03/26/2012 07:48 am ET Updated May 26, 2012

Bad Doggie Breath? Chew on This

We all know that when your dog has "doggie breath" it isn't pleasant. It could mean that he or she ate something stinky. Or it could mean that your dog has a serious health issue.

Just like humans, bad breath can be the sign of something more serious. In some cases, it can be an indication of kidney disease or diabetes. More often than not, however, it says your dog may have a dental issue.

Dental health issues are the most common problems in dogs, and according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, as many as 4 out of 5 dogs have some degree of dental disease by the age of three. So, the big question is: why?

The main causes are the same reasons that us humans get dental problems. Food and bacteria buildup on the teeth forms plaque, that sticky substance you may sometimes feel on your own teeth. Daily toothbrushing helps remove plaque. But if you don't remove it all, calcium in the saliva over time causes the plaque to harden into something called tartar. This is the deposit that your dentist scrapes off your teeth during regular cleanings.

When tartar and plaque are allowed to build up, they irritate the gumline, causing swelling (inflammation) and some bleeding. This is the first stage of a gum disease called gingivitis. Fortunately, this condition is reversible with good daily cleanings. But if nothing is done, gingivitis can further develop into periodontitis, where you start to lose the tissues attaching the teeth in the mouth. This is the irreversible stage of periodontal disease and can lead to pain, abscesses and, eventually, tooth loss. As you can imagine, breath odors can also appear with any of these conditions.

The good thing is, there are several ways dog owners can help prevent gum disease. The first is to take our dogs to the veterinarian for regular check-ups and cleanings. This will not only help keep his or her mouth clean and healthy, but it will also give your vet an opportunity to identify any problems early on.

The next thing you can do is daily toothbrushing. This may sound like an impossible task in dogs, but it isn't as hard as it sounds. First, get a toothbrush with soft bristles. There are several toothbrushes on the market that are made for dogs. If you can't find one, you can use an infant-sized, soft-bristled toothbrush. For toothpaste, get one that's specially made for pets. Human toothpastes contain fluoride, which is toxic to dogs when swallowed. Besides, the pet toothpastes have dog-appealing flavors like liver and malt. Brush gently and concentrate on the outsides of the teeth. Start slowly and, if you are nervous about trying it, have your vet show you how at your next appointment.

Diet is also an important part of a home oral care program. Whether you feed dry or canned dog food, feeding a nutritionally balanced diet will provide nutrients like calcium. These nutrients are critical for maintaining a healthy mouth at any age. Try to incorporate some dry food into your dog's diet to help clean your dog's teeth while he or she chews. Some foods will even include specially designed pieces to help clean teeth even further. Also consider the addition of dental chews to your pet's diet. Most chews work by employing specific textures and shapes designed to get your dog chewing.

Needless to say, all dogs are not alike. You need to find the one that is best for your dog. Smaller dogs not only have smaller mouths than larger dogs, but their mouths aren't as strong. (Think Chihuahua vs. Great Dane.) It's especially important for these smaller dogs to find a chew that's the right size AND that has a softer, more pliable texture. If you don't choose the right chew, your dog may not get the dental benefit they require, not to mention run the risk of choking on a product unfit for his or her size.

So when you're looking for a chew, select one with the recommended size for your dog, a texture that helps clean teeth, and that boasts clinical results. Clinical testing shows the product has proven that it works.

Having a home dental care program may sound like hard work but, in the end, it can make your dog happier and help him or her lead a longer, healthier life. Considering all the happiness our dogs give us, it seems only fair that we do something good for them. Besides, it makes those doggie kisses that much sweeter!