Are you the curious type? Do you have an inquiring mind? If your pet has bad breath, do you open his mouth and look to see why? I'm often amazed that pet owners complain of pets' bad breath, then, when I lift a lip and show them the dental calculus and gum disease inside, they're amazed to discover the source of the odor.
Soft material that builds up on your pet's teeth, and yours, every day is called plaque. It is constructed by the bacteria in the mouth, which use food particles and minerals in the saliva to build a matrix, a geometric pattern. Tooth brushing disturbs the matrix, annoys the bacteria and causes them to have to start rebuilding the matrix.
The bacteria's goal is to have the matrix remain undisturbed for a full 24 hours.
Accomplishing that will allow the ingredients in the matrix to form calculus, also called tartar. Calculus is plaque that has hardened and cannot be removed by brushing. Removing calculus requires a process called scaling, in which, just as with people, sharp instruments are used to go under the gum line and remove both the calculus that you can see and, more importantly, the calculus under the gums that you can't see.
It's that hidden calculus that does the most damage to the gums, resulting in infection and receding of the gums. Eventually support for the tooth is lost, the bone holding the tooth in place is damaged, and the tooth falls out or has to be extracted. There is pain associated with this process until the extraction occurs.
What can you do as a pet owner?
You've already done the first thing: You smelled a bad odor. Now, lift your pet's lip and look for the source of the odor. Do this regularly, at least monthly. You may find calculus buildup, red gums, hair or sticks lodged in the teeth, tumors exuding an odor, abscessed teeth, broken teeth, wounds in the lips, and the list goes on and on. If there is an obvious cause that you might fix, like a lodged stick, remove it, or make an appointment to have it removed, and if there is no further damage, see if the odor clears up in a day. If it doesn't, your pet's doctor will have to intervene.
If there is calculus buildup and gum disease, your veterinarian will need to discuss with you the required steps to clean the teeth and prevent recurrence. Usually for thorough tooth cleaning and polishing, a general anesthetic is required so that your pet can be perfectly still.
After a successful cleaning, prevention involves daily brushing, and the doctor may recommend a diet change as well. Brushing needs to occur at least once every 24 hours to disturb the matrix that the bacteria are busily organizing on the teeth. Remember that you and I brush our teeth two, three, even four times each day, and we still have to visit the dental hygienist every six months to remove calculus from the places that our toothbrushes miss.
If your pet is not cooperative about toothbrushing, your veterinarian may recommend Prescription Diet t/d. It is specially formulated with ingredients to contribute less to the food particle component of calculus, and it has fibers physically laid into the food to squeegee the teeth every time your dog bites into it.
Some dental problems are easy to fill; some require ongoing care. Your pet's doctor can guide you with tips on what you can do at home.