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Dog with gingivitis

The essentials

  • Gingivitis is the inflammation of a dog’s gums — While it’s reversible, it’s an early sign of periodontal disease that pet parents should be aware of.
  • Bacteria is the main cause of gingivitis — Poor dental hygiene in dogs causes a buildup of plaque, which is composed of bacteria.
  • Redness and swelling along the gumline is a common sign — Pet parents should also look out for bad breath, dropping food, or a loss of appetite in their dog.
  • Some dogs are more likely to have gingivitis — Greyhounds, smaller breeds, older dogs, and flat-faced breeds are more likely to develop dental disease.

According to Dr. Michelle Diener, DVM, “Gingivitis is the earliest stage of periodontal disease, which is reversible.” The good news is, with regular dental cleanings at the vet and care at home, gingivitis can be prevented in dogs altogether.

Periodontal disease can impact a dog’s overall quality of life. According to the AAHA dental guidelines “Compromised dental health can affect a pet’s overall health, longevity, quality of life, and interaction with its owner without exhibiting obvious clinical signs of disease.” Over time, poor oral health in a dog can lead to kidney disease, heart disease, and liver issues.

👉 Periodontal disease is one of the most common diseases affecting dogs, with a reported prevalence of at least 80% in dogs over 3 years of age.

Certain signs of gingivitis, like gum irritation, mean your dog needs to see the vet for an oral exam. When you brush your dog’s teeth, look out for other dental concerns like bad breath, bleeding gums, calculus buildup on the teeth, and even loose teeth!

What causes gingivitis in dogs?

According to Dr. Michelle Diener, DVM, “Gingivitis is caused by soft dental plaque composed of bacteria that gets trapped within the gingival sulcus, which is the space between the gums and the teeth. This bacteria then secretes toxins that cause the gum to become red and inflamed, known as gingivitis. ” Other causes of gingivitis in dogs include:

  • Periodontal disease
  • Crowded teeth and teething
  • Autoimmune diseases
  • Old age
  • Poor diet

Poor oral hygiene is the main cause of gingivitis [in dogs] but genetics also play a factor.

Dr. Michelle Diener


Breeds predisposed to dental disease

All dogs are prone to periodontal disease but toy and small breed dogs are most susceptible, especially as they get older. ​​The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) conducted a study and certain breeds were revealed as particularly prone to dental disease. The worst affected breeds include toy poodles, greyhounds, and Cavalier King Charles spaniels. They also found that these dog groups were more likely to develop dental problems:

  • Flat-faced (brachycephalic) dogs. These dogs were at greater risk of dental disease.
  • Smaller-sized breeds. These dogs had a higher risk than heavier breeds.
  • Senior dogs. The risk of dental disease increases rapidly as a dog ages.

Top signs of canine gingivitis

Proper doggie dental care at home will allow you to look at your dog’s gums, tongue, and teeth. Watch for these common signs of gingivitis in dogs:

  • Redness along the gumline
  • Swollen gums
  • Bad breath (also called halitosis)
  • Dog dropping food or preferring to eat soft food rather than hard food
  • Loss of appetite or suddenly stops eating

Gingivitis versus periodontal disease 

According to VCA Hospitals, “Gingivitis is the earliest, and only reversible stage, of periodontal disease.” Periodontal disease includes both gingivitis and periodontitis, which is progressive inflammation and destruction of the periodontal tissues. Once the disease reaches this stage, this process can’t be reversed.

Periodontal disease grading

When grading periodontal disease, there are four specific grades. Pet owners need to be familiar with these as their vet will explain the grade and the details of each stage.

  • Stage zero: Dog has healthy gums and teeth.
  • Stage one: Dog has gingivitis and mild plaque on teeth.
  • Stage two: Dog has advanced gingivitis, bleeding gums, halitosis, and plaque under the gum line.
  • Stage three: Dog has stage two conditions plus early periodontitis, which causes slight to moderate bone loss around roots of teeth.
  • Stage four: Dog has stage three conditions plus advanced periodontitis, which causes severe bone loss around roots of teeth.

When to take your dog to the vet

If you’re diligent about brushing your dog’s teeth and at-home care, you’ll likely notice whether or not your pet has issues. If you do notice signs, it’s time to schedule a vet appointment for your furry friend. During your dog’s regular wellness visit, your pup’s vet will also inform you when your dog needs a dental cleaning.

Most dogs need a vet to perform a dental cleaning, digital x-ray, and comprehensive oral exam while under anesthesia. Small breed dogs and toy breeds often need dental cleanings annually, but greyhounds often need dental cleanings every six months.

Non-anesthetic dental cleanings are very stressful for pets

A dental cleaning, while a pet is awake, is very stressful and isn’t thorough. Vets need to clean all of the tartar and calculus under the gumline, on the crowns of the teeth, and all sides of the teeth. It’s impossible to do this on a dog or cat that’s awake.

What can pet owners do to help prevent gingivitis?

At-home care is essential, and daily brushing is often the best way to prevent the start of gingivitis. Your vet can help teach you how to brush your dog’s teeth properly. Vets recommend providing at least two options below for dogs at-home doggie dental care:

Brush your dog’s teeth at least two to three times a week — Use a toothpaste for dogs, our favorite is Virbac C.E.T. Enzymatic Dog and Cat Toothpaste.

Use Perio Support — It’s a flavored powder that’s sprinkled on each meal.

Try water additivesWater additives are like mouthwash for dogs. Our vet recommends using Oratene and adding this to your dog’s water daily.

Give your dog dental chews — Look for VOHC-approved dental chews for your pup. Some of our favorites are Virbac C.E.T chews, Purina Dental Chewz Dog Treats, or Greenie Treats.

Feed a dental prescription diet — Your vet may recommend Royal Canin Dental Veterinary Diet, Hill’s t/d, and Purina ProPlan Veterinary Diet Dental Health (DH) Diet.

The good news: Gingivitis is reversible 

Your dog’s veterinarian will ask you about the signs of gum disease you’ve noticed in your pet and evaluate your dog’s oral health. A professional dental cleaning may be needed, and the dental (and wellness) exam will confirm the leading cause of gingivitis.

Important dental disease terms for pet owners

The 2019 AAHA Dental Care Guidelines provide common terminology to help veterinary staff and pet owners understand the specifics of a scheduled procedure.

  • Prophylaxis (prophy). Is a dental cleaning under general anesthesia to remove plaque and calculus above and below the gum line.
  • Plaque. Is the accumulation of bacteria.
  • Calculus. Is the calcified portions of plaque.

Frequently asked questions

How do you treat gingivitis in dogs at home?

Daily brushing is often the best way to prevent periodontitis. Your vet can help teach you how to brush your dog’s teeth properly.

How do I know if my dog has gingivitis?

There are many signs to help you determine if your dog has gingivitis, including redness along the gum line, swollen gums, bad breath, and loss of appetite.

Is gingivitis fatal in dogs?

No! A dental cleaning (prophylaxis) done at the vet and tooth brushing at home can reverse the damage done.

What is the main cause of bleeding gums in dogs?

The main cause of bleeding gums is advanced gingivitis or Stage 2 periodontal disease.