5 Common Canine Mouth Problems - And How to Spot Them

dog mouth problem

Story at-a-glance -

  • There are a number of conditions that can crop up in your dog’s mouth
  • Some of the most common include gum disease, foreign objects embedded in the mouth, trauma, oral papillomatosis (warts) and tumors
  • Regular at-home oral exams are the best way to keep abreast of any changes in your dog’s mouth

By Dr. Becker

There are a number of problems that can develop in a dog's mouth, and it's a good idea to know what to look for in your own canine companion.

Five Common Mouth Problems in Dogs

1. Gingivitis

Gingivitis — gum disease — is inflammation of some or all of a tooth's deep supporting structures. The condition usually starts with inflammation of a single tooth. Left untreated, the disease progresses to an irreversible stage marked by significant amounts of calculus below the gum line, severe inflammation, gum recession, loose and missing teeth, pus and bleeding from the gums and significant bone loss.

Gum disease starts with bits of food that remain in your pet's mouth after eating. These bits of food and accompanying bacteria form a layer of plaque on your dog's teeth and gums. If the plaque isn't removed, it will soon harden to tartar. A buildup of tartar irritates the gums, causing inflammation.

This inflammation, called gingivitis, causes the gums to change from a healthy pink color to angry red. If tartar remains on the teeth, it will eventually build up under the gums, causing them to pull away from the teeth. How quickly this process develops depends on a number of factors, including your dog's age, overall health, diet, breed, genetics and dental care.

Signs that your dog has gum disease include bad breath, drooling, difficulty chewing, mouth sensitivity, pawing at the mouth, inflamed or bleeding gums, tooth loss, loss of appetite, stomach or other digestive problems, irritable or depressed mood or other behavior changes.

Recommendations for keeping your dog's mouth healthy include daily tooth brushing; feeding a nutritionally balanced, species-appropriate raw diet; offering recreational bones to gnaw on; and arranging for routine oral exams with your veterinarian.

2. A foreign body embedded in the mouth

This is a quite common situation, especially in dogs who are outdoors a lot, and typically involves things like sticks or plant material lodged in the tissues of the mouth. It can also happen indoors with certain rawhide chews, as well as splinters from furniture or other items made of wood a dog may decide to gnaw on.

Unless the object stuck in your dog's mouth is visible or causing bleeding, you might not even know it's there, unless he's drooling excessively or gagging. Left untreated, embedded objects can cause infection, in which case your dog will probably develop very stinky breath.

It's a good idea to do regular mouth checks as part of your at-home wellness exams for your pet. It's best to start the practice in puppyhood to get him used to having his mouth handled. You'll want to visibly examine the mouth with a flashlight, and run your fingers over all surfaces to check for lumps, bumps and other abnormalities.

3. Oral trauma

This tends to be more of a problem for large dogs and aggressive chewers. They can do a number on their teeth, gums, tongue and other mouth surfaces as they bite and crack their way through too-small recreational bones and other types of hard chews such as antlers.

Another way dogs get mouth injuries is by interacting "face first" with other dogs, cats, snakes, porcupines, bees, wasps and other critters that typically don't appreciate up-close-and-personal encounters. Obviously, if your dog is bleeding from the mouth or you see a broken tooth or another problem in there, or if she's hesitant to drink or eat, it's time to call your veterinarian.

4. Oral warts

Oral warts are caused by the canine oral papillomavirus, and are typically found on the lips, gums and tongue, and have a fleshy, cauliflower-like appearance. The condition, called oral papillomatosis, typically occurs in young dogs. The virus is spread by direct contact between dogs, as well as through insect bites, cuts, scrapes or where there's inflammation present in a dog's body.

Oral papillomatosis typically occurs in immunologically naïve or immune-compromised dogs under 2 years of age. A young dog's immune system isn't yet capable of mounting an effective response to eliminate the virus. In young dogs, the condition often spontaneously disappears after a few months when the immune system fully kicks in, recognizes the problem, and resolves all the oral warts.

In severe cases of oral papillomatosis from congenital immunodeficiency, a dog's body may not recognize an immune response is required. There is a severe viral infection and the lesions in the mouth don't heal. These poor pups can have hundreds of warts in their mouth that make it nearly impossible to eat or drink without excruciating pain.

In these cases, I strongly recommend measuring the pup's IgG, IgM and IgA levels, and providing the necessary support for deficient animals. Holistic practitioners use a variety of immunoglobulin support products, depending on the deficiency.

A topical medication can also be used to help boost immune-mediated inflammation, which facilitates destruction of the virus by the body. The antibiotic azithromycin has also been proven to help resolve oral lesions within 15 days, as does high potency Thuja, a homeopathic remedy.

I only recommend using drugs if the dog is not eating and her quality of life has been compromised. Pups with oral papillomatosis should remain quarantined or separate from other dogs until all lesions have resolved. Most importantly, adult dogs with an outbreak should have their immunologic health thoroughly evaluated.

5. Tumors

Tumors in a dog's mouth can be either benign or malignant (cancerous). They can develop almost anywhere in the oral cavity, but are most often found in the gum tissue at the back of the throat. Signs of a potential mass in your dog's mouth include excessive drooling or licking.

This is another good reason to perform regular mouth inspections on your dog, because obviously you want to find a potentially cancerous tumor as soon as possible. Even benign tumors in the mouth often need to be removed because they can throw the teeth out of alignment, as well as interfere with a dog's ability to eat or his quality of life.

If you suspect, see, or smell something out of the ordinary about your dog's mouth, I recommend making an appointment with your veterinarian for a thorough oral exam. As with any health-related condition, the sooner you identify the problem and take steps resolve it, the better your dog's chances for a full recovery.

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