Gum disease in dogs and how to spot it

Smile for the camera! Our gnashers are incredibly important to us because, well, they help us eat. And for our doggos, it’s the exact same. And just like us, they’re susceptible to gum disease. 

Otherwise known as periodontal disease, this is a progressive disease that can badly impact your dog’s gums and teeth. Often, the causes are underlying and hard to spot without an X-ray. Even the dog with the brightest pearly whites can be in pain and not show any sign of it. In their first 2 years, almost 90% of dogs will have had gum disease at some stage of their development. 

There are four stages, each more painful than the last, with the first being quite mild, and the last resulting in a loss of teeth, either from rot or by the vet. Whether you’ve raised your pooch from a puppy or if you have a rescue with no indication of their past care, you’re in the right place to learn all you need to know about gum disease in dogs – and how to spot it.

What causes gum disease in dogs?

Dental hygiene in dogs isn’t too dissimilar to our own hygiene. You should brush your teeth and so should your pup! When left unbrushed, teeth form a fuzzy white layer known as plaque. This is full of harmful bacteria that starts to form within a day. When left unchecked and uncleaned, like all bacteria, it festers and grows. After three days, plaque begins to harden and crystalise into tartar. 

As tartar forms a sticky barrier, unlike the smooth surface of the natural tooth, like flies to poop, it attracts more plaque. As this vicious cycle grows, the gums get sore and irritated, leading to gingivitis. And it’s the hard surface of the tartar that starts to push gums back towards the root, leaving the nerves and the structure of the tooth exposed. 

How to spot

It doesn’t take long for a healthy mouth to start going downhill, and once the cycle starts, your pup’s oral health can deteriorate quickly. There are some visible signs of gum disease, but these are often late stages of infection and could have been prevented a lot sooner. 

Red swelling gums
As with our own teeth, most healthy gums are a soft, almost bubblegum pink color. A good test of a healthy gum is lightly pushing it with your finger and letting go. The colour should go an even lighter shade of pink or white when pressed, and return back to normal within a few seconds. In contrast, red, swelling gums are a sign of gingivitis. 

Regardless of if you adopt your pooch or if you get your little bundle of joy as a puppy, it’s really important to familiarise yourself with their mouth and their doggy DNA. As a Shar Pei cross, George has a blue tongue and black gums, which is perfectly normal for his breed. If you’ve never inspected your dog’s mouth before, as it’s normally hidden under all their folds, seeing entirely black gums might be a total shock to the system. 

Black gums or black spots might be a medical problem if they normally have pink gums, but it’s more than likely perfectly normal if they’re one of (or a mix of) these breeds:

  • Chow-Chow
  • Pomeranians
  • Retriever
  • Mastiff
  • Newfoundlands
  • Bully breeds 
  • Irish Setter
  • Australian Shepherd
  • German Shepherd

It’s worth having a chat with your vet if you’re unsure. 

These darker-hued mouths, however, can make those red painful gums harder to spot. In George’s mouth you can see the tiniest, thin line of bubblegum pink close to the tooth. This is where the red swelling would be obvious to spot. Get used to your dog’s mouth as they’re all unique. 

While gum disease can be hard to spot, gingivitis is one of the first signs that something’s wrong. This typically leads to eye-watering breath.

Stinky breath
Bad breath in dogs is undoubtedly gross. A lot of pawrents believe this is just part of being an owner. They’re occasionally going to breathe in your face and send you into a coma. That’s the way it is.

In fact, a recent survey of 2,000 dog owners showed that half thought this to be normal and down to the dogs diet, especially when eating raw food. Unless your dog has just gobbled up something gross from the bin or *gags* has been at the cat litter tray, consistent bad breath is a sign that something’s not right. 

Any blood in your dog’s mouth isn’t a good sign. If, when you’re testing the gum as above, brushing their teeth, or you spot it when they’re chewing their bones, it’s likely your dog has periodontal disease. Combined with bad breath and swollen gums, your pup is likely in the first stage of this ailment.

Recession in the gums
Receding gums are as easy to spot as they are to miss. Typically, they should be fairly even and level. This is vital to maintaining the supporting structures around the tooth. You can see receding gums when they begin to separate from the tooth. 

You’ll notice the change as the gum tissue starts to almost move downwards, often in a triangular shape. As it recedes, the root of the tooth becomes exposed, which is both painful and poses the risk of losing the tooth. Recession is an advanced stage of gum disease and needs immediate attention. In Stage two of periodontal disease, you lose around a quarter of the gum. Stage three it’s at almost half, and typically your dog will require the tooth to be removed. 

Rotting and loose teeth
Rotten teeth are a big indicator that your dog has stage four periodontal disease. Wobbly teeth are usually a sign of serious recession as in this stage, your pup has likely lost over 50% of the gum. The loss of gum leads to extreme pain and discomfort for your pooch as their nerves are exposed and will likely become pissed off with you trying to brush their teeth (we all know what tooth pain feels like – put yourselves in their shoes). 

You’ll notice they stop wanting to play with their favourite chew toys and will become guarded if you try touching their mouth. If your dog has sores in their gums or food stuck between their teeth, left to decay over time, these will cause infection and pus in the mouth. This is a horrible stage for your dog and the only real solution left is to remove the teeth. 

Gum disease in dogs 3

Does your dog’s breed affect their oral hygiene? 

As is the case with diets, all dogs are built different and therefore some are more predisposed to poorer oral hygiene. Genetics can play a big part in whether your dog is susceptible to periodontal disease or not.

Breeds with a maligned bite (malocclusion) can be at risk because the shape of their mouth can lead to hard-to-clean areas that a toothbrush or a bone won’t reach. Smaller and toy breeds, as well as breeds with shorter snouts (brachycephalic breeds), are also at a higher risk, as they have the same amount of teeth as larger dogs, but a much smaller space to fit them in, leaving their mouths quite overcrowded. This can cause teeth to grow at funny angles. As well as being tricky to reach, their teeth have all sorts of nooks and crannies for rotting food to get stuck inside. 

So these are going to be the main culprits:

  • Boston Terrier
  • Boxer 
  • English Bulldogs 
  • French Bulldogs
  • Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
  • Lhasa Apso
  • Pekingese
  • Pug 
  • Shih Tzu
  • Bull Mastiff 

Whether a pure or mixed breed, it’s worth taking extra precautions to make sure your pup has the ultimate oral hygiene to suit their unique quirks. 

How can you stay on top of gum disease?

Prevention is better than cure. If it’s not already, dental hygiene should be a part of your pup’s daily routine, along with regular vet check-ups. When it comes to gum disease, not all teeth are equal. Different parts of the mouth can be at different stages at any time; so while the front teeth might look healthy, there could be a tooth hidden at the back causing them all sorts of pain. 

This is especially important for brachycephalic breeds or if your dog has malocclusion, as they’ve got more places for a poorly tooth to hide. 

While the structure of your dog’s teeth are intact, periodontal disease can be reversible. The best way to know what condition your dog’s mouth is in is to have an X-ray by the vet. They can look deep within each space between your dog’s teeth and look at what’s happening beneath the surface. 

Gingivitis can be reversed through proper care, brushing, and regularly checking the teeth for lodged food. As this stage is inflammation of the gum, it’s a lot easier to treat. If your dog’s teeth are creeping into stage two periodontal disease, just like a human, your dog can have regular dental hygiene cleans to avoid the disease worsening and reverting their mouth back to full health. The further along the condition is, the more restorative treatment is needed, and in cases where that’s not enough, extraction is required.

It’s not something any of us ever want to see our little guy or girl go through. So keep your eye out for any of the warning signs above and make sure their oral hygiene is 10 out of 10. In our next blog, we’ll talk about preventative measures you can take to save your pup from any of this pain in the first place.

At Swagwags, your dog’s health is our top concern. It’s why all our food is made to be as nutritionally dense as possible. Bone appetite! You can shop the entire range here.

If you’re ever concerned about potential allergies, take one of our sensitivity tests. It’s non-invasive and takes 5 minutes to do – a small price for perfect pup health!