Just like us, our cats can develop dental disease. Find out what the most common conditions are, and what can be done to prevent and treat them.
Dental care is important for cats, especially the older ones. Imagine being around 35 years old and having never once brushed your teeth. Yuk, right? Well, our adult feline friends (around the ages of 3 years old to 10 years old) who have never undergone a dental prophy cleaning must feel the same way! See our article about senior cat dental diseases.
Taking care of your cat’s teeth can help prevent a number of dental problems down the road. Here are the most common ones, and how to prevent as well as treat them.
Periodontal disease in cats
Periodontal (gum) disease is one of the most common disorders affecting cats. About 70 to 80 percent of adult cats who are 3 years or older have some degree of periodontal disease.
Gingivitis and periodontitis are two types of periodontal disease affecting cats, and they start with a build-up of bacterial plaque. You’ve likely seen plaque on the canine teeth or the side teeth (premolars and molars). It has a yellow-tan to brownish appearance, seen most commonly along the base of the teeth along the gum-line.
I’m sure you’ve seen mouthwash commercials saying, “If you use X, it’ll kill the bacteria that cause plaque.” Well, I’m not sure about their claims, but one thing is true: plaque is a large mass of bacteria mixed with other protein and carbohydrates (mucopolysaccharide matrix) that gets stuck to a tooth. As it builds and as time goes on, the plaque becomes mineralized, turning into a calculus, which is commonly called “tartar.”
As plaque builds along your cat’s gum-line, it causes inflammation, which is called gingivitis. It is noted as a swollen, reddened area of the gum. How does plaque cause the inflammation in cats, you may be thinking?
Well, it’s a complex process, but basically, the bacteria of the biofilm or plaque produce enzymes and toxins, which are damaging to your cat’s gum tissue. Your feline’s immune system will then respond, and in doing so, will also contribute to the inflammation, which ultimately causes tissue destruction.
Damage to your adult cat’s gum line can extend along the inner surface of the cat’s tooth, traveling along the root and creating a pocket of space for more bacteria and plaque to grow. Basically, it’s a vicious cycle: bacteria/plaque causes inflammation → immune system responds → damage to gum tissue → more space for bacteria to colonize → more inflammation!
OK, so here’s some good news…
Gingivitis in cats is reversible if it’s treated early enough. If gingivitis is not treated, the type of bacteria changes. Anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that live in a low or no oxygen environment) begin to grow in those root pockets, eventually leading to periodontitis, which is inflammation of the bone and deeper connective tissues of the tooth root. Unlike gingivitis, periodontitis affecting cats is not reversible.
Preventing and treating periodontal disease
There are a number of ways tartar and gingivitis in cats can be prevented and treated.
Regular vet visits
Most importantly, keep your biannual or annual veterinary visits. Your family veterinarian will note any issues in which your cat’s teeth are affected, and then score the severity of the periodontal disease.
Special cat food
Prevention of dental disease can be achieved with special diets for your cat. Make sure to discuss any diet with your cat’s veterinarian to see which ones they recommend or have the most familiarity with.
As I’m sure you know, there are hundreds of pet food brands out there, each making claims of improving dental health, increasing longevity, and so on. So, don’t just go by their commercials, do some investigation.
If you’re looking for a proven and scientifically designed cat food, try Hill’s Science Diet Oral Care.
Regular teeth brushing
The best home-prevention would be daily brushing using either a finger brush or a dog/cat toothbrush with cat toothpaste or solution. You should not use brushes and paste made for people — they are far too harsh.
The earlier you start getting them used to brushes in their mouths (preferably when they are kittens), the better. Have I tried it with my own cat, Coco? No. She just won’t tolerate it. But you need to at least give it a try. And be careful! Remember, you are trying to remove a biofilm of bacteria. You don’t want to cause any cuts that could develop a nasty infection.
Other methods of treating plaque and gingivitis include special anti-bacterial mouth flushes and having your cat under a dental prophylaxis or cleaning.
The cleaning is done under anesthesia using the similar equipment that your dentist uses: scalers and polishers. During the “prophy,” as the vets call them, the tooth roots are probed to check for pockets and evidence of periodontitis. X-rays of the teeth may need to be performed to see the extent of bone damage and sometimes even remove some loose, infected teeth.
Chewing exercises are also advantageous, but dogs seem to enjoy chew-toys much more so than cats. But, you could try dental chews / treats.
Feline tooth reabsorption
Another common dental disorder of adult cats is called feline tooth reabsorption, or by an older term, feline odontoclastic reabsorptive lesion. This disorder affects approximately 60 percent of cats over the age of 6.
Most cats with this ailment have at least one tooth affected, but usually many teeth are involved. Not much is known about what the cause of this disease is, but there are two types.
This type features inflammation and pain in your cat’s gums, the lining of the oral cavity, and sometimes even the tongue. Adult cats with this type of feline tooth reabsorption have mouths that are red, swollen, and painful.
The premolar and molar teeth sometimes appear smaller than normal or more covered by the inflamed gums. It is believed that the inflammation leads to the activation of odontoclasts, which are cells that destroy and remove dentin (the major component of a tooth).
With this type, there is much less inflammation and mainly just gingivitis along the gum line. Similar to Type 1, there is loss of dentin and enamel — the cat’s teeth literally are being absorbed. There are a couple of theories regarding how this type of reabsorptive process occurs:
- from injuries caused by eating hard, dry food
- from excessive vitamin D in the diet
Treating feline tooth reabsorption
Regardless of the type or cause, feline tooth reabsorption is a progressive disease. Many therapies have been tried to stop the progress and restore the cats’ teeth; however, the current method of treatment is to extract or remove affected teeth.
While it may seem extreme to remove some or even all of their teeth, it is the best way to relieve pain. Cats with this disorder have difficulty eating, and those with Type 1 may have bleeding from their gums and may stop eating altogether.
Your cat’s veterinarian will discuss this disease with you in more detail and the extraction procedure. Our vet says they have seen many cats with feline tooth reabsorption have all of their teeth removed, and within a week or so, they are much more comfortable and eating canned food without any problems.