My Dog Has Bad Breath. What’s Going On?

man and woman with dog - dog has bad breath

My Dog Has Bad Breath. What’s Going On?

If you notice your dog has bad breath you’re not alone. Halitosis is a very common condition in dogs and tends to be very prevalent in smaller breeds and senior pets. Before writing this, I did a quick Google search to see what information was out there for pet owners regarding halitosis. I found some good information, but I also found even more bad advice. This article will dispel the myths and correctly inform you of the causes and proper treatment for bad dog breath.


What is Halitosis? 

In general, halitosis is an unpleasant odor coming from the oral cavity. Halitosis is NEVER normal. The causes range from something minor with a relatively easy solution to some very serious problems. Below I’ll share the most common reasons that dogs develop bad breath as well as some warning signs that their bad breath isn’t just because they ate something stinky. 


4 Common Causes of Bad Breath in Dogs

As with humans, proper oral care for our canine companions is essential to preventing a range of dental diseases and detecting other health issues. The gold standard for pet oral health care is tooth brushing. If you are not brushing your dog’s teeth, the likelihood of them developing dental disease within their first 3 years of life skyrockets. In addition, your dog should receive regular oral exams and teeth cleanings from a veterinary dentist. Even with these preventative measures in place, you can’t prevent all oral health conditions or issues that lead to bad breath. 


1. Periodontal Disease (PD)

While there are many causes of halitosis, periodontal disease sits at the top as the most common. PD is infection and inflammation of the structures surrounding and supporting teeth and is caused by oral bacteria, plaque, and your dog’s immune system. 

The oral cavity has hundreds of different species of bacteria, and bacteria-laden plaque is on all tooth surfaces. If this plaque is left undisturbed, it will colonize in a protected area surrounding the tooth called the gingival sulcus. This eventually leads to the first stage of PD called gingivitis. Now is the ideal time to have a dental prophy performed as gingivitis is completely reversible. Halitosis at this stage is present but usually not severe.

If an oral exam with thorough cleaning is not performed, gingivitis will progress to more advanced stages of PD. The rate at which this progresses is variable and depends on many factors. Some of these factors are: size of dog, breed of dog, their immune system, level of at-home care, and additional health issues your dog may have. Smaller breed dogs typically have more problems with PD. 

Dogs have 42 adult teeth and their smaller mouths have much less bone support for their large teeth and roots. Brachycephalic breeds of dogs, like pugs and bulldogs, will have crowded and rotated teeth lending them to an increased risk of PD. Your dog’s immune system is very important. Dogs of any size with overacting or underacting immune systems can have serious lifelong PD issues.

As PD progresses it leads to what is called attachment loss. Attachment loss is the destruction of the soft tissues that surround teeth and destruction of their bony support. These stages of PD are when halitosis starts to become more noticeable and severe. The odor is now caused by volatile sulfur compounds given off by degrading bacteria, soft tissue, and bone. 

Depending on how severe PD is, veterinary dentists may be able to save teeth by reestablishing attachment. However, advanced stages of PD will require surgical extractions of all affected teeth to eliminate the ongoing infection, rid the halitosis, and prevent common advanced conditions such as oronasal fistulas and pathologic jaw fractures.


2. Oral Injury

Trauma to the oral cavity can result in infections that can cause halitosis. Oral foreign bodies, such as sticks and bones, can get lodged between teeth, in the roof of the mouth, or in the cheek. Some dogs may exhibit clinical signs that something is wrong, like drooling, pawing at their mouth, and decreased appetite. However, many dogs go on about life like nothing has happened. If caught early enough the damage is usually minor and reversible. If not detected until severe halitosis is present, the affected teeth typically need surgical extractions.


3. Oral Cancer

All oral cancers start small. Some will stay small, and some forms of oral cancer can get very large. As oral tumors/growths enlarge, the outer surface can get infected, necrotic (death of tissue), and/or traumatized by adjacent teeth. Halitosis is a very common sign of oral cancer. Even small benign gingival growths can result in deep gingival pockets causing bad breath.


4. Canine Chronic Ulcerative Stomatitis (CCUS)

This condition affects the soft tissues in the mouth that do not support the teeth (lips, cheeks, tongue, and hard palate) and leads to painful ulcerations. The cause is unclear but is believed to be the immune system overreacting to plaque and bacteria. Halitosis tends to be moderate to severe cases where CCUS is present.


Other Possible Explanations for Bad Breath

With regular dental exams, most of the above conditions can be detected in time to save teeth and restore health to the mouth. Here are a few other causes of bad breath:

  • Metabolic diseases, such as diabetes, kidney, and liver disease may cause halitosis.
  • Raw diets may lead to the disruption of normal bacteria in the oral cavity or the gut, resulting in bad breath. 
  • Feeding your pet stinky diets.
  • Dogs who eat garbage or fecal matter.


Clinical Signs of Conditions that Lead to Halitosis

As we discussed above, bad breath in dogs is not something that can simply be brushed away. It always has a root cause, such as dental disease or oral trauma, and should be treated seriously. Here are a few signs that your dog has an underlying condition leading to bad breath that needs immediate attention:

  • Red gums
  • Tartar buildup
  • Bleeding gums
  • Drooling
  • Trouble chewing
  • Loose teeth
  • Gum recession
  • Weight loss
  • Reluctance to play with certain toys or chews
  • Any obvious signs of oral pain


What should I do when I notice my dog has bad breath? 

You now have established that your dog has bad breath and at least one if not more of the above clinical signs. What do you need to do now? 

First, and just as important, we will discuss what you should not do.

  1. Don’t just try to freshen your dog’s breath. Remember earlier I said that halitosis is never normal. If halitosis is present, there is an extremely high probability an underlying issue is present that requires attention. Freshening bad breath is like putting deodorant on body odor – just a temporary fix.
  2. Now is not the time to finally start brushing your dogs’ teeth. Brushing teeth is for prevention, not treatment. Even if your dog only has gingivitis, brushing inflamed gums is painful, may cause bleeding, and you will likely get negative feedback from your dog.
  3. Don’t give your dog bones. Bones will not treat established periodontal disease and have minimal effect at preventing PD. What bones are really good for is breaking teeth and causing GI foreign bodies.
  4. Some doomed remedies I picked up from my Google search – parsley, cinnamon, tea, yogurt, carrots, cider vinegar, brown rice, fresh mint, and fresh lemon juice. At best, feeding your dog any of these will only provide temporary relief from bad breath. Remember my deodorant analogy above.


Now let’s get to what you should do. 

Seek professional help! If there is a board-certified veterinary dentist nearby, take your dog to them. No one is more qualified to help you and your dog with oral issues. If there is not a close dentist, take them to a veterinarian with a lot of dentistry experience. Make sure that the clinic you take your dog to provides full mouth dental x-rays as a part of their diagnostic workup. If imaging is not provided find another veterinarian or hospital. Without imaging, problems will get missed and it tells me that that hospital doesn’t take veterinary dentistry very seriously. Many veterinary dentists use CT as their preferred method of imaging. CT allows us to find problems missed on x-rays, diagnose more accurately, and treat our patients better.


Slowing Down the Impacts of Periodontal Disease

Now that you have sought out professional help, what can you do to slow down or help prevent PD?

  • Implement Daily brushing. Plaque and bacteria are the major cause of PD. Plaque stays soft and removable for 24-26 hours. Daily brushing will help remove plaque before it hardens.
  • Use Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) approved products. These products include diets, treats/chews, water additives, and toothpastes that have been awarded the VOHC seal. To gain the seal, these products must prove their claim at preventing plaque, tartar, or both is real. Products without the seal typically are riddled with a bunch of fancy advertising and have no proof of efficacy. Visit for the list of all approved products.
  • Avoid hard chew toys. Real bones, deer antlers, cow hooves, the original Nyla bone, and ice cubes can all damage teeth further. 
  • Schedule your dog for routine dentistry for the rest of their life. In general, I recommend small breed dogs get a COHAT (Comprehensive Oral Assessment and Treatment) every 6-12 months starting at 2-3 years of age. Larger dogs may only require a COHAT every 12-24 months and may start at a later age. This is just a guideline; every dog is different regardless of size and breed.


Board-Certified Veterinary Dentist in Louisiana

In summary, halitosis usually means something bad is going on in your dog’s mouth. Periodontal disease is the most common cause of bad breath in dog in all of our practices. If your dog has PD, CCUS, a foreign body, or cancer, all of these conditions are progressive. Today is the best your dog’s condition and breath will be. Don’t delay. Seek professional help. Your dog deserves the best! If you live in Louisiana, come see us at Perkins Road Veterinary Hospital where our veterinary dental team will treat your pet like family! 


Photo by Chewy on Unsplash (6/28/2022)