If I had two dollars for every time someone asked. . .

There are a lot of things I am asked on a fairly regular basis. Some questions are especially common in and away from work – people call and ask at the clinic, and people who find out I’m a vet ask me in everyday life. Sometimes it’s a common question because it’s a common problem, sometimes it’s a common question because it’s a common occurrence that nobody understands. . . Either way, I’m keeping track! And I’ll be sharing some of the questions, and my answers, here.


Which brings us to the second frequently asked question: My dog/cat has bad breath, what does it mean?

(I should note that these frequently asked questions aren’t being done in any particular order. I just let my most recent phone calls inspire me.)

There is a plethora of reasons for bad breath. The most common? Dental disease. Do you brush your pets teeth every day? Stop brushing your own teeth for about a week and see how awesome your breath gets.

There are other causes for bad breath, here’s a little list:

-food. Often, your pet’s breath reflects its diet. Take a good whiff of what you’re feeding them and see if it matches the offending breath odour.

-poop. This is more dogs than cats. If your dog likes to eat their own poop or the poop of others, they will have poopy breath. True story.

-oral disease. Looking beyond the teeth here, there are other things that go wrong in the mouth – oral tumors, foreign bodies, trauma, ulcers. . .

-metabolic disease. There are a few diseases that can cause particular odours to manifest in the breath because of toxins building up in the body, such as diabetes and kidney failure.

This is obviously not a comprehensive list, but just a snapshot to let you know that while bad teeth is often the cause of bad breath, it is not the only cause!

With any question I get asked on the phone or outside of work, the real question they’re asking is “Is this an emergency?” You can probably figure out for yourself based on the above list that bad breath is not often an emergency, but it certainly could be. As with most problems, I generally cannot say without seeing the animal whether or not it is an emergency, so I have to rely a little bit on the client’s judgement.  Sometimes a bit more information will help. . . is the animal drooling excessively? Vomiting? Lethargic? Have any known issues like diabetes? The more information you can give your vet, the more  likely they can let you know if you need to come in ASAP.

Whether it’s an emergency or not, I would definitely recommend that if you find your pet’s breath to be offensive you at least make an appointment to have your vet check it out. Even if you are convinced it’s just bad teeth, let your vet confirm this and discuss the options and possibilities with you. Dental disease can be a serious problem, and the sooner it’s caught the less your pet suffers and the less drastic things can become.

A couple example cases to drive my point home!

-15 year old cat comes to see me, decreased appetite to the point of barely eating. On physical exam I find the cat to be underweight, and has significant dental disease, but that’s it. Full blood work comes back completely normal. So we do a dental cleaning, and the next day the cat is eating with gusto! That cat is still doing well, 2 years later.

-Middle aged beagle comes in, drooling and not eating. Oral exam shows very large calculus (coating on teeth – plaque becomes mineralized over time and forms like a rock like coating over the teeth). This dog’s calculi were so large and rough, they caused ulcers to form inside his cheeks – and so he had raw sores and sandpaper rubbing on them every time he tried to eat! One dental cleaning later, and he was happily eating soups, and within a week was back on kibble.

Sometimes complications related to dental disease are more obvious (swollen face secondary to tooth root abscess that happened because teeth were just so very rotten), but the point is if you notice bad breath and we deal with the problem right away, we can prevent your pet from getting to the point where they are so uncomfortable they can’t even eat.

Moral of the story? If you tell me your pet has bad breath, I won’t be able to tell you why without seeing them. . . but they should be seen. Maybe they have a toy tire stuck on their tongue (saw that in a young cat. Worst breath EVER because of there was food stuck under the tire and rotting), maybe they have a rotting tumour (oral tumours can be very aggressive and grow very quickly), maybe they have a disease elsewhere in their body that has gotten out of hand (if a diabetic has breath that smells like nail polish remover, this is an emergency), or maybe they just need their teeth cleaned.


About dottiemaggie

A veterinarian living and working in St John's, Newfoundland. I love my job, and I love my home. Professionally I am passionate about critical care and client education. Away from work I am passionate about enjoying life, spending time with friends, enjoying hobbies of all sorts, and exploring this wonderful province I call home.
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3 Responses to If I had two dollars for every time someone asked. . .

  1. Kate says:

    Why do dogs eat poop? It’s so gross! And, more than stinky breath (which I totally understand) I don’t understand why my lab has the grossest stinks coming from his butt. Seriously, we can stop doing water boarding, I’ll just put Tanner in the room with them and they’ll sing like birds just to escape the stench. It’s bad, really bad!

  2. dottiemaggie says:

    I have no idea why dogs eat poop 😐 Ollie is not a poop eater, thank goodness. My least favourite are the dogs who poop and then eat their poop in their kennel before sugery, so I have to deal with a poopy mouth while intubating them :S
    And have you tried Tanner on a different food? Ollie regularly emptied rooms with his deadly gas when he was on a particular diet, and since I’ve switched him he hardly has gas at all, and when he does it’s not nearly so potent . . .

  3. Pingback: If I had four dollars for every time someone asked. . .why is my old cat so loud? | Trust me, I'm a doctor.

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