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Tooth Decay In Dogs – Frequency, Prevention, Treatment

↯ Key takeaway points

  • Tooth decay in dogs is a common issue and can lead to dental diseases such as gingivitis and periodontitis.
  • 80% of dogs over the age of three have some form of dental disease, but only 10% of dental cases in dogs are tooth decay.
  • Symptoms of tooth decay in dogs include visual appearance of cavities, bad breath, gingivitis, dental plaque, chewing problems, and swollen jaw.
  • Prevention and treatment of tooth decay in dogs include regular veterinary dental cleanings, brushing their teeth daily, giving them chew toys, and feeding them dental kibble.
  • Severe cases of tooth decay can lead to systemic infections that can make dogs sick, including liver disease, kidney disease, and heart disease.
Written by Jay
BsC (Hons) Animal Behaviour & Welfare graduate with a passion for advocating for misunderstood animals.
Highly educated researcher and DVM with extensive experience in Clinical VetMedicine, Veterinary Nano Medicine, and Preventive Veterinary Medicine.
Published on
Friday 29 May 2020
Last updated on
Monday 24 July 2023
Tooth Decay In Dogs
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Tooth decay in dogs is a common issue. Decaying teeth in dogs is a leading cause of dental diseases including gingivitis and periodontitis. These problems are preventable and manageable when they occur through a combination of veterinary care and home dental care routines.

Maintaining oral hygiene for your pet will reduce the need to pay hundreds of dollars in veterinary fees to treat your dog’s tooth decay. Treatment of advanced dental decay can be costly, with a full cleaning procedure alone costing between $500 and $1,000 depending on location, the dog’s size, age, bloodwork, and aftercare according to Ingleside Animal Hospital.

What is Tooth Decay and How Common is it in Dogs?

Tooth decay is the breakdown of enamel and dentin in teeth. According to VCA Hospitals, 80% of dogs over the age of three have some form of dental disease. However, only 10% of dental cases in dogs are of tooth decay. The other dental diseases commonly found in dogs are tooth fractures, gingivitis, periodontal disease, and tooth root abscesses. The latter diseases can be caused by tooth decay that is left untreated.

An estimated 2/3 of dogs older than three may suffer from a periodontal disease which makes it the most prevalent dental disease affecting dogs. The Royal Veterinary College further states that up to 90% of adult dogs exhibit some stage of periodontal disease. These statistics suggest that tooth decay in dogs is extremely common.

Sales of pet oral care products hit $5.2 billion in 2017 according to Packaged Facts. Dog products comprise up to 85% of these sales. This shows that owners are quickly becoming aware of the importance of dog dental care.

How Does Dog Tooth Decay Occur?

Bacteria break down fermentable carbohydrates like sucrose, fructose or glucose on the surface of the tooth. Tooth decay is characterized by the breakdown of enamel in the tooth caused by acids produced by bacteria. This causes a biofilm called dental plaque to form. When this biofilm matures it may become cariogenic, meaning that it causes decay.

The build-up of dental plaque may give rise to tooth decay, which in turn leads to gingivitis and periodontal disease. The decay causes cavities to form, also called caries which is Latin for “rottenness”. Fortunately, dog tooth decay is preventable and manageable through several means. When decay progresses into periodontitis, the decay is not reversible. Prevention is vital to prevent costly veterinary procedures and poor dental health.

Symptoms of Tooth Decay in Dogs

Tooth decay in dogs is manageable when owners are aware of the signs. These are the common symptoms of tooth decay.

Visual Appearance of Cavities

The earliest signs of a cavity are the appearances of white, chalky spots on the surface of the affected tooth. Microcavity, incipient cavity, or a white spot lesion are other names for this. The best way to identify cavities is to visually inspect a dog’s teeth regularly. Dog tooth decay stages are distinctive.

If the lesion progresses, the area may become discolored, soft to the touch, and generally display structural defects. Decay eventually passes through the enamel’s surface which exposes the dentinal tubules, which contain passages to the nerves. This exposure can result in transient pain that worsens with exposure to cold, heat, or sweet foods. Extensive decay causes weakness of the tooth, so much so that a fracture may become visible.

Bad Breath

Also known as halitosis, bad breath is a symptom where a dog has a significantly unpleasant breath odor. Deep carious lesions caused by decay may cause localized food stagnation and impaction when food becomes stuck within the cavity. This food packing can cause a localized periodontal disease reaction, characterized by halitosis along with other common symptoms.

It is important to note that not all dogs with decay have halitosis, and not all dogs with halitosis have decay. A range of diseases such as diabetes, megaoesophagus, and kidney failure have halitosis as a characteristic symptom.

dog tooth decay and halitosis
In dogs, tooth decay and cavities cause bad breath.


Gingivitis is a disease that causes inflammation of the gums. Some cases of this disease do not progress into periodontitis, but periodontitis is always preceded by some degree of gingivitis. Symptoms of gingivitis can be nonspecific and often manifest in the gums as typical signs of inflammation. Swelling, redness, and bleeding are common giveaways that gingivitis has set in. Behavioral signs of gingivitis include discomfort around the mouth, sometimes manifesting as vocalizations or avoidance of touch. Signs of severe gingivitis include:

  • Bad breath
  • A red line along the gumline
  • Pus oozing from the gums
  • Receding gums
  • Loose teeth

Gingivitis is reversible and treatable with veterinary assistance and appropriate home care.

Dental Plaque

The biofilm of bacteria that grows on teeth is called plaque. It begins as a colorless, sticky deposit, but once tartar forms it usually progresses to a brown or yellow color. Tartar is hardened dental plaque caused by a build-up of minerals in saliva. The process of tartar formation kills bacteria in dental plaque. The hardened surface of the tartar only goes on to provide a surface for further plaque development. This leads to more tartar build-up which in turn compromises the gums.

Often cited on lists of dogs with bad teeth are brachycephalic breeds. The Boxer, French Bulldog, English Bulldog, and Pug are more prone to dental plaque than others. This is because their teeth are overcrowded within a shortened muzzle, leading to malocclusion and rotation of the teeth. Food tends to become trapped between the rotated teeth which feeds the bacteria responsible for plaque formation.

Chinese Crested dogs, specifically the hairless variety, also suffer proneness to dental plaque. The FOXI3 gene encodes a protein that activates the development of teeth and hair. Their softer teeth with shallower roots can be prone to decay. The teeth may also slope forward, allowing food to become trapped between them.

Greyhounds have a high rate of early-onset periodontal disease caused by plaque. This is thought to be because the breed is genetically more susceptible to dental disease. Vet Compass reports that up to 39% of greyhounds suffer dental disease. This statistic is higher than other large breeds such as the Rottweiler (3.1%) and German Shepherd (4.1%). Periodontal disease is most prevalent in retired racers.

Chewing Problems

Dogs with tooth decay may exhibit difficulty eating, which can manifest as chewing problems. Feeding may become uncomfortable or painful for a dog with dental disease. As a result, they might:

  • Drop pieces of food out of their mouth whilst eating
  • Reject chew toys
  • Reluctant to open their mouth
  • Chew on one side of the mouth

Over time, this reluctance to eat can take a toll on a dog’s body condition. Weight loss may occur. If you notice weight loss in your pet you must seek veterinary advice. It is a key symptom of several diseases, not only dental problems, and points to an underlying cause. Chewing problems may be more difficult to identify in brachycephalic breeds which may struggle, albeit minimally, to pick up larger pieces of food. Paying close attention to the behavior of a dog can allow owners to identify abnormal behaviors much quicker.

chewing problems in dogs
Chewing problems can be caused by cavities and decay.

Swollen Jaw

Mandibular swelling, also known as jaw swelling, can present as a symptom of tooth decay in severe cases. Maxillary swelling under the eye can also occur. This maxillary swelling is sometimes misidentified as an ocular infection or puncture wound. A look inside the dog’s mouth will yield significant swelling, redness, bleeding and pus discharge around the affected tooth and can confirm that the cause is, in fact, a dental one.

When swelling occurs, the dog will exhibit jaw pain, significant facial swelling, inability to pick up objects in the mouth, and abnormal jaw movements. A tooth abscess is very painful for a dog. Veterinary treatment is required. By this time the abscess is at risk of bursting and becoming open to further infection.

Treatment and Prevention of Tooth Decay in Dogs

Prevention of dog tooth decay involves a combination of treatments. If prevention is practiced daily, the need for costly veterinary bills is vastly reduced. These are ways to prevent tooth decay and how to treat it when it does occur.

Veterinary Dental Cleaning

Primary care veterinarians can provide dental prophylaxis, also called dental cleanings, but the level of expertise in dentistry specifically can vary from practice to practice. Thorough dental prophylaxis is recommended by the AAHA. Cleaning for one year of age for small-medium breeds and by two years of age for larger breeds is ideal.

A visual assessment can determine whether canine tooth decay exists and what its extent is. The dog is anesthetized so that the entire mouth can be radiographed. Hand scaling removes tartar. This removal is essential because tartar acts as the ideal surface for plaque to form. Crown polishing comes after scaling and cleaning to reduce micro-abrasions to the enamel. These procedures vary depending on the severity of the disease seen in the patient. These are the stages:

  • One (gingivitis) is treatable with home dental care, polishing, scaling, and irrigation.
  • Two (early periodontal disease) is treatable through subgingival scaling and locally applied antimicrobials.
  • Three (established periodontal disease) is treatable through periodontal surgery accompanied by consistent home dental care. If home care cannot be consistently provided for your dog, extraction may be required.
  • Four (advanced periodontal disease) requires extraction and/or periodontal surgery with consistent home dental care.


According to Dr. Linick, a chairman of the Foundation for Veterinary Dentistry, less than 10% of dog owners regularly brush their pet’s teeth despite it being the gold standard for home dental care. Daily brushing using a dog toothbrush and specially-formulated dog toothpaste for 30-60 seconds is a preventative measure.

Dog toothbrushes typically come in three types; regular, dual head and finger brush. Human brush bristles are too rough on the more delicate gums of a dog, and the shape of the dog brush is designed to accommodate the different shapes of a dog’s teeth. Using a human toothbrush for a dog can cause bleeding gums, which may cause owners to believe that their pet has gingivitis, a common symptom of tooth decay. Attempting to brush when a dog already has gingivitis will cause pain and further bleeding. Dog toothbrushes are able to remove plaque on the surface of teeth which can help to prevent decay.

To further reduce plaque, some kinds of dog toothpaste are antibacterial, containing enzymes such as glucose oxidase and lactoperoxidase which react with saliva to offer temporary antibacterial protection. We recommended that you begin slowly. You can brush or wipe your dog’s teeth starting with one or two teeth to begin with.

Chew Toys

There are a wide array of chew toys tailored for the prevention of canine tooth decay. These toys are either non-edible or digestible and are designed with bristles to clean the teeth and nubs to stimulate the gums. Mechanical stimulation of gums enhances the proliferation of fibroblasts, encourages collagen synthesis and enhances pocket oxygen tension in the gums which helps to reduce the growth of bacteria and increases circulation. Some toys are produced in specific flavors to encourage regular chewing. Fortunately, chew toys are highly accessible and can be affordable as they are sold in most pet stores.

chew toys help fight tooth decay in dogs
Use chew toys to massage the gums and clean your dog’s teeth!

Dry Kibble

There are conflicting views about the usefulness of dry kibble for the prevention of tooth decay. Mechanically, dry kibble’s texture and shape produce an abrasive effect on the teeth when chewed, which can remove some plaque. For food to be efficient in mechanically cleaning teeth, the chewing process should take longer, target the back of the mouth, and have an abrasive texture. Regular dry kibble is typically high in carbohydrates and, when chewed, can stick to the teeth due to the starchiness. These carbohydrates metabolize into sugars which feeds the bacteria growing on the tooth’s surface, fueling further development of plaque and tartar.

This is where specially-formulated dental kibble comes in. Adequate dental kibble tends to be large with a non-crumbling texture that does not stick to the teeth. Some foods contain polyphosphates to withdraw calcium from the saliva, reducing the formation of plaque. These dental kibble diets typically lower the risk of tooth decay by 50-60%. This is promising but does not eliminate the risk.

Dental Vaccine

In 2006, Pfizer Inc introduced a dental vaccine. At the time it was intended to prevent or slow the development of periodontal disease in dogs. The poryphyromonas vaccine, studied for four years, did not significantly reduce the progression of periodontal disease. Company officials reassure owners that the vaccine remains safe.

Tooth Decay in Dogs – FAQs

For readers unsure about certain aspects of dental care for dogs, we have composed a list of four frequently asked questions for you to refer to.

Can a Dog Die From Bad Teeth?

Although a dog cannot directly die from bad teeth, they can inevitably. Gums have an excellent blood supply. When chronic periodontitis advances, the epithelium that lines the periodontal pockets can become ulcerated, creating a direct entry point for bacteria into systemic circulation. The bacteria which enters can directly affect certain organs, increasing the risk of heart disease, kidney disease, or liver disease. A pre-existing condition can progress and lead to early death if the infection is severe and untreated. This is only in severe cases – reversible cases of gingivitis and early decay will not be dangerous enough to cause a dog to die.

How to Stop Dog Tooth Decay?

A combination of preventative measures is ideal. The ideal routine for home dental is daily brushing with dog toothpaste, specialized dental kibble, and chew toys or raw bones. However, not all owners can afford or access these three options regularly. Some dogs refuse to have their teeth brushed despite being offered flavored toothpaste. Others cannot be anesthetized for a dental cleaning.

If your dog refuses to have their teeth brushed, it can be a sign that they are suffering dental issues already and the brushing is painful to them. A veterinarian will assess the health of your pet to determine whether dental work is required before any pain-free brushing is achievable. If there is no physical reason for the dog to become distressed, training is required.

How to Clean

Introduce the concept slowly and gently by rubbing a finger along the gums at first. Add enzymatic toothpaste after this stage and try different flavors of toothpaste. When the reaction is positive, it is worth progressing to introducing a toothbrush and offering plenty of praise and rewards if it is tolerated.

This process is best done during puppyhood, but training can be achieved with some adult dogs too. If your dog tolerates handling of their mouth area but cannot tolerate brushing, a dental sealant like OraVet is applied once a week to protect the teeth or wipes are used.

How do You Know if Your Dog Has a Bad Tooth?

Bad teeth are identifiable through the aforementioned symptoms: bad breath, gingivitis, chewing problems, and plaque on the surface of a tooth. Early tooth decay is identifiable through visual inspection of the teeth.

Be sure to look for discoloration, white spots, and deformities. Behavioral signs of a decaying tooth include only chewing as necessary, scratching the affected side of the face, rubbing the affected side of the face on the floor, and dropping food when attempting to eat. The dog may also refuse food or eat noticeably less than normal.  

Can Bad Teeth Make a Dog Sick?

Advanced periodontitis can leave affected dogs vulnerable to systemic infections that can make them sick. The most prevalent infections manifest as liver disease, kidney disease, and heart disease.

Liver disease may present itself through a loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea, jaundice, and confusion. Kidney disease can present similar symptoms, but specific to the disease are pale gums, mouth ulcers, and facial swelling. Heart disease is characterized by frequent coughing, collapsing, shortness of breath, abdominal swelling, and difficulty sleeping.

It is important to note that these diseases can manifest without any tooth decay present and can be an entirely separate health problem altogether. Furthermore, If you attempt to treat these concerning symptoms by offering dental kibble, chew toys, and brushing teeth at home, it is not appropriate. The problems that were caused by a severe dental disease cannot be reversed without veterinary intervention at that point. If you spot signs of a systemic infection you must seek veterinary attention immediately

Tooth decay in dogs is common but preventable. When left untreated, dog dental decay can become severe. Procedures for severe dental problems such as periodontitis are costly and stressful for your pet.

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