Joan Merriam: Your dog’s teeth |

Joan Merriam: Your dog’s teeth

Joan Merriam

Do you brush your dog’s teeth? If you’re like 95% of dog parents, the answer is a squirmy “No.” (True confessions: I’m one of that 95%)

There are a whole host of reasons why we don’t — but rather than scolding, I’m going to devote this column to the entire subject of your dog’s teeth, whether you brush or not.

Types of Teeth

Just like human children, dogs have baby teeth, even though our canine companions have more: twenty-eight for puppies and forty-two for adult dogs. A puppy’s deciduous (“baby”) teeth begin erupting between four to six weeks of age, and start to be replaced by permanent teeth around twelve to sixteen weeks; by the time the dog is six months old, all or most of her permanent teeth are visible.

In the end, it’s up to us as pet parents to pay attention to our dog’s mouth. Being vigilant can tell us a lot about our pups, and can prevent many serious problems down the road.


Let’s talk about breath. Bad breath. First off, it’s not normal for your dog’s breath to knock you into unconsciousness. As with humans, bad breath in your dog is an indication of something amiss in his mouth, lungs or internal organs.

Most often, canine bad breath is caused by dental or gum disease, often the result of a build-up of plaque and tartar. Just as certain dogs have chronic ear problems, certain dogs — especially smaller breeds — are prone to dental difficulties. Regular veterinary care can nip these kinds of problems in the bud with professional dental cleaning when needed.

However, you’re responsible for keeping your dog’s teeth clean. In addition to brushing, dental chews like Greenies or Dentastix can help — just remember that while these products can help keep plaque at bay, they won’t get rid of plaque that’s already accumulated and hardened on your dog’s teeth. Your veterinary professional may also recommend specialty chews like Virbac C.E.T. or Oravet, which are more expensive but also more effective.

Periodontal disease can also cause bad breath, so watch for signs like red, bleeding or recessed gums.

Bad breath can also be a sign of a more serious illness. Unusually sweet or fruity breath could indicate diabetes. Breath that smells like urine or ammonia can be a sign of kidney disease. And foul breath with vomiting, lack of appetite, and yellow-tinged corneas or gums could signal a liver problem. If you notice any of these symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Tooth Damage or Misalignment

First, a myth-buster: if a dog loses a tooth, it will not grow back.

Sometimes, you may find a loose tooth in your adult dog’s mouth, which is commonly a result of injury or gum loss due to advanced periodontal disease. It may also be a sign of illness. Regardless, a loose tooth will not fix itself; most often, your vet will suggest it be extracted.

Sometimes a dog’s adult teeth are crooked or misaligned. Some misalignments can be skeletal, the result of an abnormal jaw length. On the other hand, a dental malposition is when one or more teeth are out of normal alignment because of their position in the mouth. This can result in your pup having problems eating or drinking, or soft tissue damage if a tooth is rubbing against it. If you notice anything like this, contact your vet, who may recommend a veterinary dentist.

Many people wonder if dogs get cavities, and the answer is not usually. This can be put down to a dog’s diet (not as much sugar as humans typically eat), the type of canine mouth bacteria and the shape of a dog’s teeth.


It’s easy for a small dog to chip or break a tooth, simply because their teeth are smaller and thus more fragile, so try to avoid hard toys. For larger breeds, tooth damage is more often the result of trauma such as a fractured tooth tip or broken jaw. Some dogs also tend to wear down their tooth surfaces because they chew on extremely hard objects like rocks, risking painful exposure of the root and tooth death.

Any of these types of injuries or problems should send you to your vet.


Cancer is a word we never want to hear, for ourselves or our dogs. But be aware that dogs can in fact develop oral cancer, which is very aggressive and if left untreated, can quickly spread throughout the body. Watch for things in your dog’s mouth like abnormal swelling or lumps, or unusually dark tissue, which demand an immediate veterinary visit. Many oral cancers have a fairly good prognosis if caught early.

In the end, it’s up to us as pet parents to pay attention to our dog’s mouth. Being vigilant can tell us a lot about our pups, and can prevent many serious problems down the road. 

Joan Merriam lives in Nevada County with her Golden Retriever Joey, her Maine Coon cat Indy, and the abiding spirit of her beloved Golden Retriever Casey in whose memory this column is named. You can reach Joan at And if you’re looking for a Golden, be sure to check out Homeward Bound Golden Retriever Rescue .

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