Dogs’ Bad Breath

Bad breath, or halitosis to give it it’s scientific name, is very common in dogs. Most of the time it can be nothing to worry about, but it can also be the sign of an underlying problem or disease process.

Bad breath, or halitosis, to give it its scientific name, is very common in dogs. Most of the time it can be nothing to worry about but it can also be the sign of an underlying problem or disease process.  

Reasons your dog may have smelly breath:

Your dog’s breath may smell for many reasons. Often, as with humans, they may not have drunk enough water and be mildly dehydrated or eaten something that could cause the breath to smell. Dogs are natural scavengers and thus may eat unsavoury things such as poo, which obviously will cause quite a smell!

Dental disease is the most common reason for bad breath. It is estimated that 80% of cases of bad breath in dogs are due to dental disease. The smell usually comes from bacteria and infection. If your dog will safely let you look in his mouth, you may be able to see browny plaque build-up on the teeth near the gumline, or red and bleeding gums. It’s important from the start to get your dog used to having his teeth brushed with a soft toothbrush and specific dog toothpaste (as some human toothpaste ingredients can be toxic to dogs). Ideally you should brush their teeth twice daily, as you would your own. Once dental disease is established your dog will need treatment from your veterinary surgeon. Routine brushing is extremely important after treatment to prevent or delay further disease and the need for repeated treatment. As always, prevention is better than cure.

Occasionally a dog may eat a foreign object which gets stuck in the mouth or teeth, then rots causing a smell. Often there will be other symptoms, such as pawing at the mouth, pain and difficulty eating.

Tumours may also grow in the mouth; occasionally these can cause smells if they ulcerate, trap food or become infected.

Bad breath smells could also be a sign of other disease processes. Dehydration due to vomiting or diarrhoea will cause a slight smell to the breath. Airway infections will lead to smells which are noticeable when your dog breathes on you. Illness coinciding with diabetes may cause smelly breath. Kidney failure or liver failure will give a foul smell to the breath, due to toxin build-up in the body.

If you suddenly notice a change in the smell of your dog’s breath or it becomes pungent, make an appointment with your vet for a check up to find the underlying cause.

If you are concerned that your dog’s breath is smelly, veterinary advice or a check-up is recommended. This will include taking a full history followed by a physical examination and sometimes further tests, including blood tests, if needed.

Puppy breath:

Quite often puppies have a distinct smell to their breath. The usual cause of the smell is due to a puppy’s diet being solely of mother’s milk. The break down of lactose (milk sugar) leads to sweet smelling breath.  However, puppies also often eat each other’s poop which will add to the aroma.

Treatment for bad breath:

The treatment of bad breath really depends on the underlying cause.

In general prevention is better than cure. Given most cases of bad breath are due to dental disease, it is very important that oral hygiene measures such as tooth brushing are started from puppyhood.

Brushing your dog’s teeth twice a day with a dog-specific toothpaste and brush should help prevent dental disease in most cases.

There are also water additives, rinses, mouth washes and gels available which may also help. These are especially useful for those dogs who won’t tolerate their teeth being brushed.

If dental disease is established, your dog will need to have a general anaesthetic, dental charting to assess any tooth and gum problems, ultrasonic cleaning of the teeth and occasionally X-rays and extractions as needed. If lots of teeth need to be removed your veterinary surgeon may recommend a staged procedure where some teeth are removed under one anaesthetic, the dog is allowed time to recover, and another anaesthetic is performed to remove the remaining teeth. After a dental procedure, once the gums have healed (about 7-10 days), tooth brushing should be started. 

If there is a foreign body stuck in the mouth an anaesthetic may also be necessary to remove it.

Tumours are also often assessed, biopsied or removed under a general anaesthetic.

Other disease processes will have specific treatments, such as antibiotics if a bacterial infection is found, insulin and occasionally fluids for diabetes, diet changes and specific supplements or medications for kidney and liver disease.

If you notice your dog has smelly breath, always mention it to your vet. If you notice any other symptoms, such as not eating, lethargy or vomiting, then urgent veterinary advice should be sought.