Are small dogs more prone to dental problems?

Small breed dogs are more susceptible to dental disease than larger dogs, due to the anatomy of their mouths, heads and faces, along with other genetic features.

The importance of dental health in all dogs cannot be understated. Oral disease is the single most common medical problem diagnosed in canines. From an integrative and holistic perspective, it is not possible for dogs to have “whole body” health if poor oral health exists. Small breed dogs are more prone to dental disease than larger dogs, due to the anatomy of their mouths, heads and faces, along with other genetic features Understanding and proactively supporting good dental health in your small breed dog can go a long way to ensuring his overall wellness and longevity.

Periodontal disease in small dogs

Current veterinary studies report that 90% of dogs have periodontal (dental) disease by just one year of age. This high rate of disease in young dogs is believed to be influenced by the growing popularity of small and toy breeds, which are particularly susceptible to dental disease. While we don’t yet fully understand why small breeds are so much more likely to develop dental problems, several issues are thought to be involved in the process:

  • Tooth crowding (decreased space between teeth)
  • Rotation of teeth (rotated positioning of teeth)
  • Decreased oral activity (less recreational chewing as compared to larger dogs)
  • Shorter tooth roots (larger dogs have longer roots).

Another very important issue affecting dogs smaller than ten pounds (at adult size) is early degeneration of jaw bone density. In other words, very small dogs may have some loss of jaw bone density by just one year of age. When this problem is combined with shorter tooth roots, as is typical in smaller dogs, extractions are often necessary much earlier in life.

Brachycepahlic breeds and periodontal disease

There’s a word to describe the adorable flat-faced features seen in many popular small dog breeds such as the Boston terrier, pug, Shih tzu, Lhasa apso, Pekingese, Chihuahua, English bulldog, English toy spaniel, etc. That word is “brachycephalic” and it refers to the anatomy of the wider shorter skull shapes that give these breeds not only a shorter nose (and airway/windpipe), but also a shorter and condensed jaw shape, which affects the positioning of the their teeth.

Brachycephalic breeds often have a cute “smile” appearance, since their bottom teeth are positioned in front of their upper teeth, creating an underbite jaw position. However, the shortness of the upper jaw (maxilla) creates crowding and rotation of the upper (maxillary) teeth. These issues lead to an increased incidence of periodontal disease, because food particles and plaque bacteria tend to collect in these crowded spaces, promoting more gingivitis, oral infection and tooth decay.

Proactive home dental care and regular/routine veterinary dental cleaning are critically important steps to preventing dental disease in most brachycephalic breeds (see below).

Retained or persistent baby teeth

All puppies are designed to lose their baby teeth when they are three to seven months of age, depending on the specific teeth or area of the mouth. However, some baby teeth don’t fall out, even after the adult tooth has erupted into the mouth right alongside the corresponding baby tooth. This issue typically involves the canine teeth, and occurs much more commonly in small and toy breeds. It results in two teeth occupying a space designed for just one, and this subsequent crowding allows for more plaque accumulation, infection and periodontal disease. It is important for puppies to be evaluated for this condition, and for any retained baby teeth to be extracted with veterinary dental surgery.

Additional dental problems seen in small dogs

Oronasal fistulas

This problem is generally seen in older small breed dogs and results from dental disease involving the upper (maxillary) canine teeth. Tooth root infection in this area leads to degeneration of the jaw bone near the nose. This scenario creates a hole, or inappropriate passageway, between the mouth and nasal cavity, leading to chronic sinus infections and discharge from the nose. Dogs with long-term sneezing or nasal drainage, especially involving just one side of the nose (one nostril versus both), should have a thorough dental evaluation, including dental x-rays. If an oronasal fistula is present, the offending tooth can be extracted and the area surgically repaired to resolve the infection and nasal symptoms.

Ocular damage

This is concern for all dogs with tooth root infections in the upper jaw, but especially for brachycephalic breeds, as their particular skull shape puts these tooth roots very close to the eye socket on the inside of the face or head. Problems with bulging eyes or eye infections are sometimes caused by serious underlying dental infections, and this scenario can lead to blindness or surgical eye removal.

Pathologic fractures

This is a condition in which the lower jaw breaks (or fractures) due to dental infection, and is significantly more common in small and toy breed dogs. It occurs because small dogs have a lower proportion of bone in their lower jaws (mandibles) to support the roots of the molars in the back of the mouth. This puts the back area of the lower jaw at a higher risk of fracture or damage when bone loss occurs as a result of tooth root infection.

Caring for your small dog’s dental needs – a 2-fold process

1. Home dental care

Home dental care can be an effective way to achieve plaque removal, if done consistently. The greatest benefits come from the action of regular tooth brushing – i.e. the mechanical action of disrupting (wiping away) the plaque biofilm. There are quite a few options for natural dog-safe toothpastes and other products that can be applied directly to the gums or used on a pet toothbrush. The best benefits are obtained with daily brushing, since plaque accumulates constantly; in other words, occasional brushing will not provide nearly as much of an advantage as brushing every day.

Chewing bones and toys may provide some teeth-cleaning benefits, but dry kibble does not. It is important to choose safe and appropriate chew items that actually rub on the teeth and gums as your dog is chewing on them. Many chew items on the market are too hard, which means your dog can break a tooth while chewing them. Make sure you can either bend the item with your hands, or make an indent in it with your fingernail, to determine if it’s safe enough not to damage your dog’s teeth.

2. Routine veterinary dental care

Regular professional dental cleanings are extremely helpful if they are done properly and performed with your dog under general anesthesia. It’s estimated that 60% of oral disease is found under the gumline, which means attempting to clean the teeth or find dental problems without probing under the gums or taking x-rays will miss most of the issue.

The dental health of your dog – whatever his size — greatly impacts his overall wellness, quality of life, and even longevity. But it’s also important to understand that small and toy breeds have unique genetics and oral/facial anatomical features that make regular and proactive dental care even more important!