Bad breath, also known as halitosis, is a common complaint from pet owners. Bad breath may be a result of dental disease, other oral diseases (like oral tumors, foreign bodies, etc.) or, rarely, systemic health problems like kidney disease or diabetes.
When bad breath is from dental disease, it is typically caused by bacteria that grow in conjunction with build-up of plaquea sticky deposit on teeth in which bacteria proliferate on the tooth. This layer of bacteria is called a biofilm layer. When the biofilm layer is not removed from the tooth through routine brushing or chewing of food or chew toys, calcium and other minerals will bind to it, hardening it and forming what we call dental calculus. Formation of this dental calculus encourages bacteria to invade the deeper tissues around the tooth, including the gums and ligaments that hold the tooth in place. As bacteria proliferate, the odor from the tooth worsens.
Halitosis related to dental disease is an indication that a dental cleaning should be completed. Complete evaluation of 100 percent of each tooth is accomplished with dental X-rays and by probing the periodontal pockets around each tooth. The visible tooth comprises only 30 percent to 50 percent of the entire tooth. The remainder of the invisible portion is the root that is covered by gingival and gum tissue. Only when a complete evaluation of each tooth is performed can the best options for treatment be determined. Treatment may include dental extraction(s), antibiotics and periodontal root planing or other advanced periodontic/endodontic treatment.
It is important to realize that your veterinarian can only complete an evaluation of each tooth and perform proper cleaning while your pet is under general anesthesia. Dental cleanings completed at grooming facilities are not a replacement for your veterinarian’s dental care. While these cleanings can be helpful in maintaining a healthy mouth, a groomer’s dental care is not equivalent to dental calculi removal, scaling and the polishing process completed by your veterinarian.
The majority of dental disease can be prevented through routine dental prophylaxis (professional dental cleanings by your veterinarian) every year and regular tooth brushing at home. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends brushing your pet’s teeth three times per week to be effective in reducing dental disease. Alternatively, if brushing isn’t an option for your pet, you may elect any number of at-home preventive measures including water additives, dental chews and specialized diets. Discuss with your veterinarian to determine the best options for you and your pet.
Other oral diseases such as foreign bodies lodged between teeth, in the roof of the mouth/gums or the cheeks; tumors or cancers in the mouth; and tonsillitis and gingivitis/stomatitis can also produce halitosis.
In instances in which dental disease or other oral disease is not identified as the source of bad breath, further investigation is warranted. Possibly the source of bad breath is from eating a particularly malodorous food or fecal matter. However, if neither of these scenarios occurs and dental disease has been ruled out, your veterinarian may recommend further diagnostics to rule out systemic disease processes like diabetes and kidney failure. Other disease processes in the body that might contribute to halitosis include respiratory disease (rhinitis, sinusitis), gastrointestinal disease (foreign bodies), skin disease (especially if around the nose and mouth), licking at full anal sacs and autoimmune diseases.
If your pet has halitosis, speak to your veterinarian for further advice on examination, diagnostics and treatments that might be right for it! While common, it is not normal, and bad breath could be an indication of more severe systemic problems and also can be linked to the development of new conditions such as cardiac disease.
Jacquelyn Schrock, DVM, is a graduate of Oklahoma State College of Veterinary Medicine who lives in Fulshear, Texas. Dr. Schrock is the Medical Director for Banfield Pet Hospital in south Houston.