We look at the colour of humans' faces to determine their health; in dogs, on the other hand, we can get an idea of the dog's overall health by simply looking at the colour of the gums. Dogs gums and teeth are a great indicator of health and of course healthy teeth and gums are also key to maintaining overall good health.
They are easy to check and can be indicative as well as affected by a wide variety of things.
So what you need to know:
Firstly what do normal gums look like? Not all dogs have the same gums!!
These mucous membranes act as a protective barrier but also have a rich blood supply which can indicate something is afoot if the colour changes. Colour is everything – and getting a base line of what’s normal for your dog when its healthy is vital.
There are a wide variety of pinks, pale and brighter; dark and black gums; and mottled! So it is key that firstly you familiarise yourself with your dogs gums when they are well.
Lift the upper lip to observe the colour of the gums just above the upper canine teeth
For all dogs, healthy gums should be moist and smooth, not dry or sticky or puffy. If they are sticky this is usually a sign of dehydration; if they are puffy then it can be a sign of gum disease.
They should not smell!
Pink gums: should be a nice bubble gum or salmon like colour; and when pressed with your finger they should lighten to a white or pale pink colour and refill within two seconds once you take your finger off. It should not take longer than 2 seconds.
Black gums however are also completely normal if this is how your dog’s gums have always been; ditto gums with black spots on. It can be tricky to do the above test on black gums, examining the eyes instead by gently pulling the eyelid down and looking at the colour of the tissue here as a baseline can also be done.
When to be concerned:
The following are indicators of when you need to take further action, and in many cases this may involved seeing your Vet as soon as possible. You should not be using the below as diagnosis:
Pale Pink or White Gums: If there is a lack of blood or haemoglobin, then the gums may be pale pink or even white.
This is most often a sign of anaemia or acute blood loss. Many underlying diseases can cause anaemia, and trauma can result in severe, acute blood loss. Because the body doesn't have enough blood to circulate, the normal pink colour fades. Chronic renal failure (kidney disease). The kidneys normally make a hormone called erythropoietin which is responsible for telling the bone marrow to make red blood cells. When kidney function is impaired, less of this hormone is made, therefore the dog becomes anaemic and develops pale gums. Internal bleeding from liver and/or splenic masses, and sometimes when kidneys have been damaged. A stomach ulcer may trigger internal bleeding, normally also associated with tarry stools.
Auto-immune disease. This is a condition where the dog's immune system attacks itself. In the case of hemolytic anemia, the immune system starts destroying red blood cells which leads to anemia and pale gums.
A blood clotting disorder. In this case, the blood doesn't coagulate normally, causing a predisposition to bleed abnormally or excessively. Examples are conditions like thrombocytopenia and thrombocytopathy. Affected dogs may develop pale gums, bleeding, blood in urine or stool, petechiae, and bruises on the skin.
Heart disease. A heart problem may cause a drop in blood pressure and coughing, tiredness, rapid breathing, poor appetite, pale or bluish gums, weak pulse, and an enlarged abdomen (ascites).
Rat poison and heavy metal poison can also cause this scenario.
Can also be indicative of hypothermia.
Torsion/bloat results in pale almost white gums, along with other symptoms such as a distended abdomen, may try to vomit without success, panting and may appear in distress
Shock can also result in pale gums as e blood may be concentrated in certain body parts (the most important organs) causing less blood flow to the gums. All of these conditions are very serious.
Severe parasite infection or worm burden
Cancer There are some forms of cancer, such as bone marrow cancer, that cause a decreased production of blood cells. Cancers affecting the liver and the spleen (hemangiosarcoma) can also cause significant internal bleeding into the abdomen
Blue or Purple Gums: If inadequate amounts of oxygen are being circulated through your dog's blood supply, its gums may turn blue or purple. This gum colour is referred to medically as cyanosis. Cyanosis can be caused by a variety of issues. Pneumonia, hypothermia, congestive heart failure, and other respiratory problems can cause this blue gum coloration if the condition is severe, because of a decrease in oxygenated blood. These conditions are all very serious.
Bright Cherry Red Gums: If your dog's gums are very red or bright pink then it may mean it is overheated but this is generally associated with panting in an attempt to cool their body temperature. Therefore, if they are not panting and showing signs of heat stroke it can also be a sign that they have been exposed to toxins, have high blood pressure, or carbon monoxide poisoning. All of which are very serious and require treatment.
Slightly red/inflamed at the gumline: This is a sign that there is inflammation in the gums or they are infected. This could be simply a temporary condition, such as from chewing on a new toy; however it could be indicative of the start of gum disease. There is more information on this below.
Yellow: This is very serious and is indicative of a liver problem, anemia, and/or massive destruction of red blood cells.
Growths on Gums: Oral tumors are commonly found on the gums of dogs. Sometimes these growths are benign or go away on their own, and other times they are cancerous or contagious. Pappilomatosis is a viral disease that is easily spread from dog to dog and results in pink, fleshy warts on the gums, along with other areas on the body. Tumors can be cancerous and cause serious health concerns in a dog in addition to causing problems eating and pain.
Dark spots that suddenly appear on the tongue, gums, mouth or skin of older dogs could be a sign of canine melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma or oral cancer. Any new spots or an existing spot that has a change in texture, colour, size or shape should always be checked by your vet
Bleeding Gums: Stomatitis, gingivitis and growths can often cause a dog's gums to be very sensitive and prone to bleeding. If your dog has bleeding gums, he should be checked out by a veterinarian to assess the underlying cause. More info on that below
If the blood (colour) in the gums takes longer than 2 seconds to refill (capillary refill time) after pressing against the gum, then it could be a sign of the following:
Shock In this case, the dog is experiencing decreased blood volume. A dog may also be lethargic and exhibit low blood pressure, low pulse, cold feet, and rapid breathing.
Dehydration The low levels of hydration make the blood thicker and more concentrated. This makes it more difficult to circulate, and as a consequence, this shows in the gum refill times. Causes for dehydration include fever, heat stroke, or excess fluid loss from vomiting or diarrhoea. Other symptoms include sunken eyes, dry mouth and gums, or poor skin elasticity which can be tested by gently pulling up the skin at the neck area. If the skin doesn’t spring back to its normal position, your dog is dehydrated and needs vet attention.
Heart failure/cardiomyopathy will create a problem with circulation. The blood has a hard time flowing to certain areas, including the gum blood capillaries.
Medication overdoses. Some drugs can trigger bradycardia, e.g. a slow heart rate. As above, because circulation is slower, it causes prolonged capillary refill times.
What If the Capillary Refill Time Is Fast—Less Than 1 Second?
This can also be a sign of trouble. According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, this may be an indication of "fever, heat stroke, distributive shock, or an early compensatory stage of hypovolemic shock
Other Oral Concerns
Bad breath: Bad breath (known medically as halitosis) in dogs can be indicative of a dental condition from poor dental hygiene, infection, tooth decay, or even something as simple as food stuck in their teeth. However, metabolic diseases like kidney disease or failure can cause bad breath. A decrease in kidney function can make a dog’s breath smell like ammonia, as the waste products that are normally eliminated by the kidneys build up in the bloodstream and then show up in the breath. Diabetes can also make a dog’s breath smell unusual, giving it a sweet, almost fruity smell. Uncontrolled diabetes can also “suppress the immune system, allowing bacteria in the mouth to grow unchecked.
If there is a disturbance in the gut and food is not digested properly then you will also get bad breath; so feeding a biologically appropriate diet is also key to preventing bad breath.
Gingivitis: Latin for gum (ginga) and inflammation (itis). Gingivitis can be painful for your dog and can hugely affect the immune system and studies go as far as linking gum disease directly to pulmonary heart and kidney disease! Not to mention that it can be very painful for your dog.
Exactly the same as in humans, dogs get plaque – particularly if they are dry fed; kibble is 80%+ carbohydrates (sugars) – and if not cleaned off can harden into tartar which is even harder to get rid of. Dry food is not tough enough to abrade any plaque or tartar, and the sugars feed the bacteria developing now developing in this warm, blood rich area. These bacteria trigger the immune system to send its army out leading to inflammation and pain. And if left further still, the gum membrane can break down allowing bacteria to enter the blood stream, creating issues in other key organs.
Stomatatis: A condition where the soft tissues in an animal's mouth, such as the gums and tongue, become irritated and inflamed. It can become a major issue if bacteria or an infection enters the dog's blood stream, in the same way as gingivitis. Symptomatic differences from gingivitis include the presence of ulcerated tissues, excessive drooling or saliva and fluid buildup in the gums making them seem a lot larger. It can be very painful for your dog.
So What are the top five tips to keep your dogs teeth and gums healthy?
Start your dog’s dental care routine as soon as possible. Your dog needs to get use to you poking around in their mouth. Get your dog accustomed to your finger, start by simply lifting your dog’s lip and then eventually get them used to feeling around. Make sure to praise him/her for allowing you to do this.
Absolutely without doubt, the best tip is to feed a biologically appropriate diet. This will help your dog to establish and maintain the correct oral and digestive environment, which will in turn prevent build up of plaque and tartar. A raw food diet contains natural enzymes that help resist bacterial plaque. Many veterinarians and pet owners have seen healthier teeth and gums in dogs eating raw food diets and raw meaty bones.
Good dental hygiene. Some people recommend brushing dogs teeth, however I have found that appropriate chews that naturally scrape and clean the dogs teeth are more effective… and preferred by your dog! Personally I like to use raw bones, however you might prefer to also look into using things like hoofs, antlers, yak chews; there are a multitude of options on the market these days. Bones must be raw, and the size should suit the size of the dog. Some dogs will get so excited by bones that they can get very protective of them, so be careful when getting them back!. Sometimes that also chew so vigorously, that they can even fracture teeth therefore they should always be supervised when chewing bones, antlers, or other chewing products, because of the risk of choking or tooth damage. Avoid any treats that claim to be healthy chews which contain rawhide, gluten or corn Syrup. Note: Short nosed breeds and toy breeds often have teeth that do not meet normally, such breeds will not effectively remove debris from their teeth even with vigorous chewing.
Supplements: There are a plethora of options on the market these days that can help to reduce plaque build up, and even remove it. Look out for ones that contain things such as
Chlorophyll & Seaweed: Reduce inflammation and build up of plaque and tartar
Manuka Honey: Kills bacteria
Grapefruit/grape seed extract: Antimicrobial
Vet clean up: If despite the above, or quite often in the case of rescues, you find that the tartar is building up and the gums are looking inflamed then you might need to get your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned by the Vet. A dog needs to be put under anaesthetic for a tooth clean as it can be super uncomfortable; so its important to make sure your dog is healthy enough to go under anesthesia and that you are happy your Vet is qualified and experienced to do the teeth cleaning.