Periodontal Disease in Dogs: A Primer

Periodontal disease (also known as dental disease) is by far the most common major health problem in dogs, and cats, too. Despite its name, dental disease does not merely affect the teeth and mouth. Periodontal disease impacts the entire body, with...


Periodontal disease (also known as dental disease) is by far the most common major health problem in dogs, and cats, too. Despite its name, dental disease does not merely affect the teeth and mouth. Periodontal disease impacts the entire body, with serious consequences for health, longevity and well-being.

Dental disease is an infection of the teeth, gums, and surrounding structures. Because animals do not brush their teeth, food accumulates on the teeth and bacteria grow on the food. Over time, the bacteria move into the gums and adjacent tissues, causing an infection that ultimately can spread to other areas of the body.


Symptoms of periodontal disease may be vague and develop slowly, making them hard to notice. Many animals with dental disease, despite having a serious medical condition, will not show overt symptoms. However, many other animals will suffer symptoms such as the following.

  • Bad breath
  • Lethargy, inactivity, or depression
  • Poor grooming or malodorous hair coat
  • Tongue lolling
  • Salivating
  • Decreased appetite, especially for hard or crunchy food (this is not a common feature of dental disease)
  • Weight loss
  • Discharge from the nose or eyes
  • Swelling on the face

Risk Factors

  • Age: Older animals suffer from dental disease with greater frequency. However, the disease can affect animals of almost any age.
  • Breed: Small breed or pug-nosed dogs are at increased risk. These include Miniature and Teacup Poodles, Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers, Bichon Frises, Pekingese, Pugs, and Boston terriers, among others. Remember, however, that dental disease is a major and common problem in all cats and dogs.
  • Soft food promotes dental disease more rapidly than hard food.
  • Animals who do not receive regular home care (such as tooth brushing) or veterinary care are at higher risk for dental disease than those who do.


Periodontal disease is a serious medical problem. Untreated, it can lead directly to a number of major complications, including the following:

  • Pain, lethargy, misery, bad breath, and unkempt coat
  • Emaciation and deterioration of body condition
  • Tooth loss
  • Sinus infections
  • Sepsis (infection of the bloodstream)
  • Decreased lifespan and premature death

As well, periodontal disease may contribute to or increase the risk of many serious diseases, including:

  • Autoimmune disease
  • Diabetes mellitus (frequently referred to simply as diabetes) in cats and dogs.
  • Infection of the heart, lungs, or kidneys
  • Heart failure in cats and dogs.
  • Cancer
  • Arthritis and spinal diseases


Periodontal disease is diagnosed by evaluation of the mouth by a veterinary professional. Oral radiographs (X-rays) may help to characterize the extent of the disease.


Treatment of medically relevant periodontal disease involves anesthetizing the pet and physically removing infection and debris. Pets with severe cases may require advanced treatments or extraction of teeth that are hopelessly compromised. These pets may require antibiotics or medication to control pain after the procedure.For more information regarding the use of anesthesia for dental work, see the “more on periodontal disease” section below.


Without aggressive home preventive care, periodontal disease will occur. Daily tooth brushing is the best way to slow (and possibly prevent) the recurrence of dental problems. Feeding dry food will slow, but not prevent, the development of recurrent periodontal disease. Chew treats may help to slow the development of dental disease when used appropriately. Always supervise pets while they are in possession of chew treats.

More on Periodontal Disease

Almost all animals will suffer from dental disease at some point in their lives. Regular veterinary checkups are critical to diagnose and address dental disease before it becomes severe.

Some facilities offer dental procedures or “teeth cleanings” without anesthesia. Because true correction of periodontal disease cannot occur without anesthesia, these procedures should be considered cosmetic, not medical. Do not confuse anesthesia-free teeth cleaning with true periodontal treatments and dental work.

Many pet owners worry about anesthetizing their pet for dental work. Modern anesthetic agents have excellent safety profiles, and complications from anesthesia are now extremely rare. In most cases, the benefits of dental work are dramatically greater than the risks. Never hesitate to talk to your veterinarian about any concerns you have regarding anesthesia.

In my practice I have noticed that regular dental care (including both professional dental work and home dental care) is one of the most effective means available for increasing a pet’s lifespan and quality of life.

About the Author: Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in San Francisco. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, surgery and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile. Visit him at the Dogster Vet Blog and his own site,

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