Written by Emily Sullivan, DVM.

Nobody likes bad breath in a dog or cat. The medical term for bad breath is halitosis. Beyond being unpleasant to smell, halitosis can also signal potential health concerns for your pet. In order to combat halitosis, it is helpful to understand what causes it. There are numerous causes of halitosis, including dental disease, eating bad smelling items (what dog doesn’t enjoy a trip to the trash can or litterbox?), skin infections, respiratory diseases, and systemic diseases such as diabetes or kidney diseases. With some of the causes of halitosis in hand, we can turn to what halitosis can mean for your cat or dog’s health. We will focus on the dental causes of halitosis.

Halitosis is a common indicator of periodontal disease which is disease of the gums and supporting structures. Tooth roots, alveolar bone, and periodontal ligaments all support the teeth and keep them from moving. These are subject to disease and infection just like teeth. You may not notice periodontal disease, because these structures are not visible. If you are looking closely at your pet’s teeth, you may see a lot of tartar on their teeth or you may only see irritation of the gums (gingivitis). Sometimes halitosis is the only clue of periodontal disease so make sure to consult your veterinarian if your pet has halitosis.

Before we discuss what can be done to address halitosis, let’s discuss the cause of periodontal disease. Food and bacteria cause plaque buildup on teeth. Those same bacteria can spread from the teeth to the gums and then underneath the gum line, causing infection of the supporting structures of the teeth. Such an infection causes irritation of the gums. If left unchecked, the infection can undermine the roots of the teeth and the surrounding bone.  This can lead to loose, painful teeth.

If your pet has halitosis, what can be done? In the early stage, halitosis can be managed by homecare techniques that most people can do. If things have progressed further, your veterinarian will need to take action.

The best way to manage gum disease and halitosis is to prevent it. Prevention begins at home. Brushing your pet’s teeth effectively reduces tartar build up. Tartar can start forming after 24 hours so brushing every day is ideal. Introducing your pet to brushing when he or she is young and rewarding your pet during the process helps brushing go smoothly. If you are unable to brush your pet’s teeth, a variety of specially formulated dental diets and chews can be helpful, although less effective than brushing. There are many products out on the market. As a guide, look for products with The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VHOC) seal of approval.  Having a veterinarian regularly evaluate your pet’s mouth, and scale and polish your pet’s teeth when needed, will effectively remove tartar that is not eliminated by home brushing.

If you suspect your pet already has periodontal disease, an oral exam and cleaning under anesthesia is the first step in treatment. During an oral exam, each tooth is evaluated and probed to assess its health.  Dental x-rays reveal what is going on under the gum line. Your veterinarian will clean the surface and under the gum line to remove any tartar that is present. If the examination reveals teeth with advanced disease they may need to be removed.

So give your pet’s mouth the sniff test. Halitosis may be the first clue to periodontal disease. Your veterinarian can help locate and treat the source of bad breath. Starting oral care early in your pet’s life is a key step in preventing dental disease. As a team, you and your veterinarian can keep your pet’s mouth healthy.