Cat Dental Health: A Comprehensive Guide

You may have heard of dog dental disease, but how often have you considered your cat’s dental health? Mouth health and dental health are vitally important to our cats and their wellbeing, just as they are for us and for dogs. Cat dental health often gets forgotten. Cats are very tough little creatures and given the choice between eating and starving, they will most often choose eating, no matter how much pain and discomfort it causes them. For this reason, cats can develop quite severe dental problems without ever giving any clues that they are suffering. As responsible cat owners, we must care for our cats’ mouths just as we care for the rest of them.

How common is dental disease in cats?

According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, studies report that between 50 and 90% of cats older than four years of age suffer from some form of dental disease, and this study shows it is the most commonly diagnosed condition in cats in the UK. In other words, dental disease in cats is very common, and all cats should have their mouths examined regularly for evidence of dental disease. Fortunately, there are lots of interventions we can make both at home and in conjunction with our local veterinary clinics to help stave off this problem and ensure our cats are happy and healthy.

What is dental disease in cats?

Cats have a complex relationship with their mouths and their teeth, and there is a greater variety of potential issues inside a cat’s mouth compared to a dog or a person, for example. 

Periodontal Disease

The mouth harbors a lot of bacteria and these feed on food material and stick to the surfaces of teeth. Bacterial colonies stuck to the surface of the teeth are called ‘plaque’. As the plaque hardens and attracts food particles, it becomes a solid chalky substance called ‘tartar’. 

Plaque and tartar spread down the tooth under the gum, where they will infect and loosen the attachments of the teeth, which is called ‘periodontitis’ or ‘periodontal disease’. This whole process is extremely uncomfortable, as teeth are very sensitive. 

Tooth Resorption

Cats also have a unique condition in which their teeth may become fused to the jawbone. They also get ‘neck lesions’ or cavities. This is painful and can be difficult to treat once it occurs. This condition is called ‘tooth resorption’ or ‘feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion’ (FORL).

Trauma

Cats often get up to mischief and fights when outside, so trauma is quite a common problem in cats. It is not unusual for cats to break teeth, especially their long canines, and this is another potential cause of poor dental health. Broken teeth are painful and prone to infection. 

Immune System Disorders 

In some cases, a cat’s immune system can react to bacteria in the mouth far too strongly. As a result, some cats can suffer with extreme inflammation (known as gingivitis and stomatitis, scientifically as ‘feline chronic gingivostomatitis’), even if visually their teeth are healthy and clean. This problem can present very early in life and may be linked to certain types of cat viruses like calicivirus and herpesvirus. It is extremely painful.

What does dental disease look like in my cat?

Symptoms of dental disease can include:

  • reluctance to eat or a change in food preference
  • slow eating
  • weight loss
  • drooling
  • pawing at the mouth
  • blood in saliva or in the water bowl
  • bad breath

If your cat will safely allow you to look in the mouth, then this can be a useful screening for dental disease. Dental disease most commonly affects the larger teeth, such as the canines at the front and the larger molars at the back, so be sure to check all the teeth thoroughly. Visually, your cat’s mouth should be comfortable to handle, and have nice salmon-pink gums all the way around, especially at the junction with the teeth. The teeth should be shiny and white. If there are areas of angry red inflammation on the gums or roof of the mouth or brown staining (plaque) and yellow/brown chalky material (tartar) on the teeth, these are signs of a problem.

Dental disease is often also associated with a bad breath. If you spy any of these signs at home, your cat likely has dental disease and often what you can see is just the tip of the iceberg. In these situations, your cat needs a professional assessment by a veterinarian, as these problems will be causing some level of discomfort. 

What are the consequences of dental disease? Can periodontal disease kill my cat?

Dental disease is an inevitable condition that most cats will suffer from during their lives, and we can only manage it, not cure it. As dental disease progresses, it will cause pain and discomfort. As mentioned, cats are very tough and may not show you they are suffering until the problem is very severe. Eventually, they will struggle to eat at all due to pain and may start to starve. 

Dental disease has also been shown to worsen existing kidney and heart problems, both of which cats are prone to as they get older. For these reasons, and for the quality of life of your cat, you must take dental health seriously, even though it is rarely fatal on its own. All of these feline oral conditions are manageable and treatment options are available, but they need positive and proactive intervention at an early stage. 

How can I prevent dental disease/tartar build up in my cat?

There is a lot that you can do at home to slow down the progress of dental disease in your cat and to stop it becoming as severe. From an early age it is important to introduce a home care routine so that your cat gets used to it as a kitten and so that you start interventions before disease appears at all. Tooth brushing, water additives, diet changes, and toys can all be used to good effect. To find products that have scientific evidence that they work, choose from the Veterinary Oral Health Council list. Since home care is such a huge subject in itself, we’ve devoted a whole article to it, here [insert link].

What do I do if I think my cat has dental disease?

It is important to seek the professional advice of a veterinarian at an early stage. A problem caught early is generally an easier thing to manage and fix. Your veterinarian will perform a full physical assessment including the mouth (where possible) and can help you formulate the best plan to ensure your cat’s mouth can be restored to optimum health. 

In some cases, especially when the mouth is very painful, it may be hard to fully examine in a conscious cat, and some form of sedation or anesthesia may be required. To resolve the dental problems, your veterinarian will likely advise a dental procedure or COHAT (comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment) under general anesthesia. If your cat has any other underlying medical conditions (or is suspected to do so) then these may need to be investigated and resolved first.

Dental Procedures in Cats

What is a COHAT?

A COHAT is a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment.  Cleaning is just one component of the procedure. 

Your veterinarian will administer a general anesthetic and then fully examine your cat’s mouth, from every angle. Dental X-rays will also be done to check the health of the teeth hidden away under the gum, where tooth root abscesses and resorption lesions can occur. Any teeth that are too badly decayed or damaged will be extracted. This is a surgical procedure but is generally well-tolerated as the mouth heals very quickly. 

All remaining teeth will be thoroughly cleaned using the same ultrasonic scaler as used by human dentists. The scaler is the best tool for removing plaque and tartar and can clean under the gums effectively too. The teeth are then polished using a compound to ensure there are no abrasions that might attract plaque. 

Why does my cat need a general anesthetic for the procedure?

General anesthesia is required as conscious or sedated cats will not safely allow full access to the mouth, and naturally scaling, polishing and extracting teeth are painful surgical procedures. The anesthetic is the kindest thing for the cat- and for their vet! Some places offer anesthesia-free dental cleanings, but these are not recommended as they put your pet through a lot of stress and because they don’t clean properly below the gum line. Anesthesia-free dental cleanings do not medically help your pet. 

Can a cat eat with no teeth? 

Even if every single tooth is extracted, cats can still eat without much difficulty, although food may need to be wet or softened. The main oral problem that will stop cats eating is pain, not lack of teeth. A cat will be happier with no teeth than with several painful teeth. With specific problems like gingivostomatitis mentioned before, sometimes extracting every tooth is the only solution to the problem. 

Is my cat too old for dental work?

In general, age is just a number. Age in itself does not carry an increased risk of complications under general anesthesia and surgery. If dental disease is present, then your cat is in discomfort and is suffering, and this will only get worse if not corrected, regardless of how long your cat has left. That said, older cats do naturally carry more underlying health issues like kidney problems or thyroid problems. As long as these are identified and properly managed or stabilized, then they should not stand in the way of most dental procedures. This is an important conversation to have with your veterinarian who will understand your specific circumstances, and in general, age alone should not put you off seeking treatment. 

How often should you have your veterinarian perform a dental procedure (COHAT) on your cat’s teeth?

How often a dental procedure is needed depends on your cat’s genetics, the amount of home intervention they allow, and their specific dental condition. Ideally, cats would have a COHAT every 6-24 months.

What happens if you don’t get dental work done for your cat?

If your cat has dental disease, it’s likely they are in a lot of pain, even if they don’t show it. If you don’t get the dental procedure done, this pain will continue. Your cat will also be at greater risk of kidney and heart disease.

If you are struggling with the cost of a dental procedure, please get in touch. Anicira is a not-for-profit organization specializing in expanding access to veterinary care, and we have assistance programs and financing plans available to help you. Please contact us here or call us for more information.

Cat Dental Disease in Summary

Cats suffer from dental disease just like people and dogs, and these problems can be seriously painful and have a big impact on quality of life. It is important to look after your cat’s mouth just as you would the rest of the body. There are lots of preventative homecare options to incorporate into your daily routine that will slow the onset of disease and ensure it does not become as severe for your cat. It is important to seek advice and involve your veterinarian at an early stage, who will be able to give professional help and perform veterinary dental procedures if necessary. Working together, dental disease can be professionally managed to ensure your cat is happy and healthy.