Your dog climbs up for their nightly snuggle, and you suddenly notice that their breath is bad enough to knock you out! You know gum disease can be a common issue for dogs, but you don’t know what to look for or what’s normal when it comes to dog gums.
Here are all the details of what to check, from the way your dog’s gums should feel to what color they should be.
Signs of Healthy Gums in Dogs
Healthy dog gums look a lot like healthy people gums. For the most part, a healthy dog has gums that are bubble-gum pink, or even salmon pink. Some other dog breeds have naturally dark-colored or spotted gums, and this can be normal for your pet. However, if their gum color changes over time, that may be concerning.
Normal gums are moist and slippery. There should be no odor when you get near your dog’s mouth, and you shouldn’t see any swelling, lumps, or bumps.
Healthy, pink gums on a dog (Photo Credit: Sandra Mitchell, DVM)
Signs of Unhealthy Dog Gums
Unfortunately, a lot of things can go wrong in a dog’s mouth. Taking note of what has changed, even taking photos, can be very helpful to your veterinarian. In most instances, if you notice changes in your dog’s gums, whether they happen suddenly or over time, it’s time to have it checked out.
Tacky / Dry Gums
Gums that are tacky and dry are often a sign of dehydration. Sometimes, when your dog has been panting hard, their gums may be drier than usual. If you are unsure, let your dog settle down and rehydrate, then check when they are ready to nap. If the gums are now moist and slippery, it’s likely that all is well. If they’re still dry and tacky, it’s time for a trip to the veterinary hospital, especially if you notice any other symptoms, such as lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, or lack of appetite.
Bright, cherry-red gums indicate a true emergency. Some common causes include carbon monoxide poisoning, heatstroke, hypertension, certain poisonings, and shock. An excited or hyper dog that was just playing outside may also have red gums, but these should fade to the normal pink color quickly.
If your dog has bright red gums and hasn’t been overly excited recently, this is cause for concern, and an immediate trip to the emergency veterinarian is in order.
If your dog has small red splotches on their gums or non-hair parts of their ears or belly, this is often an indication of a coagulation problem and is considered an emergency.
A red line that runs along the gumline is likely inflammation from dental disease, which can wait until your vet has an available appointment.
Red gums with tartar on the dog's teeth (Photo Credit: Sandra Mitchell, DVM)
Pale / White Gums
Pale gums are also cause for concern. Most commonly, these indicate anemia, but they also can indicate pain or shock. A dog that has lost a lot of blood will also have pale gums. This is not usually a temporary thing that will resolve with observation, but an indication of a true problem.
If your dog has been injured recently or is not feeling well, take them to the veterinary hospital immediately. If the signs are milder, they should still be seen, but you can likely wait for the next available appointment.
Dog with pale gums (Photo Credit: Sandra Mitchell, DVM)
A yellow color to the gums is an indication of a condition called icterus, which often points to either liver problems or destruction of red blood cells. Icterus is something that should always be taken seriously and should prompt an immediate veterinary visit. If you are not sure if your dog’s gums are yellowed, check their lips, inner portions of the ear, or whites (or in this case, yellows!) of the eyes for yellow as well.
Gray / Blue / Purple Gums
Any form of gray or blue is a sign of a life-threatening emergency that needs to be addressed immediately by an emergency vet. These colors are often seen with heart disease or heart failure, problems breathing, pneumonia, asthma, low blood pressure, hypothermia, some types of poisoning, or choking.
Swelling in the gums in dogs is very common and often associated with dental disease, particularly when the swelling is most prominent along the gumline. This is called gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, and sometimes the gums will be raw enough to bleed.
Some dogs with this type of inflammation will be in pain, and they should be seen promptly. Dogs can also develop a firm swelling of the gums, called gingival hyperplasia, which often affects almost all the tissue in the mouth. It’s sometimes so severe it can be difficult to locate the teeth.
If your dog has injured their gums, this can cause temporary swelling. However, if other tissues in the mouth are also swollen (such as the tongue or lips), this is of immediate concern and should be addressed quickly. Most dogs with swelling of the gums can be seen when your vet has an appointment available, as long as they seem to be feeling fine and are eating normally.
Bleeding of the gums is usually caused by gingivitis that has become irritated by eating hard kibble or chewing a firm toy. Some puppies will bleed when they are teething and playing rough with a chew toy or tug toy.
The bleeding can also be caused by an injury. If there is only a small amount of blood (or just blood spotting) that stops quickly and your dog seems to be feeling fine, this can likely be monitored at home. If it is happening frequently, there’s a lot of blood, or the bleeding doesn’t stop quickly, your dog should be seen by a vet right away.
Bad breath is most commonly called halitosis and is the result of bacteria in the mouth and on the teeth. The odor is an indication of dental disease, and when severe, it may indicate a more advanced form of dental disease called periodontal disease, where the underlying bone is involved.
Although halitosis is not considered an emergency, your dog could have an uncomfortable or painful mouth, so this should be addressed as soon as possible. Other mouth odors can also be the result of diabetes or kidney disease. If your dog doesn’t seem well, is eating poorly, or is lethargic, this should be considered an emergency and they should be seen immediately. If no other signs are present and all seems well, halitosis can be addressed on a non-emergency basis.
Overgrowth of the gums is not common and may even have a genetic cause, although some drugs can trigger it. It’s called gingival hyperplasia, and it’s most commonly seen in Boxers, Bulldogs, and Cocker Spaniels. This firm swelling of the gums can be localized or affect all of the visible gum tissue in the mouth. The gums may also be red or inflamed and so swollen that it’s hard to find the teeth. In most cases, this condition can be addressed on a non-emergency basis unless the bleeding is severe.
Receding gums are often caused by plaque and tartar buildup on the teeth. This results in bacterial buildup underneath the gumline, making the gums, and eventually the dog, unhealthy. Most commonly, this is referred to as periodontal disease. It is a very aggressive form of dental disease in which the bacteria can invade the bones that support the teeth, weakening the connections and resulting in lost teeth and abscesses.
The bone infection can result in a weakened jawbone and fractures. Sometimes a hole forms between the mouth and the nose, called an oronasal fistula, causing respiratory disease as well. In most cases, periodontal disease and receding gums need to be treated aggressively, although in many instances (unless the bone has abscessed or there is a jaw fracture), it can be treated on a non-emergency basis.
Growths / Bumps / Warts on the Gums
Growths, lumps, and bumps are common on the gums of dogs. However, they should all be checked out by your veterinarian, as we do tend to monitor changes in the mouth carefully.
Any lump that is not the same color as the gums (e.g., pink gums with a black mass, or black gums with a pink mass), a lump that is bleeding, or one that is changing quickly over time should be checked out in a veterinary exam.
Bleeding masses generally need to be addressed on an emergency basis, particularly if the bleeding does not stop quickly. Other types of masses should be examined at the first available appointment.
Dog Gum Health Checklist
Getting into the habit of checking your dog’s mouth regularly will help you spot a problem sooner rather than later, and it will also help you learn what’s normal for your dog.
At least once per week, when your dog is relaxed and in a cooperative mood, take a look around the inside of their mouth for any changes. Here is the guide for what to look for:
1. Look at the color – The inside of the mouth should be about the same color as yours--a bubble-gum pink tone with a moist, slippery surface.
2. Check for growths – Look for any raised areas, lumps, bumps, ulcers, or bleeding spots. Anything that is a color different from the surrounding gums should prompt a veterinary visit as soon as you’re able to get an appointment.
3. Check for swelling, bleeding, and receding gums – These signs are more concerning and may require an emergency visit. If you find an area in the mouth that looks raw, is swollen, or is bleeding and you don’t know the cause, have it checked. Likewise, if your dog has receding gums, these may be secondary to periodontal disease. While this is not an emergency, it should be seen as a priority.
4. Check for overgrowth – Dogs will sometimes have gums that overgrow to the point of hiding the teeth. They are usually pink and healthy looking and firm to the touch, but there’s clearly more tissue than there should be. These should also prompt a non-emergency veterinary visit.
5. Are they wet or tacky? – Normal dog gums are moist and slippery. Tacky gums could be a sign of dehydration, and if this persists over a few hours, it is a definite cause for worry.
6. Is there an odor? – Knowing what your dog’s mouth normally smells like is helpful. Obviously, this will change, particularly if your dog has been looking for “treats” in the cat box or tasting some roadkill on your walks. But as a rule, there should be minimal odor to dog breath. If your dog’s breath consistently smells bad, dental disease is certainly a possibility. If your dog also seems ill, bad breath can be an indicator of kidney disease or diabetes.
7. Check for tartar touching the gumline – In some animals, the tartar can build up in plates and actually touch or even overlap the gums. This is very painful and can lead to periodontal disease. Dogs with tartar that is at or over the gumline need dental work promptly to keep their gums healthy.
How to Keep Your Dog’s Gums Healthy
Healthy gums are important for dogs. Gum disease is painful and can lead to other problems in the body, such as kidney disease or heart problems. These can be caused when the bacteria in the mouth travel through inflamed gums and into the bloodstream to infect other organs.
You can stay ahead of the curve by regularly checking your dog’s gums. Check them at least weekly, and anytime you see or smell anything that doesn’t seem right. Brushing your dog’s teeth is also a very healthy habit that improves oral health. You will quickly learn what’s normal for your dogs’ mouth, so you can see what changes over time.
Most dogs will develop some degree of dental disease as they get older. Having your veterinarian check your dog’s mouth and teeth closely at every visit, as well as any time you notice a concern, will help you catch problems before they become serious.
Featured image: iStock.com/jirousova
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