Dealing with Dog Breath

Every pet owner knows there's nothing more heartwarming than nuzzling nose to nose with your cat or having your face covered in puppy kisses. That is, unless your beloved pet has bad breath! We take care to be conscious of our own breath when we interact with others. Dogs and cats are social creatures too, and running around with stinky breath can give your pet a stigma he or she doesn't deserve. Read on to find out how you can help keep your pet's breath smelling fresh and clean.
Bad breath, also commonly referred to as halitosis, most commonly results from excess plaque buildup on the surface of teeth. However, foul-smelling breath can be an indication that your pet has a more serious medical issue such as an infected tooth or abscess, organ disease or even a tumor. A good oral care regimen is essential for your dog or cat to keep his or her breath at its best. Our pets can't tell us when something is wrong, so it's important to pay attention to changes in their breath to recognize when a visit to the vet might be necessary.
Here are five things that can help prevent and treat bad breath to keep your pet (and your nose) happy.

1.     Dental Cleanings
Most pets will develop stinky breath over time; it's just a fact of life. Just as we require daily brushing and regular dental cleanings to keep our mouths healthy and bad breath at bay, so do our dogs and cats. For this reason, routine dental cleanings performed under anesthesia are considered the gold standard of care when it comes to keeping your pet's mouth looking and smelling clean. Even the pet owners who take great care with brushing their dog's or cat's teeth are limited when it comes to removing hard-to-reach plaque and bacteria that accumulate below the gum line. And, let's face it: Many pets simply will not tolerate regular brushing. If you keep up with your pet's regular health check-ups, your veterinarian should be able to clue you in on when it's time for a thorough dental cleaning. In the meantime, much can be done to keep your pet's breath smelling clean in between check-ups.
2.     Regular Brushing
Developing a regular brushing routine can go a long way in keeping your pet's breath in tip-top shape. For best results, it's ideal to start when your pet is young, although older pets can certainly learn to tolerate brushing, too. Wait until your dog or cat has finished teething to avoid any painful associations (generally around 4-6 months old), and introduce the concept of brushing gradually. You can begin by offering your dog or cat a small amount of pet-safe toothpaste on your finger and work up to brushing from there.

Brush your pet's teeth just as you would your own, moving in a circular motion, hitting every surface of the tooth. Ideally, you should brush your pet's teeth 3-4 times per week. If at any time you notice your pet's gums appear red and inflamed, or if your pet seems unusually resistant to allowing you to brush or examine his or her mouth, it could be a sign of a medical issue; check with your veterinarian.

3.     Switching to Dry Pet Food
The type of diet you feed your pet also can play a role in the quality of his or her breath. For the most part, unless your dog or cat has a specific medical condition (or unless your veterinarian recommends otherwise), it's best to feed dry kibble over wet food. The simple act of chewing dry food can help keep your pet's teeth clean by breaking down soft tartar that builds on the surface of your pet's teeth. That, in turn, leads to fresher-smelling breath. Veterinary prescription dental diets, which are specially formulated to break down slowly as pets chew, can provide even more mechanical chewing action and can be a good option for pets who accumulate more tartar.

In some cases, bad breath is not a result of plaque buildup, but rather, it can signify a digestive problem. If you think that your dog's food could be causing an issue, especially if excess belching or gas is noted, check with your veterinarian. (Read more about pet food allergies.)
4.     Breath-Freshening Toys & Treats
There are many toys, chews and treats that claim to help improve the breath of our pets. These products play into your pet's natural chewing tendencies, and many have a unique shape or texture designed to facilitate tartar breakdown. They often contain ingredients such as mint, parsley or dill designed to freshen your dog or cat's breath. While toys, chews and treats can be a good addition to your pet's regular oral care routine, they shouldn't take the place of regular brushing and dental cleanings. Rather, think of them as a supplement to your other dental care practices for your pet. For best breath-freshening effects, look for products that contain enzymes (on the ingredient list these will generally end in "ase") that serve to combat odor-producing bacteria.
A few words of caution: Dental chews and similar items are intended for chewing and are not appropriate for pets who might be inclined to tear off and/or swallow large chunks. Not every product is suitable for every pet, and many are not designed to be swallowed. Also, keep in mind that some chews and treats, while technically safe for consumption, can cause digestive upset in particularly sensitive dogs or cats. Any item small enough to swallow can present a possible choking hazard or put your pet at risk for an obstructive gastrointestinal foreign body. For this reason, it's best to know your pet when it comes to making decisions on which toys and chews are appropriate. Always use caution and check with your veterinarian before offering your pet any new product.

5.     Gels, water additives and miscellaneous products
Breath-freshening dental gels, rinses and water additives are a better option for pets that won't tolerate regular brushing or have certain medical conditions. In some cases, they're just another option to help round out your pet's oral care regimen. Many of them contain enzymes similar to the products mentioned above and reduce the odor-causing bacteria in your pet's mouth, similar to the effects of using a daily mouth wash. When it comes to these ancillary oral care items, it's best to check with your veterinarian. Not all products are created equal, and some might not be effective or safe for your pet.

While the regular accumulation of dental tartar is the major cause of stinky breath in most pets, bad breath can sometimes be a sign of a serious medical issue. Diabetes and chronic renal failure are two common medical conditions that can cause a distinct transformation in your pet's breath. With diabetes, ketones (a by-product of fat breakdown) are released by the respiratory system in pets that are unable to metabolize glucose (sugar). People often describe the change that occurs in their pet's breath as sweet-smelling or acetone in nature (similar to the smell of nail polish remover). In pets with chronic renal failure, excess ammonia (a by-product of protein breakdown) builds up in the system as a result of poorly functioning kidneys, causing a characteristic odor of the breath. In both conditions, there is often an accompanying change in thirst and urination habits, although, in some cases, bad breath might be the first sign noticed

Infected teeth, tooth root abscesses and tumors of the mouth or throat can also prompt a change in your pet's breath. Older cats and dogs and pets with severe dental disease are more prone to these serious conditions, although younger pets can also be susceptible. Tumors especially are often accompanied by an extremely noticeable and foul odor. If you ever notice a sudden difference in your pet's breath, especially if accompanied by facial swelling, loss of appetite (or any change in eating or drinking habits) or lethargy, schedule an appointment to see your veterinarian right away.