As a kid, I’d often tease my brother and tell him he had dog breath (along with other unlikable traits). He didn’t, but it was a good defense against the relentless ponytail tugs I experienced). Anyway, childhood associations aside, I’ve had a lot of friends ask me just why their dog might have “fishy” breath or really rancid dog breath.
“Did the dog just eat fish?” is the usual response because I like to lighten up the mood whenever possible! The answer is usually no, and so we move on to the most common causes for a dog to have horrific breath. These are:
- They have active periodontal disease (i.e. gum disease)
- They just need a good teeth cleaning
- Their teeth are not brushed enough
- They have hair jammed between their teeth and it is holding on to food debris (Ew! I know!)
- They have tooth decay
- There is a health issue that causes them to have bad breath
- The breed can even play a role in bad breath (and tooth decay or poor oral health)
- A diet of mostly soft food
Here’s the important take away from that list…dog breath or really stinky smells coming out of a dog’s mouth are NOT, and I want to repeat that NOT, normal. I cannot tell you how many people think it is okay and even expect their dog to have chronic halitosis. However, speak to any vet and the first thing they will say is that bad breath on an ongoing basis is not normal in the least.
Here is what one vet in a recent Wall Street Journal article about dog health had to say on the issue of dog breath, “Once dogs are slightly older, their mouths smell neutral, though not unpleasant. If a canine starts nosing around in garbage or animal carcasses, it might temporarily emit similar-smelling odors, but not for more than a few days.”
So, if you think that loving your puppo also means learning to live with their dragon breath, think again!
The Remedy is in the Cause
As is so often the case with any health-related issue, understanding what might cause the condition is often the way of remedying it. Because the most common cause of dog breath is some sort of gum disease or problem with the teeth, it is best to start there.
Begin by posing a few questions to yourself about your dog’s dental care and/or conditions:
- Do you brush their teeth or have their teeth cleaned? Have you ever done so?
- Have you taken them to the vet for a dental check to see if there might be gum (periodontal) disease, tooth decay or even a broken tooth?
- Does your dog have a habit of gnawing and chewing very hard things? For example, dogs might make a habit of chewing on branches, broken pieces of deer antlers and other rough objects that can cause tears that lead to infection and smells.
- Does your dog exhibit any signs of discomfort in their mouth? Unlike cats (who are champions at concealing even severe pain), dogs are not stoics and often paw at their mouths, drool or foam a lot and basically let you know that something’s going on.
The answers to these questions can often help to steer you towards the cause of the bad breath AND a remedy.
To Brush or Not to Brush
So, I have this friend who was raised on a farm and who looks at dogs and cats in a way that is radically different then me – even though I too was raised around a lot of animals. He honestly doesn’t believe me when I tell him that ignoring a dog or cat’s dental needs can actually lead to that animal developing a lot of secondary issues.
We’ve had a lot of, let’s say “debates” about the merits of dental care for pets, and he thinks it is the oddest thing that I bring Leroy and Janice to the vet for regular cleanings (and even had Leroy on medication once for a localized infection that reeked like nothing I’ve ever known).
I stick to my guns on this routine of dental care for the dogs for a few reasons:
- I adore them and want them happy and healthy
- I want to save a lot of money over the long term by protecting them from further issues
- I want to prevent them from developing more difficult medical conditions caused by gum disease and infections.
The issues that can arise when a puppo has untreated cavities, infections or gum disease are pretty scary and include:
- Bacterial endocarditis – This when bacteria settle in the heart’s lining, valves or vessels and leads to a very risky infection
- Kidney disease – One or both kidneys can be affected and, depending on a dog’s health it could lead to kidney failure
- Diabetes – The American Veterinary Dental College has done studies linking periodontal disease to more severe symptoms of diabetes or the development of it in dogs.
- Gastrointestinal disease, and more
These all transpire because the bacteria from the oral health issue gets into the dog’s bloodstream and then makes its way to an organ or causes another issue that leads to further problems.
To avoid these risks, our household has regular teeth cleanings with the vet as well as daily brushing and a diet designed to help reduce chances for dental issues.
Preventative Measures Apart from Cleaning
Now, if your dog has really ugly breath and you don’t brush their teeth or get them cleaned. Then it is time to head to the vet. They will probably not limit the exam to the mouth alone if you have not had a health check in recent months. If there is a strong and persistent stench, the vet is likely to recommend the dog gets a full cleaning.
A full cleaning is not something quickly done, and there are some dogs that won’t be able to undergo the “usual” treatment. In a cleaning, the vet first does a full exam and determines if it is safe for the dog to be sedated (usually through intubation) in order to get the fullest cleaning. They might also use an IV to ensure the dog receives enough fluid throughout the treatment as this ensures a good blood pressure.
The process involves the use of a scaler (usually ultrasonic) that vibrates and removes all of the built up tartar or plaque. They might also use small hand tools to get beneath the gumline and ensure that any pockets of infection are found and treated. They may even do x-rays to see if there is trouble with jaw bone. The final step is a rinse and polish and even a sort of fluoride treatment to help combat future decay.
Once the dog is awake and recovered, they can head home with a clean bill of health for a while. The vet may suggest regular brushing, and I concur. Before you even leave the vet’s parking lot, though, let me make one very weird suggestion. Give your dog a cuddle in the car and take a good and deep whiff of their breath. If you want to wait until you get home, that’s fine too, but before you feed them, smell their breath.
Why on earth did I suggest that? Well, it has to do with taking a sort of baseline reading. We don’t often really know what our dog’s “healthy” breath smells like. So, be sure to take that sniff and use that to gauge whether there is an issue in the future. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you’ll be able to tell if their breath is “off” in any way.
And as another suggestion, if you have never made a habit of brushing your dog’s teeth, a post-cleaning brushing is a good way to introduce it. No matter how old, a dog’s oral health is important and you can begin a dental health routine at almost any time. A good trick to use is to start the process with a delicious tasted of dog toothpaste. They are never the minty fresh types like humans enjoy but are more often meaty flavored pastes.
Apply some to a finger and let the dog lick it off like it is a treat. Then, use a rubber finger brush to introduce a bit more. It can take time to get a dog acclimated to at home teeth cleanings, but two or three minutes every other day should tackle the worst of the plaque, bacteria or tartar.
Also, avoid the “treats” that claim to be good for oral health, like hoof chews and antlers. As I said, they are coarse and likely to scrape and harm the dog’s teeth and the soft tissue in their mouth.
Instead of questionable treats, why not update their diet to be dog breath (and teeth) friendly.
The Right Diet for Better Breath
If you want to use the daily diet as a way of improving your puppo’s breath, you should look at it in two ways:
- Consider using dry foods that require the dog to use a grinding action to consume. This helps scrub away a lot of the built up materials on the surface of the teeth. This is where most of the bacteria and plaque reside in a dog’s mouth
- Look at a few human foods that can scrub the teeth, freshen the breath and even combat bad bacteria.
The numbers of dry dog foods available makes it impossible for me to recommend one for your dog, and especially because the size of the dog also determines the size and type of food. However, look for a high quality, dry food that will require chewing. Don’t go for the smaller kibble that can be swallowed whole (Yes, I’m looking at you Leroy).
With the human foods good for combatting dog breath, I suggest the following:
Carrots – Looking to scrub the teeth free of bacteria and plaque? Carrots are a great option since they can be eaten whole (if organic) by a bigger dog or chopped into just the right size for smaller dogs. The chewing is also a very satisfying experience in general, and carrots are nutrient dense and filling.
Apples – Go easy on apples and always remove the seeds. However, dogs really like them and get a lot of nutrients as well as a good tooth scrubbing from them. Apples are also easy to cut into ideal serving sizes that ask the dog to chew rather than swallow whole.
Cucumbers – Janice and Leroy are absolutely bonkers over cucumbers but seem to want them only in the warmer weather. I’ve even caught Leroy helping himself to a cucumber right out of the garden. These are okay if eaten in moderation as they have a lot of fiber and water, which can upset a puppo’s digestion.
Celery – The ultimate breath freshener, dogs like the crunch and easy give of celery sticks, but their stringy texture really scrub the teeth and work wonders for keeping them clean of bacteria and buildup.
Yogurt – This is my top secret weapon if a dog has horrible breath. The cultures in yogurt help to break down the stench-making bacteria and even boost digestion. Just a spoonful or two is fine and always plain and unsweetened. Never give a dog artificially sweetened yogurt as the fake sugars can be toxic to a dog.
Herbs – Add a bunch of minced mint, sage or parsley to a dog’s meal or even get them to eat a few strands of herbs as a treat, and you can help manage bad breath. Not only does the chlorophyll destroy bacteria in the mouth, but it also helps with any smells that might originate from the belly and digestion. If you’ve never had a dog burp in your face you might not know what I mean, but Leroy has almost killed me a few times.
If you make a habit of oral care, a diet to help combat bad breath and ensure you visit the vet if your dog has horrible halitosis, you should be able to develop a permanent remedy to the issue.