By Dana Scott
Periodontal disease is the #1 health issue plaguing dogs today. It’s estimated to affect more than 80% of adult dogs. Because periodontal disease is so prevalent, chances are your dog is affected too … even if he’s raw fed.
In today’s post, we’ll take a look at the unsuspected cause of this epidemic disease … and how new research says we might be treating it the wrong way.
What Is Dental Disease?
Once it appears, dental or periodontal disease is usually progressive and there are several stages of the disease.
Stage 1. Gingivitis
Gingivitis is an inflammation of the gums (or gingiva) and is the earliest stage of periodontal disease. The pocket of the gum that surrounds the dog’s tooth contains a narrow space (called a sulcus) and plaque can begin to form there.
Plaque is a film made up of colonies of bacteria, along with special proteins from the saliva, sugars and immune cells. Bacteria are living creatures and some species can excrete by-products that can trigger an immune system response. These by-products damage the gums and will cause inflammation.
The main sign of gingivitis is a thin red line on the gums where they meet the teeth.
Stage 2. Tartar
As the bacterial populations produce more toxic by-products, inflammation will increase and start to damage the gum tissue. When this progresses, the sulcus around the tooth will become wider and deeper, allowing even more bacteria to live there.
Once the sulcus widens, plaque will move from the tooth down to the sulcus, below the gum surface. The bacteria in the plaque continues to produce by-products and trigger inflammation. This is the major driver of advanced periodontal disease.
Plaque begins to interact with minerals like calcium and phosphorus in your dog’s diet and when this happens, the film becomes hardened. This is called calculus or tartar. Like plaque, tartar will first accumulate on the teeth and then move below the gum surface as inflammation continues. The outer surface of tartar is hard and rough and plaque clings to the surface and quickly becomes mineralized, creating more tartar and more irritation to the gums or gingiva.
In this stage, you’ll see more inflammation and tartar. The gums will be red and irritated and there will likely be an odor to your dog’s breath.
Stage 3. Periodontal Disease
The accumulation of some bacteria in the plaque along the gums creates inflammation or gingivitis. If the bacteria colonies are allowed to grow, the severity of the gingivitis will increase and the bacterial colonies will continue to damage the gums. The immune response will invade the affected areas and release immune cells called cytokines, which will also damage the tissue. At this point, the bacterial toxins and cytokines can cause bone loss and there will be quite a bit of calculus around the teeth.
Once this stage is reached, the gums will bleed easily and pockets will form in the gums. There will also be obvious bad breath.
If left untreated, the gums will continue to recede from the inflammation, there will be more bone loss and the dog may have loose or missing teeth.
The longer your dog lives with dental disease, the greater the risk to his health … not just in his mouth, but in all his other organs. But before we get to that, let’s take a closer look at the bacteria in your dog’s mouth …
A Closer Look At Bacteria And Dysbiosis
Until recently, dental disease has been thought to be the accumulation of bacteria in the mouth … but this is only partly true.
Your dog consumes well over a trillion bacteria every day. Some of these bacteria will move down to the gastrointestinal tract, where they’ll take up residence or be excreted by the body. Others will take up residence in your dog’s mouth and colonize in the plaque. But the bacteria that enters your dog’s mouth are continuously seeding the bacterial colonies that live in his gut … and this population of bacteria is critical to your dog’s health and immune system.
(Related: Are The Bacterial Colonies In Your Dog’s Mouth Causing Leaky Gut?)
So if the bacterial colonies in your dog’s mouth aren’t healthy, the bacterial colonies in his gut won’t be … and your dog won’t be either.
The bacterial colonies found in plaque are extremely organized and this speaks to their importance in your dog’s mouth. Scrapings of dental plaque reveal an organized metropolis made up of tiny, organized microscopic bacteria colonies.
Collectively, these communities of bacteria and other tiny microorganisms are called a microbiome. Microbiomes are found on most body surfaces. The microbiome in the mouth is the second largest microbiome, next to the one found in the gut.
The microbiome in plaque isn’t a random population of bacteria … they all live together in organized communities. Researchers have discovered that Corynebacterium is the bacteria found right next to the tooth enamel and it grows outward from the teeth, where it networks with the next layer or colony of bacteria. Corynebacterium are packed closely together and adhere closely to the tooth and this makes them hard to remove with food or brushing.
The colonies living in the outermost layer of the microbiome are mainly made up of friendly strains of Streptococcus. These bacteria releases carbon dioxide, which helps the colonies of Streptococcus to grow.
These bacteria all live harmoniously with the body … in fact, bacteria and other microorganisms outnumber the amount of the dog’s own cells by nearly 100 to 1. When the bacteria in the microbiome are healthy, they deliver health benefits to your dog. This is called symbiosis … which means the relationship between the bacteria and your dog is symbiotic or beneficial to both. These bacteria manufacture short chain fatty acids and vitamins. They form the bulk of the immune system and they even have a direct connection to the brain, called the gut-brain axis. These bacteria are essential to your dog’s health. But not all of the bacteria living in your dog are friendly …
If the colonies of bacteria are disturbed, and some species die off while others take over, their influence on your dog will change. Researchers are finding that when delicate bacterial populations in microbiomes are reduced or less diverse, the risk of disease rises.
A study in cats with irritable bowel disease (IBD) showed that healthy cats had a much higher bacterial population in their gut compared to cats with IBD.
Another study found that the skin of healthy dogs was inhabited by a much more rich and diverse bacterial population than the skin of dogs with allergies.
Research is also showing that dysbiosis in the plaque, not plaque itself, is the real cause of periodontal disease. When the bacterial populations are balanced, the immune system won’t be alarmed and activated. But if the balance of bacteria becomes unbalanced, some unwanted species of bacteria can grow out of control and initiate an immune response. When the sulcus is inflamed, the cells in the gums will be deprived of oxygen and this lack of oxygen favors the growth of harmful bacteria … and once their colonies grow, they can crowd out other friendly colonies of bacteria by competing for the same nutrients and dysbiosis will occur.
If this dysbiosis isn’t repaired and balance returned to the microbiome, colonies of harmful bacteria such as Porphyromonas gingivalis will start to destroy the tissue of the gums. Once the gums become inflamed, the immune system delivers nutrients like iron to the infected area … but these bacteria have adapted to feed on these nutrients and they start to rapidly grow out of control while the immune system continues to feed them by pumping more and more iron and other nutrients into the infected tissue.
How much damage is done depends on a few factors. Small breed dogs and brachycephalic breeds like pugs and boxers seem to be more prone to dental disease. It’s also more likely to occur in older dogs, but the immune response is critical to how quickly and how severely periodontal disease develops.
Diseases like diabetes or other health issues related to a compromised immune response (like allergies, arthritis, hypothyroidism, liver, bowel and kidney disease), will ultimately cause exaggerated inflammation in the gums and further fuel the dysbiosis.
Not only can diseases in other organs have an affect on oral health, periodontal disease can cause damage in your dog’s organs as well …
How Dental Disease Causes Other Dangerous Diseases
If the microbiome in your dog’s mouth is balanced, the bacteria colonies will be balanced and healthy and they’ll stay in their normal environment. But when the populations of some strains grow out of control, the bacteria will find it harder to compete and will migrate out of the neighborhood. Bacteria can travel from the damaged gums to the lymphatic and blood vessel systems and migrate to the body’s organs. This is called bacteremia and it’s very similar to what happens with leaky gut.
In fact the colonies of bacteria in the mouth and gut are very similar … they share 45% of the same colonies and populations. So if the bacteria in the mouth grow out of control, that dysbiosis will seed the same dysbiosis in the gut. The toxic by-products from the harmful bacteria will also cause inflammation and erosion of the cells lining the gut wall, and more bacteria and toxins will enter the body, creating a cascade of chronic inflammation that will eventually reach the organs and cause disease there.
In humans, periodontal disease has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, IBD and stroke. Research in dogs also shows a link to heart, liver and kidney disease.
So can you prevent this from happening by brushing your dog’s teeth?
Why Brushing And Cleaning Might Hurt …
Because most of the bacterial colonies are found in plaque, many veterinarians recommend brushing your dog’s teeth … or even a yearly veterinary dental cleaning under anesthesia.
This will clear away most of the plaque, but the bacterial populations begin to colonize immediately after plaque is removed. Studies show that about a million little organisms already cover the tooth within a minute of cleaning. And if the populations are disrupted, harmful bacteria might take hold before the friendly populations grow and crowd them out.
And you have to think about where all of that bacteria goes … you’re not getting rid of the bacteria, you’re just brushing it off his teeth and it will travel someplace else.
Think of it this way .. a mouth that is sick with unbalanced bacteria will seed the entire gut with bad bugs every day. But brushing your dog’s teeth can cause bacteremia, especially if his gums are bleeding. The bacteria will move from his mouth to his bloodstream.
In a healthy dog, the immune system can handle and clear the surge of bacteria. But if your dog is already struggling with inflammation, dysbiosis, or other chronic disease, his immune system can reach the tipping point with brushing or cleaning because it introduces so much bacteria into the bloodstream.
So let’s summarize.
- Plaque is a biofilm of organized bacteria and other substances. This colony lives in harmony with your dog.
- If this colony is wiped out with brushing, it will grow back within minutes.
- If the colony is disrupted, harmful bacteria will overgrow and cause inflammation. If your dog suffers from chronic inflammation (and most dogs do), the bacteria will begin to enter the bloodstream as the bacterial by-products and immune cells break down the gums.
- Once this happens, the bacteria in the gut will be affected, and bacteria will further infiltrate the body and migrate to the organs, where it will cause more chronic inflammation and ultimately, disease.
So maintaining the health of your dog’s mouth is critical to his health … but traditional methods like brushing might not be enough and may even cause health issues in some dogs. Dental care isn’t as simple as getting rid of plaque because there are bacteria living there that keep unwanted bugs at bay.
So let’s look at how you can protect or restore the delicate community of bacteria in your dog’s mouth …
How To Prevent Dental Disease Naturally
The first step in preventing or treating dental disease is to protect the microbiome from damage. There are several causes of dysbiosis in dogs, including:
Antibiotics: Antibiotics kill all bacteria indiscriminately and will devastate the microbiome.
Poor Diet: A processed diet that’s high in starch or sugar can fuel unfriendly bacterial colonies. Genetically modified foods or foods with pesticides can also kill bacteria and create dysbiosis.
Drugs And Chemicals: Many drugs and chemicals will harm bacteria.
Processed Diets: Most processed pet foods are completely free of bacteria. If there isn’t a stream of bacteria entering the body, the bacterial colonies will die off, causing dysbiosis. The same applies to raw foods that have undergone high pressure pasteurization. (Related: The Disturbing Cause Of Dental Disease In Dogs)
In short, you must protect your dog’s microbiome as a first line of defense. This will make sure the bacterial populations in his plaque are balanced and healthy.
But what if your dog already has some dental disease or you think his bacterial colonies have been compromised? What if your dog has allergies or other immune-related health issues?
Treating Dental Disease With Probiotics
Probiotics are friendly populations of bacteria that compete with harmful organisms for places to live and for food … and these bacteria help to balance the immune response.
And as more research is being done on the microbiome, dental research is shifting its focus there as well.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of the Canadian Dental Association found that probiotics were effective in treating and preventing dental disease. And of course, this makes perfect sense.
Probiotics will easily colonize in plaque and compete for colonization sites and food with harmful bacteria. They produce anti-bacterial by-products that discourage the colonization of harmful bacteria. They can change the pH of the mouth and the amount of oxygen and they can support the immune system.
But not all strains of probiotics are able to colonize in the mouth. The study found that Lactobacillus species of probiotics were much more likely to colonize on the teeth and in plaque than Bificobacterium species. And other studies show that the populations of some species of Lactobacillus were larger in healthy people compared to those with dental disease.
Other research found that Lactobacillus species in the mouth are capable of reducing the damaging inflammation that can cause gingivitis and periodontal disease.
So how do you get more of these friendly bug species into your dog’s mouth?
There are two ways to do this.
- Probiotics In His Food
Add probiotics to your dog’s food daily. This can be in the form of probiotic-rich foods like fermented vegetables or kefir or you can give your dog a probiotic supplement (or both). Because it’s so critical to protect your dog from dysbiosis, these should be added daily.
If you’re adding a commercial probiotic product, make sure there are more than just a few strains of bacteria and make sure there are at least 10 billion CFU (colony forming units). Remember, your dog already has a trillion bacteria entering his mouth every day so you want as many probiotics as possible to maintain or restore the balance.
You’ll also want to be sure your dog’s food contains plenty of prebiotics, which are insoluble fiber ingredients that feed probiotics. There’s no sense in putting the bugs in your dog if you don’t feed them or they will just die off!
And finally, steer clear of dairy-based probiotics as they can trigger allergies in many dogs.
- Probiotics In His Mouth
Probiotics in your dog’s food will go a long way to restore the balance in his gut bacteria. But dogs aren’t all that great at chewing their food, so many of the bugs will just get passed right to the gut. To introduce healthy bacteria into the mouth, you can put your probiotic powder in a small spray bottle with some filtered water (chlorine will kill the bugs so don’t use unfiltered tap water) and spray it in your dog’s mouth. Then you can put the rest in his food where they’ll help seed his gut too.
If you do this, make sure you don’t store your probiotics in water. Make a new batch right at meal time because the bacteria won’t survive long in the water.
If you brush your dog’s teeth, make sure you spritz his mouth with this mixture afterward to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria populations.
As researchers look into the microbiome as the true source of health and immunity, we’re finding that some old treatments just don’t stand up today. The same could apply to brushing your dog’s teeth and regular dental cleanings. But for now, try adding some probiotics to your dog’s mouth every day and you just might be able to avoid those dental cleanings altogether!