Symptoms To Watch For In Your Dog: Bad Breath (Halitosis)

Looking for recommendations for dealing with stinky dog breath is one of the most common questions people ask. How can you fix your dog’s bad breath?

Symptoms To Watch For In Your Dog: Bad Breath (Halitosis)

Your dog can get bad breath from eating something deliciously rotten. That, of course, doesn’t count.

However, unless your dog just feasted on something nasty, bad breath is not the real problem–the cause behind it is. Mint might mask the odor but it is not a likely solution.

If your dog has stinky breath, it’s more than a nuisance. If your dog has persistently bad breath, it’s time for a vet visit. Why?

The most common cause of bad breath in dogs is a dental or gum disease.

Now, dental disease is not an immediate rush-to-the-emergency-vet type of threat, but it isn’t something to ignore either. Bad teeth are not just a cosmetic issue. They can be extremely painful and even lead to systemic disease! The bacteria from an infected mouth can get into the bloodstream and from there it has a free pass to about anywhere. That includes the heart, kidneys, and even the brain.

Roxy presumably succumbed to a brain infection that started as a tooth abscess.

Moreover, any chronic, festering inflammation increases the risk of cancer. That includes an inflamed, infected mouth.

You can read more about it in an earlier article When Bad Breath Can Kill!

If your dog has bad breath; discolored, loose, broken or missing teeth; red swollen gums that bleed easily; a painful mouth; or drools excessively, please have those teeth taken care of.

Don’t expect to see a lot with your eyes. Even slight reddening along the gumline or a bit of tartar on the very back teeth can be just a tip of the iceberg — most dental problems hide under the surface. Just because your dog is still eating, doesn’t mean their mouth is not a source of great pain.

The more severely your dog’s mouth smells, the bigger and more urgent the problem.

Gum or periodontal disease isn’t all that can go wrong in your dog’s mouth. A tooth abscess can cause severe pain and turn into a medical disaster. Foreign bodies in the mouth such as shards of bone or sticks can even lead to necrosis–that’s what you’d be smelling – dead tissue.

If your dog got a piece of bone or stick stuck in their mouth the wrong way, it might end with emergency surgery. The sooner you identify the problem and have it taken care of, the better. It might not always be as dire but it always is a potential disaster in the making.

Dental disease is a serious issue but it is not the only potential cause of bad breath.

Oral growths, benign or cancerous, can be behind your dog’s stinky breath.

If your dog’s breath smells bad, the mouth is the first thing to check.

Other symptoms of an oral problem can include:
  • excessive drooling
  • swelling
  • pawing at the mouth
  • painful mouth sensitive to touch
  • changes in eating and chewing habits
  • abnormal discharge from mouth, nose or eyes

All these signs indicate very advanced disease.

There are, however, causes of bad breath that have nothing to do with the mouth.

Bad breath can also be a symptom of other serious health issues such as gastrointestinal, respiratory or autoimmune diseases; and metabolic disorders.

A problem anywhere within the gastrointestinal tract can cause foul breath. That includes not only the stomach but the esophagus and intestines.

Severe kidney disease or kidney failure can cause significantly foul breath as well as ulceration and other abnormalities in the mouth.

Other symptoms of kidney failure include:
  • increased thirst and urination
  • loss of appetite
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • weight loss
  • blood in urine
  • seizures

Diabetic ketoacidosis can make your dog’s breath smell like fruit or nail polish. That is an emergency. (Note: not everybody is able to smell ketones)

Other symptoms of diabetes include:
  • either increased thirst and urination
  • loss of appetite
  • vomiting
  • dehydration
  • weakness and lethargy
  • muscle wasting and weakness
  • weight loss

Btw, can you see how many symptoms overlap with different diseases?

Friends from the dog park had a dog that suddenly started having terrible breath. They figured his teeth needed cleaning and scheduled an appointment for the procedure. When they finally got him in, the veterinarian found their dog was in kidney failure. They had one day to say goodbye to him!

To top it off, some poisons, if ingested, can cause foul breath in your dog too.

Pesticides or rodenticides can cause your dog’s breath smell like garlic or rotten fish. Even NSAIDs toxicity can lead to stinky breath.

Any poisoning is an emergency. Bad breath, though, isn’t likely the only sign you’ll see. Other symptoms of poisoning in dogs include a broad range of signs including

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • drooling
  • breathing difficulties

Other symptoms of rat poisoning in dogs depend on the type of poison.

Symptoms of anticoagulant rodenticide poisoning include:
  • bleeding
  • unexplained bruising
  • bloody vomiting
  • blood in stool
  • difficulty breathing
  • weakness and ataxia
Symptoms of bromethalin rodenticide poisoning include:
  • loss of appetite
  • impaired movement
  • hind limb paralysis
  • seizures

If your dog’s breath smells terrible, understand what might be behind it.

Chronically bad breath is likely to have different causes than a bad breath that crops up quickly. As with any other symptoms, the speed of onset is one of the indicators telling you how quickly you need to see a veterinarian.

Related articles:
When Bad Breath Can Kill

Further reading:
7 Reasons Your Dog Has Bad Breath

Categories: Bad breathSymptoms

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Jana Rade edited by Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience. Dr. Joanna Paul BSc BVSc is our wonderful sponsor and has been kind to edit and fact-check my important articles.

18 Comments
  1. FiveSibesMom

    Excellent post. Coincidentally, one of my Huskies just had an issue with having something embedded in her gums (no odor). I luckily found it while giving her a supplement before an infection took hold and her breath turned foul. We had an adopted Collie when I was younger who was so beautiful but had horrendous breath…turned out she had GI issues due to having been shot and they couldn’t remove the bullet from her. (She lived a long wonderful life with us, stinky breath and all)! Pinning to share this info with others!

    • Foreign body without any odor = great job, you found it quickly before it could cause real trouble.

      Wow, bullet? Glad she lived a wonderful life in spite of it.

  2. Overall my dogs have decent teeth, so if one of them has bad breath, I get them checked out as soon as possible. I knew that bad breath can be a sign of several diseases, but I didn’t realize that poisoning can also give them bad breath. That is so sad about the friend from the dog park.

  3. It’s so important to watch your dog (or cat) to see what he is doing and what’s he’s getting into. I know bad breath can definitely be a sign of dental problems. I know from personal experience what dental problems can cause. I had an incompetent dentist to crown an abscessed tooth. We didn’t know until a month later. By the time the oral surgeon got to my mouth, the abscess had calcified and had eaten its way into my sinus cavity. I had bone and tissue damage and my immune system had changed. After 5+ surgeries on my mouth and finally an implant, I’m okay. I know I’m lucky to be alive.

    • Yes, it is. So sorry about your incompetent dentist. It’s the same with everything; over half of all professionals graduated at the bottom of their class.

  4. All my dogs have been puppy mill rescues. Most mill dogs require dental surgery due to the neglect they experience. I didn’t realize the extent of illness that might result!

  5. When I worked at the store we had people coming in all the time with the “my dog has bad breath” complaint. I always suggested a vet visit in addition to products we could sell them. Just treating the symptoms isn’t good.

    • Yes, treating symptom is rarely of any use unless a) you already know the cause b) the symptom is severe enough it needs addressing separate from the underlying cause.

  6. dachshundstation

    Very informative Post. One of my doxies tended to have bad breath, I assumed because he had some build up on the back teeth. I tried one of those bad breath additives for his water and that just gave him horrible gas.. so I couldn’t use that anymore. I would have liked to get his teeth professionally cleaned more often, but it is pretty expensive, even during dental discount month.

    • It is costly. Regular maintenance, though, can put more time between the required cleanings. Cookie gets her teeth brushed and chews on raw meaty bones–she’s 7 and hasn’t needed dental cleaning yet. (last wellness exam a month ago)

  7. Layla thank goodness has good teeth and gums, I put water additive in her water daily, she gets Kelp in her food plus clean her teeth and the vet is very happy with her.

  8. Great post! I’ve always been proud of how clean I’ve been able to keep my dogs’ teeth. My oldest boy is 10 and the vets are always amazed at how nice his teeth are. He actually lost one recently, to my surprise, but we had him checked out and the vet said his teeth still look great, no tooth or gum issues. Most likely it was just a freak thing, and he knocked it out either playing or chewing too roughly.

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