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How to Clean Your Small Dog's Teeth to Prevent Dental Disease


Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.

Small dogs that breathe with open mouths develop dental problems early.

Small dogs that breathe with open mouths develop dental problems early.

Why Do Small Dogs Have More Dental Problems?

When your small dog opens her mouth and breathes in the faces of your guests, do you notice them cringe?

If she smells bad when she pants, she has probably already developed periodontal disease. This dental disease is an inflammation of the gum line at the tooth´s base, and since small dogs have small mouths and their teeth are crowded, they are much more susceptible than some of the larger dogs.

When small bits of food are wedged between the teeth, bacteria proliferate, plaque forms, and eventually it develops into calculus (tartar). The calculus irritates the gum and causes irritation, which leads to gingivitis. When the gums are swollen, the calculus can build up under the gingiva, and the bacteria proliferate even more in those pockets.

Your tiny friend has periodontal disease at that point. If it is not taken care of, they will develop bone loss and build up nasty pockets of pus under the gum line.

She will start to stink, too.

Retained puppy canine - note that the teeth are even closer together than normal teeth in a dogs mouth

Retained puppy canine - note that the teeth are even closer together than normal teeth in a dogs mouth

Finger Toothbrushes

These little finger toothbrushes can be used to clean your dog's teeth.

These little finger toothbrushes can be used to clean your dog's teeth.

How to Prevent Tooth Problems in Small Dogs

Brushing your dog's teeth is one of the most effective ways to remove plaque buildup. You can dry brush or purchase some of the flavored toothpastes specially made for dogs—do not use human toothpaste as it is not meant to be swallowed and will upset her stomach. There are dog toothbrushes that fit on the tip of your finger, or you can use a gauze square.

It is not so important what you use; it is important how often you do the brushing.

If you have a puppy, it is easy to get her used to you taking care of her teeth. Take her at least once a day and handle her feet, touch inside her ears, and let her get used to you putting your fingers in her mouth and feeling the outside of the teeth.

If you notice that your puppy has her puppy canine teeth as well as the adults, be sure to take her in and have them removed when she is under anesthesia, maybe to be spayed or neutered. Small dogs sometimes do not lose these puppy teeth, and the food and bacteria will be even worse in the space between the puppy canine and the adult canine.

If you adopt an adult dog, it may be more difficult to get her used to daily brushing, but if you work with her every day, she will probably start to think that it is normal. You both need to be relaxed, and then start out by handling your dog's head and mouth, petting her and lifting the lips. Try to insert your fingers in the mouth for longer and longer periods of time. Make the experience positive and enjoyable; try using praise and other types of rewards.

Don't get bit!

What If My Dog Will Not Let Me Brush Her Teeth?

If you have already tried brushing and found it to be impossible, there are a few alternatives. Some companies sell a hard kibble dog food that is designed for cleaning teeth. They state that the food is clinically proven to reduce plaque and tartar buildup, but will it prevent periodontal disease is your small dog?

Not in my experience. This diet does help but is best used in conjunction with other techniques like brushing or chew bones.

What about chew bones? I guess you should think of them from a human standpoint. What would your dentist say if you went in for a five-year checkup and told him that you never brushed your teeth, but did manage to chew on something every day?

He probably would not be impressed. There are several products on the market that contain enzymes and tooth cleaner. CET dental chews are coated with chlorhexidine to aid in cleaning the teeth as she chews, plain rawhide helps in natural chewing to keep the teeth clean, and rope toys will give the teeth a type of polishing.

Flossing daily with a rope toy is better than nothing.

The newest alternative for small dog owners is to have their dogs vaccinated against dental disease. The new periodontal vaccine may only protect dogs that are already healthy, but it can reduce bone loss caused by several of the porphyromonas bacteria, P.gulae, P. denticanis, and P. salivosa.

A lot of research has shown these vaccines are not that effective, so do not be surprised if your veterinarian does not give them.

How Can I Treat the Problem If It Has Already Started?

When you take your small dog in for her annual examination, her mouth will be examined, and if she has developed any pockets, your vet will probably recommend x-rays to determine how bad things are and to decide how aggressively to treat.

If you don’t bother to have her periodontal disease treated, your little dog can develop other signs worse than just loose teeth, horrible breath, and a sore mouth. She can have stomach or GI upsets, depression, and, since masses of bacteria are released into the bloodstream, can become infected with endocarditis (inflammation of the lining of the heart and valves of the heart), as well as developing infections of the kidneys and liver.

  • If you do decide to have her teeth x-rayed, your dog can have about 60 percent of her problems hidden under the gum line; x-rays might show a loss of density in the socket or even a loss of bone support around the tooth.
  • Treatment will depend on how bad the disease had advanced. Early periodontal disease can be treated with prophylaxis (cleaning and polishing). After your dog is under anesthesia any tartar buildup is removed, the mouth is checked even more carefully for disease, and then the teeth are polished.
  • If during the prophylaxis more problems are found, your small dog might need root planing, subgingival curettage, gingivectomy, or even tooth removal. A lot of times the severity of the periodontal disease cannot be determined until she is under anesthesia, and the tartar has been removed.
  • Many dogs will require antibiotic therapy. Commonly used antibiotics include amoxicillin-clavulanic acid (Clavamox), clindamycin (Antirobe), and cefadroxil (Cefa-Tabs and Cefa-Drops). Your vet might recommend that your dog be put on antibiotic therapy both before and after cleaning the teeth.

Are the Teeth Going to Need a Cleaning Later Even If I Brush Them?

I wish I could tell you that brushing the teeth was going to be enough. No matter what you try to do, however, most small dogs develop problems, and all you can do is minimize them and take care of them periodically.

Periodontal disease is a serious problem in small dogs and no sort of scam. My three-year-old Maltese had already developed worse oral health than my seven-year-old pit bull. A dog with a healthy mouth and teeth set wide apart (like a Golden Retriever) may get by fine on once-a-week brushing and some chewing—unfortunately your small dog is not okay with that.

If you practice daily health care and address the problem early, it can be handled before severe problems develop. Do not wait around.

Your little friend is worth the effort.

Maltese that are open mouth breathers are also prone to develop periodontal disease.

Maltese that are open mouth breathers are also prone to develop periodontal disease.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2012 Dr Mark

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