Doggo Dental Health : Ailments
Your dog may not care if he / she has a perfect, Hollywood smile, but dental health is vital to all canines! A dog's gums are not just there for show, they are a great indicator of health and of course healthy teeth and gums are also key to maintaining overall good health.
Regularly checking the gum colour and texture of your dog's gums is an important way to monitor their health. It’s important to familiarise yourself with their natural look. This way you can quickly recognise any changes. Thankfully, they are easy to check and quick to assess (unless you have a wriggler like one of my whippets)!
But how do you know what’s normal and what isn’t?
Firstly, what do normal gums look like? Not all dogs have the same gums!
Gums are mucous membranes that 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 baseline of what’s normal for your dog when she is healthy is vital.
Variety is the spice of life and it’s no different with gums! 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 dog's gums when they are well. This way, you can identify any changes.
It’s worth letting your dog get used to having you handle her and poking around in her mouth (not the nicest of experiences, so ease her into it). 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!
The gums should be a nice bubble gum or salmon like colour. 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 two seconds.
Black gums however are also completely normal if this is how your dog’s gums have always been; and the same goes for gums with black spots on them. 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 should I worry?
The following are indicators of when you need to take further action, and in many cases this may involve seeking advice from your vet as soon as possible. Do not use the content below as a diagnosis and if in doubt, always seek professional advice from a vet.
Pale Pink or White Gums
Anaemia: 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. 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 haemolytic anaemia, the immune system starts destroying red blood cells which leads to anaemia and pale gums.
A blood clotting disorder: In this case, the blood doesn't coagulate normally, causing a predisposition to bleed abnormally or excessively. This can result in 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 poisoning: These two sources can also cause these symptoms.
Torsion/bloat: This will result in pale almost white gums, along with other symptoms such as a distended abdomen. Your dog may try to vomit without success, panting and may appear distressed.
Severe parasite infection or worm burden: Parasites such as ticks and fleas are often easily spotted. However, what about parasites that are internal and not so easy to diagnose? Prompt treatment for worms should be started when any intestinal parasites are detected. Periodic routine deworming may be appropriate for dogs that are at risk for re-infection. Our Worms Away works wonders!
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 Gum line
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.
This is very serious and is indicative of a liver problem, anaemia, and/or massive destruction of red blood cells.
Oral Tumours and Spots
Growths on Gums 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. Papillomatosis 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. Tumours 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
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.
Capillary Refill Time
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:
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: This 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 (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.
Good Gut Health
If there is a disturbance in the gut and food is not digested properly then you will also get bad breath. We recommend feeding a biologically appropriate diet which is key to preventing bad breath. This means your shop bought kibble is out! Kibble is often 80%+ carbohydrates (sugars) – and if not cleaned off can harden into tartar which is even harder to get rid of.
The sugars feed the bacteria developing in this warm, blood rich area. These bacteria trigger the immune system, leading to inflammation and pain. And if left further still, the gum membrane can break down allowing bacteria to enter the bloodstream, creating issues in other key organs. This inflammation can also extend below the gumline and lead to periodontitis, where the bone keeping teeth in place starts to erode, eventually leading to tooth loss.
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.
In both pets and people, multiple studies over the years have connected chronic dental disease to cardiovascular (heart) disease, systemic blood infections, liver disease, kidney disease, and insulin resistance contributing to diabetes, to name a few.
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 and should be treated immediately.
So what now?
It’s important to get into the habit of checking your dog’s mouth, teeth and gums regularly. It will also help your dog adjust to having you poke around in there!
Start with something simple, like giving your dog a bone! Yes, back to basics! Personally I like to use raw bones, however you might prefer to also look into using things like hoofs, antlers, yak chews.
For tips on looking after your dog’s dental hygiene, click here for our next article!