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by K Marie Alto December 29, 2022 11 min read
If you've ever had a toothache, you know that it's some of the worst pain you can experience. It's intense, it's extremely distracting, and many painkillers barely seem to touch it.
Close your eyes for a second and imagine you have one right now. Can you feel the pain? 😵 Now, imagine you're a dog 🐶.
You can't brush your own teeth to take care of them, you can't talk to tell anyone something hurts, and you don't have regular dentist appointments to get cavities filled.
Dog tooth pain is a terrible affliction that can make life miserable for your pup. Moreover, it can make your precious fur baby a lot more aggressive, irritated, resistant to play and touch, and more.
This is all why it's extremely important to keep your dog's oral health as good as possible and watch for warning signs of something going wrong before it becomes a significant issue.
“Few dogs show obvious signs of dental disease, so it is up to the dog’s family and veterinarian to uncover this hidden and often painful condition.” - VCA Animal Hospitals
In today’s post I talk all about tooth pain in dogs. From causes to signs, to what to do to prevent your pup from ever having to experience tooth pain.
As usual I’ve also added a very short but great educational video 📽️ on how to easily brush your dog’s teeth by Dr. Uri Burstyn.
Looking for more research-backed 📚 dog care guides you can trust? Feel free to visit my blog and search by topic. I’m sure you will learn a thing or two that will improve your dog’s life.
Let’s dig in!
There are a wide range of different causes for tooth pain, but they can generally be divided into two groups: slow and fast.
Dogs don't have hands, which means they have a very limited range of options when it comes to interacting with the world around them.
One of the main ways they do anything that we would use our hands to accomplish is by using their mouth.
Unfortunately, this means they are much more prone to getting things like sticks or stones caught in their teeth, chomping on something much too hard for them, or generally hurting their oral health.
"Slow" causes for tooth pain are similar to what we experience as humans. Gum disease, tooth decay, and oral tumors are all forms of "slow" tooth damage.
Gingivitis and tooth decay (periodontitis) are both caused by bacteria building up in the mouth and causing problems, either with the gums or with the teeth themselves.
We people end up with cavities because that bacteria creates acid that eats away at tooth enamel until the sensitive inner roots are exposed, causing pain.
A similar kind of slow oral problem is tumors in the mouth. These can show up in a bunch of different ways, but they are all going to be at least sensitive and often painful in their own right.
In addition to pain on their own, oral cancers and tumors can push teeth out of alignment, loosen them, or put pressure on nerves that causes more pain. It's always something you want to keep an eye out for.
"Fast" tooth pain is more of an acute injury.
If your dog chomps on a stick the wrong way and cracks a tooth, it can cause immediate pain that won't go away, because teeth don't really heal.
Certain types of dog toys can also damage their teeth. Jaw fractures from an impact, lacerations of the gums from a sharp bit on a stick they grabbed, and other such problems can cause tooth pain as well.
Even something as simple as chewing on a stick that has splinters in it can be enough to lodge something in the gums and cause problems.
While your puppy pal might not be able to tell you when they have a toothache, there are almost always going to be signs that something is wrong.
Many dogs drool for all kinds of reasons. But, an irritation in the mouth will cause more drooling than normal, which is usually noticeable. Moreover, if your fur baby has blood in their drool, it can be a sign of a worse problem, like cancer or a laceration.
“Oral foreign bodies are another common cause of excessive drooling in dogs. Dogs will often chew on things they shouldn't, and sometimes these things can get stuck in their mouths. A common location for bones and sticks to become stuck are between the upper left and right molars” – Kingsdale Animal Hospital
While the stereotype of dogs having bad breath may be common, it's not actually typically true.
Bad breath is usually caused by bacterial build-up in the teeth, gums, and oral cavity. If your dog's breath is really bad, there may be something going wrong. Of course, maybe they just ate something awful.
Your pup seems interested in food but won’t eat. If your fur baby finds it painful to eat because of a broken tooth, then they're going to be more averse to eating, even if they're hungry.
This is often one of the first signs that something is wrong with your pup.
“Interest in food with reluctance to eat may be due to: Pain in or around the mouth (for example dental disease, an abscess behind or around the eye, a mass in the oral cavity, salivary gland disorders, fractures of the jaw or inflammation of the muscles supporting the jaw).” - Lort Smith Animal Hospital
Gum disease causes the gums to get inflamed, which means they're more sensitive, more packed with blood, and will bleed more easily.
“Reddened gums may be tender and painful, so your dog may be reluctant to eat. If your dog has red gums, they should be examined by a veterinarian.” - Pet MD
This can be easy to spot if you regularly inspect your fur baby's mouth, which we highly recommend.
“Dental disease in pets, especially dogs, is extremely common. It is estimated that more than 80 percent of dogs over the age of three suffer from dental disease.” - Pet Food Institute
Since dogs can't exactly go take some aspirin when they have pain, they'll do what they can to try to relieve it.
This can mean new behaviors like pawing at their head, scratching at their ears, crying while yawning, or if they won't stop licking.
Some of these are sources of comfort, some are distractions, and some are reactions to the pain. If your fur baby is exhibiting any of these when they didn't use to, it can be a sign that something is wrong.
Pain makes dogs behave atypically.
If they usually like having their face rubbed, but now they shy away when you try it, or they snap at you when you try to do anything involving their face, it's a surefire sign that something is wrong.
This is known as pain-elicited aggression.
“Animals attempt to protect themselves by responding aggressively when they feel pain in attempt to prevent future pain. Unfortunately, animals often attack the person or animal nearest to them rather than only the thing actually causing pain.” - Animal Humane Society
Pain is painful! Obviously! So, when your pup is in pain, they won't be enjoying their time, even during their favorite activities.
If they're lethargic, unenthused with even their favorite toys, and don't seem interested in dog treats, you know something is up.
“According to the American Veterinary Dental College, most dogs and cats have some evidence of periodontal disease by the age of three, often indicated by bad breath, a change in eating or chewing habits, pawing at the face and mouth, and depression.” - American Veterinary Medical Association
If you suspect your fur baby is suffering from some kind of tooth pain, the first thing to do is try to do an at home inspection.
Your findings will determine whether you should rush them to the vet or simply schedule an appointment.
Try to look into their mouth and see if there's anything obviously wrong. Look for:
If you spot an issue, or if you don't spot one but still think it's a case of oral pain, the next step is to talk to your vet.
Give them a call and ask if you should bring your fur baby in immediately or schedule an appointment.
Generally, issues like a wound or laceration, prominent infection, or broken tooth will require an immediate response from your vet, and bringing your fur baby in right away will be necessary to prevent prolonged pain, further damage, or infection.
For issues like a cavity or gum disease, it's not as time sensitive; while you want to get them seen as soon as possible, you don't need to rush them into the emergency vet in the middle of the night.
When assessing the oral health of your fur baby, your vet will go through a series of tests.
They will probably draw some blood to run some blood and serum tests, which can determine if there are other causes for concern and/or infections that need to be addressed.
They will also attempt to probe your fur baby's mouth to look for problems and identify swollen gums, lacerations, broken teeth, loose teeth, or any other visible issue.
Depending on the problem, your vet may give you medication to deal with an infection, or your fur baby may need a procedure.
If a procedure is called for, your vet will give them a general anesthetic and will perform whatever oral care needs to be performed, such as removing a tooth, draining an abscess, or stitching up a laceration.
To help prevent tooth pain, you should make sure to get dental care for your fur baby on a regular basis.
We humans generally go to the dentist for a cleaning and exam once every six months, but when should you begin and how often should your dog get their own visit?
Most dogs have some kind of dental issue by the time they're three, usually stemming from lack of dental care, injury, or missed cleanings.
Puppies and young dogs don't necessarily need a full dental cleaning, but they should have their mouths checked as part of their regular vet appointment.
How often your fur baby should have their teeth checked depends on their breed and their existing health.
Larger dogs generally only need one cleaning and inspection per year, and some dogs don't even need it quite that often.
Smaller dogs may need check-ups as often as every six months to help prevent the loss of their teeth.
After all, small dogs have less tooth enamel to form a buffer between the root and bacteria, so a tooth can go from fine to a total loss in a very short amount of time.
If your fur baby has existing oral health issues or general health issues, they may need more frequent check-ups.
This is because an imbalance in body chemistry can lead to less protected teeth and less ability to fight off infections. Similarly, a dog that has already lost some teeth is more prone to losing the others.
As some point you can expect your vet to recommend a full dental exam. The process is similar to what happens when you go to the dentist, including a scaling to remove tartar build-up, x-rays to diagnose cavities, root issues, cracks, and bone health, and careful probing to check for loose teeth or swollen gums, though dogs have to be sedated for the procedure.
Since anesthesia can be a big deal for dogs, a large and complex procedure may require more than one session at the vet. Though, with regular cleanings, it will likely be one session and follow-up care, including antibiotics and care instructions.
The good news here is that most regular vets perform dental cleanings, so you don’t have to worry about going to a specialist, though veterinary dental specialist do exist in certain areas.
The key to preventing tooth and mouth issues in dogs is home care. Home dog dental care involves several preventative actions and measures you can take.
I probably say this too much, but an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This is rarely as true as it is with tooth issues.
A little bit of prevention every day can help prevent the need for tooth removal surgery down the line. After all, while we can get cavities filled as people, our furry children can't.
First and foremost, you should get your dog used to having their teeth brushed. Most dogs can be trained to tolerate tooth brushing, especially if they're rewarded afterward.
That said, some dogs are very averse to the process; as such, you may be able to get an oral rinse or even anti-plaque chews for your dog to nibble on to help keep their mouths clearer.
One thing to note here is that you absolutely need to get a dog-friendly toothpaste.
Human toothpaste usually includes ingredients that are dangerous for dogs, and since dogs aren't really trained to know how to swish and spit, it's difficult to keep them safe.
And, of course, dog toothpaste is much more delicious for them; it tastes like chicken or peanut butter.
You’ll also want to get a toothbrush that is size appropriate for your pup. For smaller pups, a finger toothbrush, one that is silicone and slides over your finger might be a good choice.
If you go the more traditional toothbrush route, make sure to find one that is size appropriate for your pup’s mouth.
An alternative to tooth brushing, if your fur baby doesn't tolerate it, is tooth wipes. These are softer and less irritating that toothbrushes. You can wrap it around a finger and use to wipe plaque off their teeth.
I mentioned it earlier, but dental treats are are a nice option to add to a dental cleaning routine. Some include plaque-fighting ingredients and are designed to be just abrasive enough to help clean teeth as they chew. Likewise, dental chews for your dog are designed to rub their teeth as they chew at them, cleaning them.
If you have specific questions or concerns, you can always ask your vet what they recommend for caring for your dog's mouth. Some vets find that certain products work better than others, and everyone will have their own favorite recommendations.
If you rescued an adult dog it’s going to be more difficult to train them to allow teeth cleaning, but don’t be discouraged. Regular vet visits and dental cleanings will allow you to stay on top of their dental health.
Regardless of brushing habits, it’s important to always keep an eye on your fur baby to look for behavioral changes that might indicate pain.
It's usually quite noticeable when an issue crops up, and it's always something you want to have addressed as soon as possible. That way, your furry child can get back to their usual happy, tail-wagging, playful self without needing to worry about that nagging toothache.
What steps have you taken to ensure the health of your furry friend's teeth? Does your dog tolerate teeth brushing? Or do they much prefer tooth wipes? Which cleaning method works best for you? I'd love to hear about your experiences, as they tend to be vastly different from one another, so please be sure to leave a comment down below!
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 40K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).
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