Dog’s bad breath is a sign of trouble


We have a 5-pound mixed-breed dog. The father is long-haired Chihuahua and the mother is Bichon/​Poodle mix. She is the cutest thing but she has the worst breath ever. It is so bad it smells like dead fish. We have tried changing dog foods, and I've cooked a mix of rice/​sweet potatoes/​chicken and have even given her green treats, but nothing helps. She has been to the vet to be spayed and while under she had her teeth cleaned and had a baby tooth pulled. The vet thought that might help, but it didn’t. It's worse than ever. She sometimes gags and chokes for no apparent reason and I’ve even noticed that she has a slight wheeze when she sleeps. She is so small that we don’t want to take the chance of having her put under to have her throat checked. We have never had a dog with breath like this. We also have one of her sisters and her breath is not like this at all. What more can we do?

The bad breath you are describing is most likely a sign of something more significant occurring in the mouth or below the gum line. Bad breath is a result of sulfur producing bacteria that grow in the warm, moist environment of the mouth. There are a number of locations that could harbor the infection and sometimes the answer is not readily apparent.

I frequently describe a tooth as an iceberg having the majority of the structure below the gum line. Often infection will exist and it will not be visible, with the only symptom being bad breath. More than 70 percent of older dogs have some form of dental disease that requires treatment. This treatment involves professional cleaning and therapy of any advanced oral disease. Just like people, dogs need dental X-rays to fully evaluate the extent of any problems that are beneath the gums. This can include an abscessed root, bone loss, or damage to the structure of the tooth.

In a younger dog with suspected dental disease, the need for dental X-rays can be even more important. An adult tooth may not have erupted through the gums normally, a cyst may be present in the bone of the jaw, or a baby tooth may have been damaged and abscessed. Baby teeth are not as sturdy as adult teeth and are more susceptible to trauma, often leaving a damaged root behind that doesn’t fall out on schedule. If any of these conditions exist, oral surgery may be needed to solve the problem.

Unfortunately, from what you are describing, your problem may not lend itself to an easy solution. However, there is some urgency to finding a solution because dental disease can be a silent killer to pets of any age. If there is infection beneath the gums, it can spread to adjoining teeth, destabilize the jaw, or even get into the bloodstream and impact major organs. This level of investigation will certainly require some form of sedation to determine the extent of the problem and to get quality X-rays. Her gagging and choking might be a minor structural problem in the back of her throat and shouldn’t be a major concern with anesthesia. Good luck.

Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.