Dental care: Treatment for bad breath in dogs and cats

Halitosis, or bad breath, occurs as a result of problems in the mouth or elsewhere that affect breath odor.

Assuming that no foul-smelling item was eaten, the first step is to look in and around the mouth of your pet. If nothing unusual is present in or around the mouth, then other sources should be evaluated.

Respiratory problems can cause mouth odor, and generally there are other symptoms, such as nasal discharge or an increase in breathing rate or effort. Diseases affecting the esophagus and stomach also generally present with additional symptoms, including difficulty swallowing or vomiting. Internal diseases such as diabetes and loss of kidney function also can affect mouth odor.

Odors due to problems within the mouth generally are the result of either dental disease or lesions at the tongue or gums. Cancer and immune-mediated disease at the gums or tongue can cause bleeding and tissue death, which causes mouth odor.

The misalignment of teeth can lead to trauma to the gums or food impaction at the teeth. The most common cause of halitosis is periodontal disease. The bacteria in dental plaque at the gingival margin leads to gingival inflammation, which in turn leads to destruction of the periodontal ligament. With destruction of the periodontal ligament, which holds the tooth in its socket, there is invasion of bacteria into the bone at the tooth socket (alveolus). This bacteria produces the hydrogen sulfide gas that causes bad breath.

Periodontal disease is treated based on the extent of the disease at each tooth. In general, if a tooth is loose and moves greater than 1 mm in any direction, then it should be removed. If any tooth root has lost more than 50 percent of bone support (based on X-ray findings), then the tooth should be removed. These teeth are uncomfortable, and with extraction the periodontal disease resolves and the pain goes away. Dogs and cats manage very well without teeth.

If less than 50 percent bone loss has occurred at the tooth, then depending on the extent of gum recession, procedures involving surgery at the gum or filling the gum pockets with an antibiotic gel can slow progression of the periodontal disease. If only inflammation of the gum is present, then ultrasonic removal of the calculus and plaque is performed.

Because plaque very rapidly re-forms on the tooth surface within days of cleaning, home dental care is extremely important. Brushing or using dental wipes at least every other day is most effective, with alternatives helpful but less effective. A barrier gel can be applied at the end of the dental cleaning procedure, with weekly at-home treatments if brushing isn’t possible.

So smell your dog’s or cat’s breath. If the odor is disagreeable and doesn’t smell like what your pet just ate, then a veterinary exam should be done to identify the cause. Because most dogs and cats don’t show signs of mouth pain, the pain of periodontal disease often goes unnoticed by their owners.

Dr. Kenton Taylor is a veterinarian with Miramonte Veterinary Hospital, 1766 Miramonte Ave., Mountain View. For more information, call 962-8338 or visit

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