When You Should Be Worried About Your Dog’s Bad Breath

Stinky, yucky breath is not healthy or normal. Here's what you need to know to keep your doggo healthy and happy.

Stinky breath in dogs might seem like a silly issue, or something to poke fun at—they are known to sniff butts, right? OK, true, but their wicked breath might not be a fluke, or because they just woke up (sure, a dog can get morning breath, just like us humans!)

In fact, the stench could be a bad sign. But, many owners think dog bad breath is an inevitable part of, well, being a hairy, slobbery pup. Wrong: Foul-smelling breath isn’t normal or healthy. Your vet can help spot and treat problems before they become more serious issues, so if you get a consistent whiff of funky breath when your best friend gives you a kiss, make an appointment ASAP. In the meantime, there are many things—minor—and major that contribute to dog bad breath you can look out for on your own. They include:

A yucky diet

Most dogs love table scraps (chicken, steak, pizza crust), but human food may increase the buildup of plaque and tartar on your dog’s teeth, so curb it. And remember, human foods can be toxic.

And, according to the American Kennel Club (AKC), your dog might be eating more than just kibble. Beware, some dogs rummage through garbage when their humans aren’t home, and even eat their own poop, or other animals’ feces. It’s plain old gross, and it is a definite culprit behind their stinky breath. Make sure your garbage can has a secure lid, keep the kitty litter box out of your dog’s view, pay attention to your pet while out on walks, and be aware of what’s in your yard (deer and geese poop, maybe). The dog park is another hot spot where Fido might have access to unsavory items. And, yes, it’s bad if your dog drinks toilet water!

Health conditions

Oral hygiene is an important factor in your dog’s overall health. Veterinarians report that an estimated 85 percent of dogs over age four are suffering from some form of periodontal disease, a painful oral condition that can lead to tooth loss and infection. The good news is these problems are preventable with regular dental cleanings at home and professional checkups.

The AKC says to pay attention to the scent of your dog’s breath, too. “Sweet, fruity breath is a symptom of diabetes, a serious but treatable condition.” Don’t panic, but do make an appointment with your vet.

Poor oral hygiene

According to Danielle Bernal, DVM, a veterinarian with WHIMZEES, periodontitis (oral disease) affects the gums and supporting structures of the tooth. “It’s the number one health issue for dogs and is caused by a buildup of plaque and tartar, both on the surface of the teeth and under the gums,” she says.

Bad breath indicators

Dr. Bernal says visible tartar is yellow or brown in color. “As tartar levels increase on the teeth, periodontal disease can develop and intensify,” she says. Even worse, when not removed, harmful bacteria will develop and can irritate your pet’s gums and cause, you guessed it, dog bad breath.

“Excessive drooling not associated with food may also indicate that there’s a dental issue,” she adds. A reluctance to chow down, or pain while eating may point to periodontal disease. “The disease results in swollen gums and tooth pain, making it difficult to chew. If you notice pained looks at dinnertime or a lack of appetite, your pup may be suffering from an oral issue,” she says. Also, watch for red or bleeding gums. But you can help combat bad breath and promote oral health if you apply these practices to your pet’s daily routine:

Brush from the beginning

“Pet parents should start brushing their dog’s teeth from the moment they join the family—even if they’re puppies,” Dr. Bernal says. “With puppies, I recommend starting a dental routine at three months old, which is when adult teeth start to come in.” It’s important to remember to always brush a dog’s teeth with a dog-certified toothbrush and toothpaste (never use human toothpaste).

Be persistent

“It’s important to commit to a daily dental care routine for dogs because plaque and bad bacteria can accumulate on the tooth’s surface in as little as 24 hours,” Dr. Bernal says. Not working for you? “Most dogs don’t love getting their chompers brushed, so offering a daily dental chew is a fun way to let a dog do the cleaning themselves,” Dr. Bernal says. “It’s important to choose the appropriate sized dental chew for your dog’s age and weight, because it will ensure the correct number of calories, and that the texture and size are safe and suitable for their mouths. A dental chew, like WHIMZEES will not only remove plaque but also encourage natural chewing behaviors and keep your pet busy, not bored. A good, extended chew will help scrape away plaque and dirt, and most dogs are happy to receive a treat. ”

Get creative

If you can’t fit in a full brushing, wiping your dog’s teeth and gum line will help remove some bacteria and food. A simple gauze pad wrapped around your finger and soaked in warm water and a pea-size dot of toothpaste works just fine in a pinch. There are also safe mouthwashes minus alcohol, sugar, surfactants or detergents, or pungent mint flavors that work well to freshen up your pup’s mouth. If you’re wondering if your dog needs to swish and spit, the answer is no. Just a small amount (follow the directions on the bottle) added to the water dish each day helps protect the teeth and gums and eliminates dog bad breath.

Remember dental health is key

Just like you pamper your pearly whites, the importance of looking after your dog’s teeth is just as important, not just to their oral health, but to their total wellbeing. “Left untreated, dental disease can cause systemic health issues such as heart, kidney, and liver disease,” says Dr. Bernal. Daily oral TLC, whether via a brushing, wiping, mouthwash or chew treat are excellent ways to not only combat but prevent dog bad breath. Follow these tips to help your pet live longer.

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Christine Coppa
Christine Coppa is a print + digital journalist with 16 years of experience writing about health, wellness, parenting and lifestyle. She has written for Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Health, Elle, Woman's Day, Good Housekeeping, Parents and their supporting websites. Coppa is also a fact-checker, research editor and brand content copywriter. Her book, Rattled! was published by Crown in 2009. Find her on the soccer sidelines cheering on her son, Jack.