What if you never brushed your teeth or went to the dentist? Can you imagine the degree of dental decay or infection and oral pain you would experience, not to mention the smell?
A healthy mouth is just as important for pets as it is for humans—especially since an estimated 50-90 percent of cats older than 4 have some degree of dental disease (1). Dental disease is not only painful but also leads to bacteria from the mouth entering the bloodstream, causing systemic chronic inflammation and showering the body’s organs with bacteria.
Dental disease worsens with time and is more prevalent in older cats. Therefore, it’s important to establish a home dental care routine for your cat from an early age and have their teeth cleaned regularly by a veterinary professional.
Let’s take a closer look at signs you should schedule a cat dental cleaning, plus what to expect before, during, and after this procedure.
Signs You Should Schedule a Cat Dental Cleaning
Preventing dental disease in cats before it arises is key. You can accomplish this by regularly brushing your cat’s teeth at home and by scheduling regular veterinary cleanings. An annual physical examination by your veterinarian is also central to catching emerging dental issues in cats as early on as possible.
Signs that your cat may have dental disease and likely requires a dental exam with X-rays and a professional cleaning include:
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Visible tartar buildup or red gums
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Pawing at the face, shaking the head, or teeth chattering
- Facial swelling or nasal discharge
- Dropping food or changes in appetite
- Difficulty swallowing
- Weight loss
- Behavior changes (lethargy, hiding, irritability, or aggression)
It’s important to note that even cats with severe dental disease may not necessarily stop eating. The drive to eat and survive is a strong instinct in cats, and cats often hide signs of pain. Dental disease occurs in the wild, too, but wild animals hide their pain and eat to survive, struggling through their discomfort. Our domestic cats are much the same. So even if your cat is eating well, regular oral checkups are still necessary. However, if you do observe reductions in your cat’s appetite, if he is avoiding dry food, or if he is dropping more food than normal, these signs of oral pain need to be addressed by your vet.
If you have a senior cat, old age is not a reason to avoid dental cleanings. Dental pain is a welfare issue that affects your cat’s quality of life. Therefore, speak with your vet about the benefits versus risks of anesthesia and dental care regarding your senior kitty.
Cat Dental Cleaning Procedure: Step by Step
Your veterinarian will let you know if your cat requires a professional dental cleaning or further treatments. Here are some of the steps you can expect as part of your cat’s dental cleaning procedure.
The first step is a physical exam, during which your vet will examine your cat’s mouth. If severe infections are noted, your vet may prescribe an oral antibiotic to be completed before your cat’s dental procedure. Your vet may also perform blood work to determine your pet’s health status, to ensure they are a good candidate for anesthesia.
Cat dental cleanings closely resemble those for humans. However, your cat will be under general anesthesia for their dental cleaning. Anesthesia is necessary because unlike us, your kitty will not willingly hold their mouth open on their own, and they may otherwise bite. Moreover, placing a tube down the windpipe while your cat is under anesthesia keeps the airway safe from water used during the cleaning. Additionally, since dental disease can be painful, working on your cat’s mouth awake would lead to unnecessary discomfort. When your cat is unconscious and asleep, they will be largely oblivious to any oral pain. Therefore, anesthesia keeps both your cat and veterinary staff safe during the dental procedure.
While anesthesia can carry some risks, the advantages of a thorough dental cleaning in the face of dental disease often outweigh these risks. A good pre-anesthetic physical exam and blood work screening can help catch pre-existing health issues that would deem your cat unsafe to undergo anesthesia. Pet parents should note that anesthesia-free cleanings, such as those advertised at some grooming facilities, are cosmetic only, as they do not address problems under the gum line; thus, they are not recommended by veterinarians.
While your cat is under general anesthesia, an IV catheter will be placed to deliver IV fluids and sometimes IV antibiotics. Just like in human anesthesia, your cat will be closely monitored to ensure their heart rate and rhythm, respiratory rate, and blood pressure remain stable. Special measures will also be made to ensure your kitty is kept warm during anesthesia.
Dental Radiographs (X-Rays)
Next, dental radiographs (or X-rays) are taken. X-rays are necessary to help your vet determine what is occurring underneath your cat’s gum line. Large roots of the tooth lie under the gum line where they’re not visible to the naked eye, much like the tip of an iceberg. Roughly 42 percent of cats appear to have normal teeth above the surface of the gum yet actually harbor dental disease below (2). Therefore, dental X-rays are imperative to look for evidence of issues like resorptive lesions, tooth decay, bone loss, oral cysts, and retained baby teeth. This radiographic evidence can guide your veterinarian on whether or not a tooth needs to be pulled (extracted).
Dental Scaling and Polishing
For the cat teeth cleaning procedure, forceps are used to remove big chunks of tartar and hand-scaler tools and an ultrasonic scaling device are used to remove smaller particles, just like at a human dentist office. Metal curettes clean under the gum line. Following the removal of debris, the gum around each tooth is gently probed to find any deep pockets that may point to a receding gum and indicate that the nearby tooth should be pulled. The teeth are then rinsed and polished. An anti-plaque product may also be applied.
A topical anesthetic (such as lidocaine) is injected around any teeth that may need to be extracted in order to numb the area and provide additional pain control for your cat. A tool called an elevator is used to help break the ligaments that hold the tooth to the underlying bone. Occasionally, an incision with a scalpel blade may be required to aid in an extraction. Once a tooth is pulled with forceps, sutures may be used to close the hole.
X-rays will be taken again following an extraction to ensure the entire tooth root was removed, as pain or infection can occur if a fragment is left behind. Further X-rays may be taken after a dental procedure for a cat with severe periodontitis and bone loss to ensure a fracture of the already weakened jaw bone (mandible) did not occur if extractions were made.
Cat Dental Cleaning Costs
The cost of veterinary dental services for cats varies depending on your geographic location, the specific practices of your veterinarian, and the severity of your cat’s dental and overall health.
The average overall cost of a feline dental cleaning at a vet clinic is $300-$750. This fee typically incorporates the $50-$60 physical exam fee from the veterinarian, the $100-$200 cost of pre-anesthetic blood work screening, as well as the cost of anesthesia, dental X-rays, and the cleaning procedure. Costs may exceed $1,000 if extractions are required.
Veterinary dentist specialists, trained via the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC), perform more advanced procedures (such as root canals and other specialty surgeries) and are typically more costly than a general practitioner vet.
Pet insurance may cover routine and preventative dental care. For a variety of factors, pet parents should look into pet insurance coverage as soon as a new pet joins their family. Additionally, your vet’s office may have reduced dental fees due to specials offered in February, which is Pet Dental Health Month, so be sure to inquire and book in advance to ensure savings.
What to Expect After a Cat Dental Cleaning
When your cat has recovered from anesthesia following a dental procedure, your vet may either discharge your cat that same day or recommend keeping them in hospital overnight for observation. If your cat goes home the same day, be sure to monitor them closely at home. They may still be wobbly from anesthesia and be at risk of falling. Keep your cat confined to a small safe space, such as a carrier (if they are comfortable in it) or a small bathroom until they are steady on their feet again. You don’t want them to fall down any stairs or off a sofa or bed.
Following any anesthetic event, your cat may be a bit nauseous for a few hours or may develop constipation for a few days. If they are vomiting, not eating after 24 hours, or do not have a bowel movement after five days, seek veterinary advice from your vet.
Depending on the severity of dental problems detected during your cat’s dental procedure, especially if any extractions were performed, your cat may go home with pain medication and/or oral antibiotics. If extractions or other surgery was performed, the removed tooth site and surrounding gum may be sutured closed with dissolvable stitches or else left open. If left open, your vet may recommend you gently flush or rinse the area to prevent food debris accumulation. Your vet may also recommend that your cat be fed a soft diet of wet canned food for two weeks while the mouth heals, and then schedule a recheck visit to ensure everything is healing well.
At-home dental care for cats (i.e., tooth brushing) can be resumed within a few days following a dental cleaning without extractions or about two weeks following extractions once your vet gives final approval.
Daily tooth brushing and regular veterinary cleanings are the best way to keep your cat’s chompers healthy and looking pearly white for longer while keeping pain away.
- Cornell Feline Health Center . Feline Dental Disease. Retrieved from: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-dental-disease
- Verstraete FJ, Kass PH, Terpak CH. Diagnostic value of full-mouth radiography in cats. Am J Vet Res. 1998;59(6):692-695.