Periodontal Disease, Plaque, Gingivitis: All The Dental Terms Every Dog Parent Should Know

My puppy is turning seven months old soon, which means two things: first, she’s quickly moving from my Baby Girl to my Big Girl, and second, I need to figure out a dental hygiene routine, fast!

Almost 80% of dogs encounter some form of periodontal disease by the age of three, which means Periwinkle and I are at the perfect stage to work on preventative treatment strategies—such as using BARK Bright, a two-step enzymatic cleaning system for dogs that freshens breath, fights plaque and tartar, and keeps gums free of gingivitis. 

But... wait a second. Periodontal disease? Enzymatic? Tartar? Gingivitis? What are all of these words and why do they matter? If you’re like me and need a dictionary for all your dog’s dental hygiene needs, here’s a handy guide that can help (certified by award-winning veterinary dentist, Dr. Jan Bellows). 

Dental / Periodontal Disease

This is a bit of a trick glossary item, because the truth is that periodontal disease isn’t just one thing: it’s a condition made of a number of symptoms, and it exists in multiple stages. 

The most important aspect of periodontal disease is that it impacts both the tooth and the gums, making it considerably more severe (and more difficult to treat) than something that impacts just one or the other. Once a dog is diagnosed with periodontal disease, odds are they’ve already suffered other symptoms: bad breath, plaque build-up, tartar, and even tooth breakage. 

How can you prevent periodontal disease? With daily treatment (like brushing or using the Bright Dental Kit) and regular dental cleanings, just like with humans! 

Plaque vs. Tartar

The easiest way to distinguish between plaque and tartar is in how easy they are to remove: plaque can be removed with regular brushing and with normal chewing action, but tartar can’t be removed without a deep cleaning, which requires putting a dog under anesthesia. 

But what are they, actually? Plaque is a soft build-up of food deposits and bacteria (aka, the #1 reason why your pup might have stanky breath!). The danger of plaque is that if it gets into the gums and isn’t regularly removed, it can initiate gingivitis (see below for that definition). An important aspect of plaque is that while regular brushing and chewing help with the removal process, it starts to form again on the teeth right away after removal—which is why consistency is key. 

Tartar, on the other hand, is a much harder deposit on the teeth, identified by a distinctive yellow coloring. It’s comprised of minerals and food deposits that, when left untreated, can cause periodontal inflammation. 

Inflammation (Where in the mouth it occurs)

No, you don’t have to be worried about your dog’s teeth suddenly growing in size. The danger of inflammation isn’t to the teeth, but to the gums supporting the teeth. Here’s how it happens: when plaque builds up on the tooth structure, there’s always a risk it could go deeper into the gum line. If a pocket forms, bacteria can easily sneak in and make the gum red, swollen, and tender to touch. 

Inflammation is also one of the key signs of our next glossary term: gingivitis. 


It sounds like a comic-book villain, and with good reason: gingivitis is the often-insidious beginning to a larger periodontal problem. Every dog has a ‘gingiva’, a.k.a., the area of gum directly surrounding and supporting the teeth. Veterinarians assess the health of the gingiva based on a number of factors, such as: 

  • Inflammation level (Is the gum swollen or tender?)
  • Color (Pink is good, red is bad.)
  • Does it bleed easily? (If so, also bad.)
  • Is the gum recessed at all? (Again, you get the picture. Bad.)

If gingivitis is detected in the gums, a deeper cleaning is required under anesthesia, as well as an antibiotic application to the affected area. 


So, is a dental cleaning the same thing as a serious surgery? Not at all, according to Dr. Bellows. But anesthesia is necessary in order to perform one, to make sure that your dog’s regulatory systems are balanced, and to give the veterinarians better access to harder-to-see-and-reach teeth. 

While under anesthesia, your dog is carefully monitored to ensure their pulse, blood oxygen levels, temperature, and blood circulation are all stable. Then the veterinarian will use special tools designed specifically for dogs (i.e., do not try to use these at home!) to scrape off tartar and remove any bacteria from pockets in the gum line. Then they polish the teeth with special toothpaste, just like the dentist. 

Veterinary Dentist vs. Veterinarian vs. Vet Tech

What’s the difference between a veterinary dentist and a vet tech? A board-certified veterinarian has received additional schooling similar to med school, making them qualified to diagnose and treat animals within their specialty. Once certified, some veterinarians go on to receive even more training so that they can specialize specifically in dentistry and dental surgery.

A vet tech also receives additional schooling, but is certified much faster than a veterinarian. They are in many cases authorized to perform procedures necessary for the dog’s care (some vet techs can perform dental cleanings on their own, but most are supervised by a veterinary dentist). Most importantly, they are the liaison between the pup, the parent, and the doctor. They take vitals, perform routine exams, and even sometimes sneak in a (dentist-approved!) treat or two. 

Fear Free Dentistry

Remember how scary going to the dentist was as a kid? That’s what Dr. Jan Bellows and other dentists like him want to avoid, by practicing what they call Fear Free Dentistry. It’s a mindset more than anything else, aimed at making sure your pet is comfortable and happy before anything is done to them. This often involves visits to the dentist where nothing actually happens! Your dog can expect to be petted and played with so they don’t associate their vet and vet tech with fear. 

Not every dentist has this methodology in place, so make sure you ask what measures they take to ensure every dog feels safe.


One way to help your dog feel less afraid at the dentist is to reduce any discomfort during exams. How can you do that? By engaging in daily preventative care. Enzymes are a huge factor in dental hygiene, and BARK Bright is the first product on the market that utilizes THREE of them to clean teeth, freshen breath, and prevent tartar buildup. 

But what is an enzyme? It’s a special kind of protein that kick-starts a chemical reaction. BARK partnered with Novozymes, the actual enzyme experts, to come up with a three-enzyme cocktail that, when given to your dog on a regular basis, effectively reduces their risk of dental disease. 

Here are the three enzymes used in Bright toothpaste:

  • Enzyme #1: Amyloglucosidase (AMG): AMG takes the starches and sugars in your dog’s mouth and turns them into glucose. 
  • Enzyme #2: Glucose oxidase (GOX): Using the naturally-derived, protein-powered glucose, this protein turns it into a cleaning agent. 
  • Enzyme #3: Lactoperoxidase: Lactoperoxidase is the most important enzyme of the three, because it triggers a bunch of reactions (called an enzyme cascade) that enhance the performance of the previous two steps! It also helps the natural antibacterial elements already found in your dog’s saliva do their best work.

Enzyme Cascade 

This is the sequence of reactions that allows each of the enzymes to do their best work. It make the Bright dental stick and toothpaste duo the most effective and unique dog dental product on the market. Sure, there are other dog toothpastes that advertise themselves as ‘enzymatic,’ but only Bright contains these three enzymes in the correct orientation to achieve a better result than leading products.

Plus, the combination of the dental stick with the toothpaste (containing real chicken; no substitutes!) allows for a thorough chewing experience that helps break down plaque and tartar faster than an ordinary dental chew alone.

Tooth Decay

Good news: tooth decay is rare in dogs! As your pup ages, some decay is to be expected, but for the most part, due to their thicker enamel, this is one condition most dog parents can rest easy about (that is, if they participate in the other preventative measures outlined above.) 

One essential way to prevent tooth decay is to make sure your dog has safe toys and chews approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council; things like antlers, bones, and even ice cubes can break teeth if you’re not careful! 

Treat your dog (literally) to a daily dose of BARK Bright for fresher breath in 1–2 weeks, whiter teeth in 4–6 weeks, and a compliment from your vet at your next visit! No toothbrush required.

Hope Bobbitt

2 years ago

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