How common is dental disease in cats?
Dental disease is one of the most common conditions seen by veterinarians. Approximately two-thirds of cats over three years of age have some degree of dental disease. The most common problems are due to periodontal disease, gingivostomatitis and tooth resorption lesions, also called cervical neck lesions.
What are the clinical signs of dental disease?
There are a number of signs that should alert you to dental disease or other mouth problems in your cat. Your cat may show a decreased interest in food or approach the food bowl and then show a reluctance to eat. It may chew with obvious caution or discomfort, drop food from the mouth, or may swallow with difficulty. Excess salivation may be seen, possibly with blood, and there may be a marked unpleasant odor to the breath. In some cases the cats may be seen pawing at their mouths or shaking their heads. A reluctance to eat may lead to weight loss, which can become quite marked. Many cats will refuse dry food and demonstrate a preference for moist or canned foods. Some cats will also stop grooming themselves, and develop a rough, unkempt, or matted coat. Dental disease and oral pain may account for the “finicky appetites” that some cats display.
What causes dental disease?
Periodontal disease, Gingivostomatitis, and tooth resorption lesions likely all have different causes (see below regarding these two conditions). More than one of these conditions can also be present at the same time.
The most common cause of periodontal disease in cats is accumulation of tartar and calculus. As in humans, cats accumulate bacterial plaque on the surface of their teeth. If the plaque is not removed quickly, it becomes mineralized to form tartar and calculus. The bacterial products and decaying food stuck to tartar are one potential cause of bad breath.
Tartar is easily identified by its tan or brown color. It normally starts at the gum edge, especially on the back teeth called the premolars and molars. In severe cases, tartar and calculus may cover the entire tooth.
The accumulation of tartar and bacteria on the teeth surfaces lead to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), and sometimes infection. If the disease is caught at an early stage and a thorough veterinary dental scaling and polishing performed, most of the teeth and gums will have a full recovery. However, if gingivitis is allowed to persist untreated, then irreversible periodontal disease will occur. During this process the bone and ligaments that support the tooth are destroyed by bacterial enzymes, leading to excessive tooth mobility and eventual tooth loss. Infection around the socket causes the formation of pus and a foul odor and may spread deep into the tooth socket creating an abscess, or even more severe problems.
Once periodontal disease starts, the degenerative changes to the tooth and its support structures cannot be reversed. These changes also make it easier for more plaque and tartar to collect, resulting in further disease.
Is gingivitis always associated with dental disease?
A slight degree of redness seen as a thin line just below the edge of the gum may be considered normal in some kittens and adult cats with no evidence of dental disease.
Some cats develop severe gingivitis with minimal signs of accompanying dental disease. The affected areas may extend beyond the gums to other areas of the mouth, such as the throat or tongue. The cause of this condition is not fully understood but it is likely to be multi-factorial and may differ between individual cases. This condition is often very difficult to control and may require repeated or constant treatment, and its accurate diagnosis can involve extensive investigative procedures. In many cases, the only way to give affected cats a reasonable level of comfort is to extract all of the remaining teeth in the mouth. Cats with this condition that have had all of their teeth extracted do extremely well, and often thrive from the significantly increased comfort that they gain from having the teeth removed.
What are tooth resorption lesions?
Tooth resorption lesions result from a progressive destruction of the enamel and dentin resulting in slowly deepening “holes” in affected teeth. Once the sensitive parts of the tooth are exposed, these lesions are intensely painful, and the only proven available treatment is to extract the tooth. The cause of this disease is unknown, and treatment other than extraction is ineffective. (For more information, see handout Feline Tooth Resorption Lesions).
What should I do if my cat has signs of dental problems?
If you see that your cat has evidence of tartar accumulation, gingivitis or is exhibiting any signs of mouth pain or discomfort, you should take it to your veterinarian for an examination. You will be advised of the most appropriate course of treatment, which may involve having the cat’s teeth examined and cleaned under general anesthesia. Dental x-rays are usually needed to identify the extent of the dental disease.
The rate of tartar accumulation is extremely variable between individual cats, and in some cases this may necessitate professional cleaning on a regular basis such as every six to twelve months, and in others, treatment is only needed every few years. Only your veterinarian can determined the best schedule for your pet, based on examination.
Do not try to remove tartar from the teeth yourself using any form of metallic instrument. Aside from potentially harming your cat’s mouth or the cat harming you, you are likely to damage the tooth surface by creating microscopic scratches, which will provide areas for bacteria to cling to and encourage more rapid plaque formation, thus making the problem worse. In addition, do not let a groomer or other animal care professional convince you that an adequate dental cleaning can be performed without general anesthesia. This is not wise under any circumstances.
What can I do to help prevent dental disease in my cat?
The best way to help prevent dental disease is to keep the mouth as hygienic as possible and to reduce the rate at which tartar builds up on the teeth. Dental home care for cats is very beneficial in reducing the rate at which plaque and tartar develop, and helps to reduce the severity of most dental conditions.
Recent advances in nutrition have resulted in diets that reduce tartar accumulation. There are a number of diets that are specifically labeled for “oral care.” However, the most effective diet in helping to keep the teeth clean is a prescription diet available from your veterinarian, called “Prescription Diet t/d.”
The most effective way of reducing plaque and tartar is to brush the teeth. There are toothpaste and brushes available from your veterinarian that are specially designed for a cat’s mouth. With gentleness, patience and perseverance it is possible to regularly clean some cats’ teeth in this way. The best time to get your cat used to tooth brushing is when it is a kitten. You can start by gently touching and massaging the gums with your finger, when he/she is in a calm, quiet mood. After your kitten accepts this, you can switch over to using the toothbrush with no paste, and eventually introduce the toothpaste. In addition, or as an alternative if the cat will not accept brushing, a range of chews (Greenies or CET chews), antibacterial mouthwashes (Biotene) and gels (Maxiguard or Biotene) can be applied to the teeth and mouth to reduce the number of bacteria present, and increase oral health. Please ask your veterinarian for further details regarding available dental products for your cat.
Never use human toothpaste on cats, as these are not designed to be regularly swallowed and could cause problems.