Dental Health and Behavior: Why Dental Care Is So Important

fearful dogs reactive dogs Feb 06, 2024
Golden with toothbrush

Have you spent much time thinking about your dog's dental health? In honor of February being Pet Dental Health month, our online tooth brushing course is half off, and I'll be talking about your dog's dental health (and behavior!) all month.  What does dental health have to do with behavior? Read on...


How Might Pain Affect Behavior?

 While we don't want our dogs to be in pain in any situation, it can make training much more difficult:

  • Some things become more aversive: Even neutral or normally pleasant stimuli might become aversive when associated with pain. This can increase fearful or aggressive behaviors. As an example, my own dogs started fighting more often when both were in pain from separate health issues. The fighting stopped after the medical conditions were addressed.
  • Reinforcers could become less valuable: Training might be less efficient if certain reinforcers, like treats, become less valuable to your dog when they're in pain.  You might interpret this as "My dog isn't food motivated," or "He's not interested in training,"  when pain is involved.


How Can You Tell If Your Dog Is In Pain?

There are lots of ways in which pain can affect animal behavior. Here are a few I turned up in a brief review of the literature. This list is far from exhaustive!

  • Increased licking or scratching
  • Increased or decreased activity
  • Increased avoidance of hot or cold surfaces
  • Increased avoidance of touching or handling
  • Decreased interest in new social contact with other animals
  • Increased duration and frequency of attack behavior towards unfamiliar animals
  • Decreased time from seeing to attacking unfamiliar animals
  • Increase risk of cognitive dysfunction in senior dogs


What Behavior Changes Are Linked to Dental Disease?

Here are some behavior changes that have been observed in animals experiencing oral pain. Again, this isn't an exhaustive list. 

  • No noticeable behavior change:  Don't wait to see obvious problems before you ask your vet to examine your dog's teeth. 
  • No decrease in appetite: Many animals show no decrease in eating
  • Change in eating behaviors: Dropping food, chewing on only one side of the mouth, or decreased chewing
  • Change in eating speed: Eating more slowly
  • Change in tolerance of touch: Avoiding handling, especially around the head
  • Pawing at their mouth or excessive drooling
  • Activity/energy-level changes: Decreased overall activity
  • Decreased social and play behaviors
  • Avoidance: Increased hiding
  • Decreased grooming behavior
  • Increased aggression 

A few relevant citations are given in the video, if you're interested in learning more.  


How Do I Prevent Dental Disease?

There are several approaches to improving your dog's dental health:

  • At-home products: There are many dental chews, water additives, and dental diets are marketed to improve dental health. To learn which are backed by evidence, join us for our free webinar on dog dental products. 
  • At-home care: Tooth brushing has been shown to be an effective way to improve dogs' dental health.
  • Proper cleanings by your veterinarian: Regular dental cleanings under anesthesia should be completed as recommended by your veterinarian.

I hope you enjoy this week's video about dental care and continue to view more of our content during Pet Dental Health Month.


If you are getting started with paw handling, we want to hear about your successes or struggles. Join our Facebook group and post your questions or comments there, or email us at [email protected]