We all know that dogs are prone to bad breath and dental problems, but did you know that smaller breeds are much more likely to suffer than large ones? One recent study showed that dogs weighing less than 6.5kg were five times more likely to suffer from dental disease than larger dogs (over 25kg). This certainly correlates with what I see in day-to-day veterinary practice. Many small breeds like chihuahuas, pugs and terriers will be diagnosed with dental disease at their routine check-ups.

Normal dental anatomy

Dogs have 42 adult teeth, which should be in good alignment. These come through at 4-6 months of age. The large molars at the back are used for chewing and shearing, with the sharper canine (fang) teeth used for grabbing and tearing at meat.

In some breeds, especially small breeds or brachycephalic dogs, we see overcrowding issues, with teeth overlapping each other, creating problems with trapped food and tartar build-up. 

One study showed that teeth in these small dogs are also proportionally bigger compared to large breed dogs, which is thought to contribute to the problem.

The problem with dental disease

We all know that having bad teeth is not healthy. If periodontal disease occurs, we see gum inflammation, loosening of the ligaments around the teeth and, eventually, tooth loss. The bone in the jaw can become damaged too, and we may see issues like painful tooth root abscesses. 

Problems are also noted further afield in the body, with effects on the heart, liver and other organs occurring due to bacteria entering the bloodstream via inflamed gums and an increase in circulating inflammatory proteins.

Good dental hygiene is therefore of utmost importance in our pets.

5 ways you can help keep your small breed dog’s teeth healthy and clean

Let’s look at some practical steps you can take to keep your dog’s mouth as healthy as possible.

1) Regular teeth brushing from an early age

Teeth brushing is just as important in dogs as it is in people, and you should aim to do this daily. You should use dog-specific toothpaste; these are often meaty flavoured and are lower in fluoride than human pastes (so dogs don’t need to spit!). A soft bristle brush is best, choosing a size appropriate for your pet.

You should aim to introduce teeth brushing gradually. Start by letting them lick the paste off your fingers, then off the brush, before you start brushing the teeth. Keep sessions short, to begin with, and give your dog plenty of praise. A more detailed guide to teeth brushing in dogs can be found here.

Other oral treatments like solutions to add to the water or gels to coat the teeth will also help to a degree, but teeth brushing is always best.

2) An appropriate diet

Feeding your pet an appropriate diet will help greatly with oral health. Small breed dogs are known for being fussy, and many owners give in to their demands by feeding table scraps or cooked chicken, which is inappropriate as a long term diet. Look for a good quality complete dog food that is designed for your pet’s age and life stage. 

Monitor your pet’s weight carefully. Being overweight was also highlighted as a risk factor for dental disease in small breed dogs in the previously mentioned study.

3) Teeth friendly toys and treats

Make sure you only give your pet dog-specific toys. Inappropriate toys could lead to dental damage. For example, fibre covered tennis balls are known to act as a scouring pad on the teeth, causing wear and damage to the enamel on dogs’ teeth, so look at alternatives.

Feeding very hard treats and chews is also a problem in any breed of dog. Treats like bones (cooked or raw) or antlers, can cause fractures and chips to your pet’s teeth. This can lead to problems like exposed pulp, causing pain and tooth root abscesses.

Specially designed dental treats will help a little with oral health but are not as good as teeth brushing. You must also take care that they aren’t adding too many extra calories to your dog’s diet leading to weight gain. 

4) Regular veterinary check-ups

Make sure you take your small breed dog for regular check-ups. His teeth will be examined at the time of his annual vaccinations, but if you notice anything you aren’t happy about then get him seen sooner. Spotting the signs of disease early means measures can be taken more quickly to try and slow the progression.

5) Dental treatment 

If your vet recommends dental treatment, then make sure you book your dog in! Delaying treatment will only allow the disease to progress further, making it more likely your dog will need extractions.

Some animals benefit from regular scale and polish treatment, especially if they are prone to tartar build-up or if they don’t tolerate teeth brushing all that well. 

Never be tempted to take your dog anywhere else other than the vet for this though. Some groomers are now offering a de-scaling service which they do with the dog conscious (no anaesthetic). This is just a purely cosmetic procedure and doesn’t involve scaling below the gumline or allow for a thorough assessment of the health of the teeth. Plus the ethics of carrying out this procedure in an animal whilst they are conscious is debatable, especially if they have painful gums. 


Dental disease can occur in any dog but is more common in small breeds. This can affect not only their oral health but can also have negative effects elsewhere in the body. Hopefully, by following our 5 steps to better tooth care you can keep your small breed pet smiling!

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