Periodontal Disease Is the No. 1 Health Problem in Chihuahuas


In their nearly 15 years’ experience breeding and showing Ayrwen Chihuahuas, Art and Gloria Johnson of Grand Haven, Michigan, have made significant strides in bettering the breed. “DeeDee” (GCH Ayrwen Star Kissed Delight), whom they bred and handled exclusively, broke the 30-plus year record to become the top-winning Smooth Coat Chihuahua in breed history.

The Johnsons attribute good perio­dontal practices and health as a key factor to their success in the ring. “Plaque leads to tartar, or calculus, which is a primary concern in the breed. We’ve noticed there are certain lines in our breeding in which tartar buildup leading to periodontal disease is more prevalent than others,” says Gloria Johnson. “We’ve had 14-year-old Chihuahuas that still have all their teeth, and others that have lost all their teeth by 3 or 4 years of age.”

Plaque accumulation, gingivitis and calculus formation initiate a more serious canine oral problem. Periodontal disease occurs when bacteria permeates the surrounding bone, causing bone destruction and the possibility of more severe health problems should the bacteria enter the bloodstream.

Sandra Manfra Marretta, DVM, DACVS, DAVDC, professor emerita and former head of small animal dentistry at the University of Illinois in Champaign, says, “Periodontal disease is the No. 1 health problem and most frequently diagnosed disease in small companion animals. Toy dogs, such as the Chihuahua, have a very high incidence of developing a severe case of the disease.”


One study of 1,300 dogs showed that periodontal disease decreases significantly as dogs increase in size. The report, published in the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry in 1994, documented that Toy breeds have high rates of disease when compared with small, medium and large breeds.

Not surprisingly, periodontal disease was shown to increase significantly as dogs age. In fact, 85 percent of dogs older than 3 years have a significant chance of developing periodontal disease, says Dr. Manfra Marretta, a board-certified veterinary dentist. The risk increases with the disease possibly occurring even earlier in small breeds. Chihuahua breeders and owners may start noticing signs of periodontal disease in their dogs as early as 1 year of age.

“Breeders and owners may notice a foul odor coming from the dog’s mouth,” Dr. Manfra Marretta says. “Some will chalk it up to ‘doggie breath,’ but it is not normal.”

Other signs include red or swollen gums, loose or moving teeth, blood on the dog’s chew toys, plaque and calculus on the surface of the teeth, and inflammation and bone loss on the dog’s back molars, which are located underneath the dog’s eyes.

Periodontal disease is multifactorial, meaning there isn’t just one cause. “An individual dog’s genetic makeup is a definite factor,” says Dr. Manfra Marretta. “Every dog will respond differently to plaque and calculus buildup on the teeth.”

Chihuahua Chihuahua

Other contributing factors to perio­dontal disease include a diet of all or mostly soft food, crowding of the teeth, and retained deciduous (primary) teeth, which causes plaque to collect on the teeth, leading to gingivitis and, ultimately, periodontal disease.

Periodontal disease can occur rapidly, so early intervention is imperative. If left untreated, periodontal disease can wreak havoc on a dog’s overall health and well-being, resulting in severe complications.

Examples include infection underneath the dog’s eyes caused by inflammation associated with the molars. A dog also can lose numerous teeth resulting in damaged bone structure, which may result in fractures of the lower jaw. Although the detachment of the teeth to bone occurs secondary to periodontal pockets or gingival recession, once this occurs, the alveolar bone that surrounds the teeth will be permanently lost unless a dog undergoes regenerative surgery.

Daily Preventive Care Is Key
Periodontal disease can sometimes by minimized, so preventive steps are essential. Even with diligent care, some dogs develop disease due to genetics. Because the disease is a progressive condition, owners should get a good start on practicing oral hygiene.


The American Veterinary Dental College recommends starting dogs at an early age with home dental care. Regular brushing and taking steps to prevent the accumulation of dental plaque, including feeding a dry kibble and providing appropriate chew toys, are encouraged. These steps, when combined with periodic professional cleaning involving dental scaling under anesthesia and assessment of the bone around the teeth with dental radiographs, or X-rays, help to optimize lifelong oral health for dogs.

Good dental health is a collaborative effort between the veterinarian and the dog’s owner. The veterinarian should provide regular examinations, oral radiography and appropriate treatments, while the dog’s owner is expected to consistently perform appropriate home care.

“We established a cooperative relationship with our veterinarian when it comes to dental care,” Gloria Johnson says. “Each of our Chihuahuas has a veterinary teeth cleaning performed every six months. We have found that it is better for the veterinarian to perform the teeth cleaning rather than us because it is less stressful for our dogs.”

At their Ayrwen kennel, the Johnsons place great importance on regular dental care. They are adamant about practicing regular brushing of dogs’ teeth, using a water additive to promote strong and healthy teeth, feeding a diet of dry kibble, providing chew toys to stimulate dogs’ gums and potentially reduce tartar, and inspecting each dog’s mouth and teeth at least once a week to monitor tartar buildup or other potential periodontal problems.

Fortunately, should a dog develop periodontal disease, the condition can be managed. Along with proper dental home care, some dogs may need systemic and local antimicrobial or local antiseptic therapy, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can be prescribed to treat pain and minimize inflammation.

Thanks to the preventive measures in place at their Ayrwen kennel, none of the Chihuahuas the Johnsons have campaigned have had their careers negatively impacted by periodontal disease. DeeDee remains the winningest Smooth Coat Chihuahua in breed history.

At 10 years old, DeeDee still has a full, healthy set of teeth, as does her 12-year-old dam, “Paddy” (GCH Dartan Star Queen of Ayrwen). Maintaining good health into her senior life stage, DeeDee won Best of Breed from the Veterans class and Best Veteran in Show at the 2016 Chihuahua Club of America Regional Specialty, held during the National.

Good dental hygiene cannot be emphasized enough. Periodontal disease is preventable, but should it occur, it can be accurately diagnosed and successfully managed with a proper veterinary dental examination and treatment. Regular veterinary visits that include a thorough oral examination and timely professional dental cleanings and home care will help prevent the severe consequences of periodontal disease.

Purina appreciates the support of the Chihuahua Club of America and particularly Lauren A. Payne, chair of the CCA Health Related Issues Committee, in helping to identify topics for the Purina Pro Plan Chihuahua Update newsletter.

Signs of Periodontal Disease

  • Foul breath
  • Red, swollen gums
  • Loose or moving teeth
  • Blood on the dog’s chew toys
  • Plaque and calculus on the surface of the teeth
  • Inflammation and bone loss on the dog’s back molars, located directly underneath the dog’s eyes

Stages of Periodontal Disease

  • Stage 1 Also known as gingivitis, it is the only stage of periodontal disease that is reversible because no tooth attachment loss has occurred
  • Stage 2 Present when there is less than 25 percent attachment loss
  • Stage 3 Present when there is 25 to 50 percent attachment loss
  • Stage 4 Present when there is greater than 50 percent attachment loss

Tips to Help Prevent Periodontal Disease in Chihuahuas

  • Practice regular veterinary visits staring with puppies
  • Schedule professional teeth cleaning on a regular basis, such as every six months, starting as early as 1 year of age
  • Begin brushing a puppy's teeth early, using a soft toothbrush, to help familiarize the puppy with having his or her teeth cleaned
  • Feed a dry kibble diet, rather than soft food, and consult your veterinarian to learn whether a dental care formula would benefit your dog
  • Screen for early periodontal disease by rubbing a color-coded test strip along the dog’s gum line between the cheek and upper row of teeth to check whether a dog has pockets of periodontal disease and thus a professional cleaning is warranted