crust on teeth near the gum line
  • Chewing on one side of the mouth
  • Dropping food from mouth during meals
  • Decreased appetite
  • Slow weight loss
  • Licking teeth and lips excessively
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Rubbing face on ground
  • Drooling
  • Snapping and snarling when patted on the head
  • Disinterest in favorite chew toys

Though all dogs can develop oral health problems, some smaller dog breeds are at increased risk. Pugs, Dachshunds, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Toy Poodles and the Maltese are among the breeds most susceptible to gum disease. Genetics, a tendency to chew less frequently, and smaller jaws with overcrowded teeth increase the risk of gum disease in these small dogs.

Doggy Breath: Dogs are not known for their sweet breath. Most dogs have breath that, at least some of the time, will leave you gasping for fresher air. However, if your senior dog’s breath is really foul, never improves, and doesn’t get better with teeth brushing or specialty treats, it’s important to get him to the veterinarian for a dental checkup.

How To Care For Your Older Dog’s Teeth And Gums

Dangerous periodontal disease is completely preventable. Here are the simple steps you can take to ensure your dog’s dental health:

  • Feed your dog a well-balanced, meat-based diet. This ensures a healthy environment in your dog’s mouth that does not cultivate unwanted bacteria. 
  • Some veterinarians believe the chewing required by hard dog food helps remove plaque.
  • Provide your dog with chew toys and treats designed to clean his teeth and massage his gums.
  • Veterinarians advise against giving your dog real bones to chew because they are so hard they can break your dog’s teeth.
  • Brush your dog’s teeth every day.
  • While you’re brushing, check your dog’s mouth for redness, bleeding, inflammation, signs of pain, and broken or cracked teeth.
  • Have your dog’s teeth checked annually by a veterinarian when he is young.
  • If your dog is seven or older, have his teeth checked every six months.
  • Have your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned when recommended by your veterinarian.

How To Brush Your Dog’s Teeth

Daily brushing is most effective for preventing tartar and plaque buildup, and will help you establish a habit you are less likely to drop over time. Find a time when your dog is usually most peaceful and follow these guidelines:

  • Use toothpaste made for dogs. Human toothpaste contains ingredients that are dangerous for dogs, for example xylitol. Dog toothpastes are formulated to be easy on your dog’s tummy and they come in flavors dogs enjoy, such as chicken or peanut butter.
  • Use a dog toothbrush. They have very soft bristles angled for dog’s teeth. There are also special brushes that slip over your finger, which are especially useful for small dogs.
  • Sit facing your dog, slightly to one side, and gently lift his lips to expose his teeth and gums.
  • Place the toothbrush on his teeth in a 45-degree angle towards the gum line.
  • Brush gently, but firmly in a circular motion.
  • Brush from the front to the back on the outside of the teeth.
  • Bonus points if you can get the inside of his teeth, but don’t upset yourself or your dog in your efforts — his rough tongue does a good job cleaning the insides of his teeth.
  • Keep your voice and movements gentle and reassuring throughout the process.
  • When you are finished, offer you dog a special, teeth-friendly chew toy or treat.

Train Your Dog To Have His Teeth Brushed

Whether you’ve got a new pup or a senior dog unaccustomed to having his teeth brushed, approach the process as you would any dog training—slowly, patiently and consistently. Here are some steps to take to help your dog acclimate to this new experience:

  • Sit with your dog and lift his lips to expose his teeth and gums.
  • Gently touch your dog’s teeth and gums.
  • Dip your finger in chicken soup and rub it on your dog’s gums.
  • Wrap your finger in wet gauze and gently rub his teeth and gum line in a circular motion.
  • Introduce a dog toothbrush with dog toothpaste on it and let him taste.
  • If doesn’t love the flavor, try another dog toothpaste.
  • When you find a toothpaste he likes, start brushing a few teeth and stop.
  • Increase the number of teeth you brush slowly until he is easy with having all his teeth brushed at once.

Anesthesia and Dog Dental Procedures

Some dog owners are skittish about the anesthesia required for dog teeth cleaning and more involved dental procedures. In recent years, some establishments have even started offering anesthesia-free dog teeth cleaning. This is inadvisable for most dogs. Your veterinarian may notice broken teeth, discoloration and swelling above the gum line during a routine exam, but most of the clinical problem likely lies below the gum line and within the tooth and jaw. To properly clean these areas, take X-rays or extract a tooth, anesthesia is safest and kindest for your dog. Imagine how terrified your dog would be undergoing the pulling, prodding and scraping of a dental procedure while awake. Additionally, any sudden moves he made around the sharp instruments could cause him harm.

Dental procedures on your dog should always be performed by a veterinarian.

Commit To Your Senior Dog’s Dental Health

Establish the habit now of caring for your older dog’s teeth every single day. Brush his teeth every morning before you attach his leash for your first walk of the day. Or brush them every evening just before you head out into the yard for a game of catch. Bring him in for regular dental exams, and cleanings when advised. Keep those toys and treats coming. And while he enjoys his treats, enjoy knowing you are protecting your best friend from pain, and ensuring he lives a long and healthy life.

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