Your beloved dog snuggles up next to you in the morning and then opens his mouth to pant. Your favorite cat walks up your body to give you a wake-up call and then opens her mouth. In both cases, the totally toxic fumes that come out make you feel ill! Why do so many of our pets have bad breath, and what can you do about it?
Pet Bad Breath Happens
Bad breath is fairly common in pets, especially as they age. The cause may be minor or it may be serious. It is important to try to figure out why your pet has bad breath so you can customize the treatment to cure or, at least, control the situation. Using pet “breath mints” may be a temporary help, but that simply covers up the symptoms and does nothing to relieve the cause.
Pet Bad Breath Not Caused By Mouth Problems
1. Baby Teeth: On very young pets, such as puppies and kittens, bad breath may come from teething. Bacteria trying to find a foothold in the gum line as teeth switch in and out, as well as minor bleeding from tooth loss, can contribute to bad breath. This cause has an easy fix — simply wait out the teething process and all will be well.
2. Dietary Indiscretion: Eating gross or smelly things is another cause with an easy fix. Maybe your dog snacked on some raccoon poop on your lovely hike. His breath will wilt flowers, but generally just for hours and not more than a day. Encouraging a drink after these inappropriate snacks can help, and then you just have to wait it out. Prevention is key here. Try to monitor whatever your dog is sniffing or wants to taste on his walks.
3. GI Illness: Any illness that causes a stomach upset and vomiting can cause temporary bad breath. Usually these are short-lived episodes, and the breath clears as the gastrointestinal system heals.
4. General Illness: Chronic illnesses may also cause bad breath. Diabetic pets who are not well-regulated may have sort of “sickly sweet” or ketotic breath. These pets need a vet visit to work on their insulin regulation. Pets with kidney disease can get bad breath that has almost a urine-like smell to it. This is from the buildup of urea and is a very serious sign. Generally pets will show other signs of kidney failure first — not eating well, drinking excessively or barely at all, urinary elimination problems. These problems are more common in older pets, and require veterinary care to try to control the underlying illness.
Mouth Problems That Cause Pet Bad Breath
By far, most bad breath problems in pets are related to the mouth. This may be something as simple as brachycephalic pets with short muzzles, like Persians and Pugs, who might sleep with their mouths open, to those with serious immune problems.
1. Born That Way: When conformation is the problem, there is little you can do. Dogs and cats who tend to sleep with their mouths open will have some bad breath. This can also occur with dogs who like to sleep upside down with their jaw hanging open. Luckily, this version of bad breath isn’t usually too awful. This is a case where breath mints (pet versions only, please!) may help a bit.
2. Foreign Object In Mouth: If your pet is pawing at his mouth, drooling a lot and the breath has a bad odor, you need to carefully inspect the mouth. If you pet is not happy about this, you may need a trip to the veterinarian. Most pets will let you open their mouth if you put your hand over the top of the muzzle and gently squeeze in behind the canine teeth. Have a helper who can quickly shine a penlight in to look. Do NOT get bitten! If your pet resists, get professional help.
You are hoping to spot if there is something like a piece of stick or maybe a bone fragment from a garbage raid that is stuck across the roof of your pet’s mouth. Check under the tongue if you can, too. Cats are prone to getting sewing needles or string caught there. The stick or bone can be a quick fix at home if you can easily remove it. A caught string will require a veterinary visit and surgery.
3. Oral Cancer: Sadly, you might spot a growth when you look in the mouth. Oral cancers are not uncommon in senior dogs and cats. Surgery may be curative though, especially if a growth is caught early on. Follow-up radiation or chemotherapy may be suggested. Sometimes the cancer will be too aggressive or advanced for anything but palliative care. Surprisingly, pets can do quite well even if half a jaw needs to be removed.
4. Sick Teeth: Abscessed teeth can cause bad breath, eating or drinking problems and pain. In dogs, this may show up as a swelling underneath your dog’s eye as well as bad breath. Removal of the bad tooth, along with antibiotics, can totally cure these cases of halitosis. Broken or cracked teeth are prone to developing abscesses.
5: Sick Gums: Gum diseases like periodontitis and dental buildup of tartar and plaque cause the majority of pet bad breath cases. These conditions can be helped, and preventive care is part of the treatment.
Preventing Tartar And Plaque Buildup On Pet Teeth
Just as some people seem prone to building up tartar and plaque, so are some pets. These buildups encourage bacterial contamination, which leads to both bad odor and infection. There are many ways you can help to prevent these buildups.
1. Brush Those Teeth: First and foremost is brushing your pet’s teeth. There are toothbrushes specially designed for pets, or you can use a child’s toothbrush. There are also “finger brushes” that can work. A gauze pad wrapped around your finger is an excellent choice as well. Find what works best for you to use and your pet to tolerate.
ALWAYS use toothpaste made for pets. These come in a variety of flavors — poultry and tuna flavors are favorites in my household. These toothpastes are designed for pets, who don’t spit as they brush. The flavors make them more palatable to your pet. Start by simply letting your pet lick some toothpaste off your finger or the toothbrush. Cats tend to prefer the tuna flavored but some cats hold out for poultry.
Do that for a week or so. Then put some paste on the brush or a gauze and slip your finger or the brush under the lip. You don’t need to open your pet’s mouth or lift the lip. Just slip under the lip and rub gently. Most pets tolerate this very well. My one Belgian Tervuren, Babe, loves having her teeth done so much that she reminds me every morning! When I am brushing my teeth, she comes and stares until I do hers (and all the other pets, too, at that point!).
Tooth brushing is easiest if you start when they are a puppy or kitten, but even older dogs can learn to enjoy it. Skip the brushing if you know your pet’s mouth is sore — a young pet who is teething or an older pet who had to have a tooth removed should get a pass for a week or so.
2. Alternatives To Tooth Brushing: Pets who just aren’t amenable to tooth brushing can get help in other ways. There are tartar control diets for pets, as well as dental toys and chews that minimize plaque and tartar development. The Veterinary Oral Health Council provides a list of oral care products for pets that have met a minimum standard. The list includes diets, treats and chews, as well as dental products like oral gels and sprays that can be substituted for brushing. I use a gel or spray occasionally on my pets just to change things up. Fish flavors (like salmon) win the popularity contest with those products in my house.
3. Dental Cleaning: With some pets, it is impossible to stay ahead of their dental disease. This is especially true in some senior pets. These pets will benefit from a full dental cleaning under anesthesia. Your veterinarian will take radiographs (X-rays) if needed, look for any cracked or broken teeth and thoroughly clean the teeth and gums. Teeth will be polished and antibiotics used as needed.
Anesthetic techniques have advanced greatly over the past decades and, with pre-surgical bloodwork to rule out any underlying health problems, anesthesia is very safe, even for elderly pets. Don’t panic if teeth need to be pulled. Once the gums are healed, most pets who lost teeth do just fine — even eating hard foods like kibble.
The Unique Case Of Stomatitis In Cats
An unusual but serious problem in cats with bad breath may be stomatitis. This is an immune problem with the mouth. Cats who have immunosuppressive illnesses like feline leukemia or feline immunodeficiency virus are prone to this. Siamese cats seem especially susceptible. The easiest way to explain this is that these cats develop an immune response against their own teeth.
The gums become red and swollen. Infection spreads throughout the mouth. The involved cats drool, don’t eat well and have terrible bad breath. If caught very early on, aggressive medical care may help. In most cases though, the cats require extraction of all their teeth. That certainly sounds dramatic! Once the mouth has healed though, these cats feel so much better and go on to eat normal foods and live full lives.
As you can see, bad breath in pets can have many causes — from simple to treat to rather drastic in nature. You can help your pet by providing good and routine dental home care right from the start. Daily brushing, or at least weekly brushing, can be a big help to your pet’s oral health.