Do Small Dogs Have More Dental Problems? · The Wildest

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Do Small Dogs Have Bigger Dental Issues?

A new study finds that small dog breeds are at higher risk for dental disease.

by Corrin Wallis, PhD
November 30, 2021
Photo of small terrier dog outside int he sun with mouth open, teeth and tongue visible
Reddogs / Adobe Stock

From a young age, we are taught the importance of oral hygiene: brush your teeth for two minutes, twice a day, every day. As we get older, we take it as a given that good oral hygiene is essential in the prevention of gum disease and tooth loss — but many of us do not consider that these issues can affect our pets.

If we do not take proper care of our dogs’ gums and teeth, it can lead to the onset of periodontal disease, usually manifesting as an inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) or as damage to the structures that support the teeth (periodontitis). When left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to pain, loss of teeth, and other serious health complications.

New Study Finds Small Dogs Are More Predisposed to Dental Disease

To help understand how best to improve the treatment of canine periodontal disease we need to first understand the associated risks. I recently co-authored a study alongside my colleagues at the Waltham Petcare Science Institute that was published in The Veterinary Journal, which shows that one fifth (18.2%) of dogs in the US have periodontal disease and, interestingly, that smaller dog breeds are more predisposed than larger breeds to the disease.

While this data is not the first to demonstrate a link between dog size and periodontal disease onset, this was a largest-of-its-kind study that examined almost three million medical records from Banfield Pet Hospital across 60 dog breeds. Its findings will help us better understand the bigger picture of periodontal disease in dogs and what we can do to work towards preventing it.

This research points toward the importance of dental hygiene in dogs — especially preventative care. Periodontal disease onset in dogs is triggered by a build-up of plaque, which contains millions of bacteria, and it is only through continued high-level research into the pet oral microbiome will we begin to truly understand its role within a wider pet health context. 

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Why Are Small Dogs At Higher Risk Than Large Dogs?

The results of this study demonstrated that extra-small dog breeds (under 14.3 lbs) were those most at risk, with up to a five times greater risk of being diagnosed with periodontal disease than giant dog breeds (over 55 lbs). These findings are consistent with other studies investigating the links between dog breed size and periodontal disease onset — for example, two other studies we published in the BMC Veterinary Journal have found that periodontal disease progression is accelerated in smaller dog breeds like Miniature Schnauzers and Yorkshire Terriers.

There are a myriad of reasons why smaller dogs are more at risk of developing dental issues — one being that they may have proportionally larger teeth relative to the size of their mouth, which can sometimes lead to overcrowding and an increased build-up of plaque which causes gum inflammation. However, it is also important to understand that there are exceptions to the rule. For example, this study showed that greyhounds had not only an elevated risk of periodontal disease onset when compared to other large dog breeds, but also the highest prevalence overall (38.7%) out of all dog breeds of any size in the study — a clear outlier and demonstrative of a need for further research to understand why.

Outside of a dog’s size, the data also showed that age, being overweight, and time since a complete dental cleaning with scale and polish, all increased the likelihood of periodontal disease onset. It is important to remember that further research is required to scientifically validate associations like these;, for instance, based on the current data we cannot definitively determine whether these are indeed risk factors, or whether they are merely the result of an already existing case of periodontal disease. For example, it could be that associated oral pain might make dogs less excited to exercise or play fetch, in turn causing weight gain.

How Can This Data Be Used to Prevent Canine Periodontal Disease Onset?

The findings of this study offer valuable insight into how pervasive the issue of periodontal disease is across different dog breeds. Armed with this knowledge, there are preventative measures that can be taken to ensure dogs live a life free from periodontal disease. Some preventative measures could include:

  • Increased education for owners of smaller dogs on the risks of periodontal disease

  • Regular check up by a veterinarian and dental cleaning if deemed necessary

  • Establishing an effective, regular home-care grooming regime that includes tooth brushing and scientifically proven dental chews or a veterinarian recommended dental diet

By better understanding the impact and extent of canine periodontal disease, we can implement small and actionable changes like these to help enable more tailored and preventative care for our pals.

For an estimate of your dog’s risk by size and breed, click below.

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Corrin Wallis, PhD

Corrin Wallis is a Senior Research Scientist at Mars Petcare. She has a degree in Microbiology with genetics and a PhD in molecular virology. She worked for 10 years as a postdoctoral researcher in academia and then joined the research team at Waltham. She currently works in the Microbiome team performing fundamental research to progress understanding of oral health problems in dogs and cats.