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Why does my pet’s breath smell so bad?

February 20, 2023 Dr. Bradley Quest, DVM

Many pet parents may ask the question, why does my pet’s breath smell so bad? We all want to be close to our pets. They give us companionship, loyalty and let’s face it they are sometimes our best friends. But sometimes the smell coming from their mouth can be so bad we can’t stand to be that close to them. By that time there is usually a serious problem going on in their mouths.

Many of our furry friends will have oral health problems that may not be addressed. The American Veterinary Medical Association says that by the age of three the majority of dogs and cats will have some kind of oral health condition that should be treated.1 Some of these problems may be less severe such as mild plaque and tartar accumulation but could be as serious as advanced periodontal disease and even tooth loss. Most of these conditions are preventable, however, which is the good news.

So you may be asking yourself, why do these problems develop? The answer is pretty simple. Similar to people, if pets don’t have the plaque removed from the surface of their teeth it can begin to spread below the gumline. Here the bacteria that live in the plaque can start to cause problems with gum health and eventually start to destroy the supporting structures of the teeth.  This leads to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and eventually to periodontitis (inflammation of the supporting tooth structures).2 This can be very painful and a pet with severe gingivitis or periodontal disease may have trouble eating, drool excessively, have extensive halitosis, and even have other internal organ problems such as kidney, liver, or heart disease.3  

Plaque is composed of a biofilm of bacteria and food particles. If not removed regularly it can also harden with minerals contained in the saliva and form tartar (calculus).4  This is the yellow to brown colored staining commonly seen on the pet’s teeth. As it continues to accumulate, tartar can also irritate the gums and contribute to gingivitis, halitosis, and a painful mouth. These problems can be compounded even more for smaller pets such as small breed dogs because there may be more crowding of teeth in smaller mouths making it easier for plaque and tartar to accumulate.5

Plaque and tartar can be removed from the tooth surface and gingivitis can be helped but periodontitis is an irreversible condition. So, what can be done to prevent these things from happening? The best way to prevent oral disease is to have a complete oral exam and dental cleaning done at least annually by your veterinarian. In addition, at-home oral health care is equally important. Remember, that just like with our own oral health, daily plaque removal is key to your pet’s oral health too. 

The best way to do this is by daily tooth brushing. Sometimes this can be difficult but with patience and by starting to brush your pet’s teeth when they are young most pets will accept this better with each session. Some tips on pet tooth brushing are to start by using a warm and damp washcloth. You can move the washcloth slowly up and down and move from tooth to tooth to prepare them for using an actual toothbrush. Once your pet accepts the washcloth you can begin by using a toothbrush specifically made for pets. Most pet toothbrushes have very soft bristles and some fit on your finger for ease of use. After your pet accepts the toothbrush, you can use a small amount of pet toothpaste. It is not recommended to use human toothpaste as many contain ingredients not suitable for pets. Start brushing gently at the gumline using an oval motion of about 10 revolutions per tooth. Be sure when you are done brushing your pet’s teeth that you reward them with praise or even a healthy treat.

This leads us to other ways to help your pet’s oral health daily. Mechanical action dental chews and treats are also a good way to help reduce plaque and tartar accumulation.6  Using a dental chew or treat that has a flexible chewy texture and is not hard can help reduce the risk of a tooth fracture for your pet. Also, specially formulated dental diets can help remove plaque and tartar from your pet’s teeth as well. When choosing a dental treat or diet a good resource to help you choose is the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) list.7 The VOHC functions similarly to how the American Dental Association functions to approve human oral health products. If companies complete independent dental testing to show that their products are effective and submit them to VOHC, their product may be awarded the VOHC Seal of Acceptance. If a product has the VOHC Seal of Acceptance, you can be assured that it does what it claims to do for your pet’s oral health.

Oral health problems in our pets can lead to serious consequences as you can see, but they all are preventable with effective daily routines and routine veterinary care that will pay big dividends in the long run for you and your best friend.



  2. Albuquerque C, et al. Canine periodontitis: the dog as an important model for periodontal studies.  J. 2012 Mar: 19(93). 299-305.
  3. Harvey C. The relationship between periodontal infection and systemic and distant organ disease in dogs.  Vet Clin Small Anim. 2022. 121-137.
  4. Niemiec BA. Periodontal disease. Top Comp. An. Med. 2008;23(2): 72-80.
  5. Wallis C, et al. Association of periodontal disease with breed size, breed, weight, and age in pure-bred client-owned dogs in the United States.  The Vet. J. Vol. 275. Sept. 2021, 105717
  6. Quest B. Oral health benefits of a daily dental chew in dogs.  J Vet Dent. 2013. Summer,30(2):84-7.

About the author: Dr. Bradley Quest, DVM is the Principal Veterinarian at BSM Partners. He has practiced clinical veterinary medicine and has developed, evaluated, and tested oral health products for the pet health industry for the past two decades.

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