Is There an Inexpensive Way to Deal With Periodontal Disease?

A Dogster reader in Florida recently sent this question on dental disease to our resident vet, Dr. Eric Barchas:

The Question

Hi, we have a 5-year-old Boston Terrier. He is quite the active, fun-loving dog. He is a great family pet, and great with the kids. Like any other dog, he likes to play and chew up/eat anything and everything in sight. He eats sticks, grass, socks, clothes, dog toys, and so on.

Over the past few months, my wife and I noticed his breath start to have this rotten odor to it. Then one day we thought to take a better look into his mouth and saw that his front upper gums were a little bit red and a little swollen, and had an infecyrf spot and what looks like holes or gaps in his gums.

We are very worried and extremely concerned but don't know what to do. We have a local clinic which has very reasonable prices but they are not equipped to do any extensive dental work or x-rays. Unfortunately with the economy down I am the only one working right now, and had a slight cutback in business. We cannot afford to take him to a real clinic. Its hard enough making ends meet without an outrageous vet bill. But, I am willing to try and do whatever it takes and whatever I can to help get our Dugan checked out and proper treatment. Is there anything I can do? Or any medications to try? Any ideas or advice would be greatly appreciated.

The Answer

It sounds like your dog has periodontal disease. Periodontal disease occurs when bacteria infect the gums and the tissues that support the teeth. The gums turn red due to inflammation (irritation) caused by the bacteria. The bad breath is caused by the smell of bacterial waste products. Periodontal disease develops slowly but it is ubiquitous.

Periodontal disease is a big deal, and it adversely affects the health of anyone -- dog, cat, or human -- who suffers from it. Sadly, a large majority of adult cats and dogs suffer from periodontal disease.

The treatment for periodontal disease involves physically removing the bacteria (and all debris) from the teeth, gums, and supporting structures. The teeth can be treated in some animals without anesthesia. The gums and supporting structures can not.

Tooth brushing really helps to prevent periodontal disease. However, by the time you see red gums and smell bad breath it's generally too late for tooth brushing to reverse the problem. The only cure is anesthetic dental work. And that's expensive.

Antibiotics can reduce severe dental infections temporarily. Tooth brushing some times stops the progress of mild existing dental disease (dental disease is relentlessly progressive), but generally cannot reverse gum inflammation.

I'd recommend that you go to the low cost clinic for an assessment. They may not be able to perform dental work, but they should be offer suggestions to help control the progress of the disease until you can afford an anesthetic procedure. They also will be able to confirm the diagnosis.

For everyone out there who wants to save money on vet bills and help keep their pets healthy, I have a simple piece of advice: brush your dog's teeth. It is the only reliable way to slow or prevent dental disease.

There is no reliable substitute for tooth brushing. Period. The fact is that without tooth brushing humans, cats, and dogs all reliably develop periodontal disease eventually.

And why, you may ask, don't wild dogs and cats develop dental disease? Most of them don't live long enough. They die from disease, starvation, or predation before periodontal disease can develop. Those that live long enough do develop periodontal disease. I am confident that periodontal disease consistently contributes to the deaths of mature wild cats and dogs.

So brush your pet's teeth. Save thousands of dollars in vet bills. Keep your pet healthier and happier.

About the Author: Eric Barchas, DVM is a veterinarian who lives and works in San Francisco. His emphasis is on small animal medicine, surgery and wellness. An avid traveler, he has studied lions in Botswana and salmon in southern Chile. Visit him at the Dogster Vet Blog and his own site, DrBarchas.com.