As if a tricky ticker, collapsing trachea, allergies, yeast, acute cough-gag-wretch and a chronic itch with no obvious cause or cure wasn’t enough, now we have halitosis to add to Scratchy’s ever-growing manifest of maladies. It’s not paint-peeling bad, but it’s stinky enough to make you recoil as if you’ve stumbled into a sewer. If you consider how indiscriminant dogs are with their food choices (we cared for dogs in Mexico who snacked on cow paddies) and which body parts they spend a lot of time licking, it’s no surprise they have potty mouths.
But the most common cause of bad breath is bad teeth — in pets and humans — specifically plaque and tartar build-up, which often leads to gum disease. And, for whatever reason, smaller dogs suffer it the most. At least one veterinarian claims that, by the age of three, seven out of 10 pets have dental disease, and stink breath is a prime indicator. As grody as mung mouth can be, if the root of the problem is simply tooth-related, and if you catch it early enough, you and your hound can breathe easy. It’s a simple fix: just brush his teeth.
I confess I’ve never done it. It’s not that I’m anti-dentite, it’s just always seemed so absurd to me. (Statistics show I’m not alone: apparently less than 1% of pet owners do the deed regularly.) I keep imagining a wolf in the wild, pausing from gorging on a kill to ask the pack: “Hey, I’ve got a piece of entrail stuck between my teeth. Anybody got some floss?” But I realize today’s commercial dog foods are often rife with additives of dubious origin (including sugars) that can stick to their teeth, and tooth trouble can lead to so many other problems, so I suppose it makes good sense for me to brush up on it. Veterinarians insist you do it every day, and that if your approach is patient and gentle, you can even teach an old dog this new trick. There are pet-friendly pastes and gels (human toothpaste is verboten, as it’s upsetting to mutts’ guts) that taste like — gag! — beef or chicken, and even rinses and polishes to keep those incisors pearly white (and, um, “puppermints” for that minty-fresh scent).
As I casually approach Scratchy with a brush cleverly hidden behind my back, he stops digging at his ears long enough to eye me suspiciously. He senses something’s up and begins to creep away. Before he has time to pick up speed, I scoop him up and plop him on the couch, cooing to him about what a good boy he is. He knows this is clearly not true, and begins to squirm. I hold him firmly but gently and lift his upper lip. As I bring the brush to his mouth, he shrinks back, clamps his teeth shut like a vice and begins to wag his head from side to side like a kid dodging a forkful of broccoli. I finally get him in a headlock and he goes limp, resigned to this new form of torture effort to make him healthy. I scratch his head and sing to him softly — “Open wide, here comes the choo-choo train,” then I move in with the brush. I manage a few up and downs to his clenched molars before he slips from my grip and flees up the stairs. Well, it’s a start. After subsequent attempts are rewarded with a few after-brush treats, he gives in and accepts that this is one more humiliation he must endure if only to snag a snack when the deed is done.
I can’t tell if Scratchy’s chompers have a lot of plaque build-up — I’ll let his parents get that checked out — but if he did, it’s best to leave it to the pros to scrape it away. If it turns out his fangs have deteriorated into periodontal disease, which you can’t see because it lurks beneath the gum line, he’ll have to undergo general anesthesia for a full cleaning, poor bugger. The upside of him being knocked out cold is that the vet will take the opportunity to examine him for other potential problems like abscessed, broken or missing teeth, receding gums, swollen lymph nodes, ulcerations, infection, tumors and cancers. His tongue, tonsils, lips and jaw will also be checked (and/or x-rayed) for any oddities.
Thankfully we didn’t have to put Scratchy through this, and after about a week or so of brushing and special plaque-fighting, breath-freshening chews, his mouth started to smell, if not like a spring morn in a lilac field, at least not like a pail of rotting fish. The last thing we wanted was to add yet another major ailment to the ever-growing list. After boning up on the subject, I found out some pretty freaky facts: that if good dental hygiene isn’t the cause of a dog’s dragon breath, it could signal an issue with his respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract or organs. If his breath suddenly starts smelling sweet, you shouldn’t celebrate — it could be a sign of diabetes. If it smells of urine, it could be kidney disease. If the foul odor is coupled with vomiting, lack of appetite and yellowy eyes and/or gums, the poor pooch may have a failing liver. If there’s discharge, excessive drooling, decrease in appetite or difficulty eating, lack of energy and depression we’d have a potentially fatal disease on our hands. Yikes. Scratchy displayed none of these symptoms so, for now anyway, we could breathe a sweet sigh of relief.