Dental disease in cats is often quite painful and can impact the overall health and wellbeing of your favorite feline friend. That’s why it’s so important to practice good dental hygiene at home.
Ideally, pet parents should brush their cat’s teeth daily using a pet-safe enzymatic toothpaste, with a focus on cleaning each tooth and the gumline with a soft toothbrush or finger toothbrush for cats. Cats should also have annual professional dental cleanings.
In this article, we’ll cover many common cat dental problems, plus share helpful tips on how to avoid cat dental disease.
10 Common Cat Dental Problems
Let’s go over some of the most typical feline dental problems that could impact your cat.
Plaque is an accumulation of bacteria across the surface of the tooth. It can harden over time to create tartar and cause bad breath (halitosis), as well as tooth decay. Oral bacteria and the toxins they release can cause inflammation in the whole body and potentially impair organs such as the heart, liver, kidneys, and brain.
Periodontal disease is disease of the gums and structures around the teeth. Its milder form, gingivitis (gum disease), is inflammation of the gums that causes redness, swelling, bleeding, and pain. Gum recession (or wearing away of the gum line) can also occur. Gingivitis may progress to periodontitis, a more severe form of periodontal disease that affects the ligaments that attach teeth to underlying bone, causing loose teeth.
As periodontitis progresses, it can lead to endodontic disease, which impacts the inside of the tooth itself. Tooth decay, tooth root abscesses, facial swelling, draining tracts, and fistulas that form between the roof of the mouth and nasal passage can occur in both periodontitis and endodontic disease.
When bacteria destroy underlying bone, your cat may experience bone loss (osteomyelitis) and jaw fractures.
Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions
As a cat’s tooth becomes infected or inflamed, their body can start to destroy and resorb (or “dissolve”) it, leading to intense discomfort. This is called a feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion (FORL).
Though they can impact any cat, at least one FORL can be found in up to 60 percent of cats over 6 years of age. The canine teeth are most commonly affected, but any affected teeth should be extracted by your veterinarian to prevent progressive pain.
Broken (or Fractured) Teeth
Fractured teeth in cats should never be ignored. The pulp cavity, which leads to the root canal, extends far to the edge of a cat’s tooth, particularly the canine teeth. Therefore, a fracture (even at just the tip of a tooth) can expose the pulp cavity to food, other debris, and bacteria in the mouth that can lead to painful tooth root abscesses.
Thus, your vet will need to investigate your cat’s tooth fracture more closely via dental radiographs to evaluate whether or not an extraction of the broken tooth is necessary to prevent further problems.
Feline Stomatitis Syndrome
Due to an exaggerated immune response, the gums, teeth (especially a cat’s back premolars and molars, or cheek teeth), and tissue at the back of the throat can become intensely inflamed, causing swelling, bleeding, and painful ulceration of the mouth.
Cats with FCGS will often drool and stop eating. This disease can be difficult to manage and may require extraction of all teeth, which seems drastic but actually alleviates unmanageable pain.
Persistent Deciduous Teeth or Retained Teeth
When deciduous teeth (AKA baby teeth) do not erupt or fall out normally, cats may develop dental issues later on. If a persistent baby tooth doesn’t fall out during kittenhood, it causes overcrowding of the mouth as the corresponding permanent tooth tries to grow in.
Plaque accumulation is more likely to occur due to the narrower space between teeth, leading to a worse chance of periodontal disease. Additionally, because it’s fighting for space to accommodate the roots of both the persistent and permanent teeth, the tooth socket may fail to support the adult tooth.
Persistent baby teeth should be extracted by your veterinarian if they haven’t fallen out at 6-7 months of age at the latest. Earlier intervention is preferred so the emerging permanent tooth can assume its normal position without competition.
Retained teeth are those that fail to develop and erupt altogether. A dentigerous cyst can occur under the gumline, leading to pain and impaction that may affect surrounding teeth. Your vet may detect the absence of a tooth upon physical exam and proceed with dental radiographs and surgical extraction of unerupted teeth as needed.
Problems with a cat’s enamel can lead to soft spots and decay. As a kitten is developing, enamel defects may arise because of trauma to an emerging tooth, malnutrition, or an illness that causes high fevers.
Certain medications, such as tetracyclines, can sometimes result in enamel hypoplasia (weakened enamel) in young kittens. Teeth will be weakened and prone to more decay if the enamel is damaged.
Preventative dental care, as well as fluoride therapy and bonding agents, can help limit further enamel damage.
Tooth Malalignment (Malocclusion)
Malocclusion is abnormal positioning of the teeth that can cause improper wearing over time, as well as worsened plaque and tartar accumulation. Pain in the mouth can also arise if an offset bite causes teeth to rub on the upper palate or gums.
Persistent deciduous teeth can also lead to malocclusion or malalignment as your kitten develops. Depending on the severity of your cat’s malocclusion, your vet may either recommend extracting the most concerning teeth or refer you to a veterinary dental specialist who may be able to perform realignment via “kitty braces.”
Tumors of the oral cavity may be either benign or malignant. Malignant oral tumors make up 3 percent of all cancers in cats. Even if an oral tumor is benign, it can cause oral pain and lead to worsening dental disease or infection.
Trauma or Fractures to the Mouth and Jaw
Trauma caused by blunt force or other injury can lead to jaw dislocation or fractures of the mouth, including the upper or lower jaw or teeth. Your veterinarian will often recommend stabilizing your cat’s facial fracture with surgical wire, pins, or metal plates until it heals.
As previously mentioned, fractures to the lower jaw can also arise from deep infection and bone loss as a result of severe periodontal disease.
Risk Factors for Cat Dental Problems
While many cat dental problems can be prevented, or at least managed, some cats are genetically predisposed to more severe dental disease than others. For instance, purebred cat breeds, such as the Abyssinian, are more often plagued by periodontal disease. Purebred cats are also at increased risk for stomatitis syndrome. Brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, such as Persians, often have abnormal teeth positioning.
Cats with certain diseases are also at a heightened risk for dental disease, such as those with feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), Bartonellosis (which causes cat scratch fever), and calicivirus. Cats with kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, and various autoimmune disorders may also be at increased risk of gingivitis, stomatitis, and other oral diseases.
Starting when your cat is a kitten, annual checkups with your veterinarian are important to help detect these issues and abnormalities early on and monitor for dental and other health effects.
Cat Dental Care Tips
When brushing your cat’s teeth, brush for approximately 30 seconds per side, and wash your hands thoroughly afterward. Some toothpaste intended for humans can be toxic to cats, so be sure to only use a pet-approved product. Baking soda is also dangerous to cats and should be avoided.
Pet parents should be patient and take their time when first introducing their cats to teeth brushing:
- Start in a calm setting and just give your cat a taste of toothpaste.
- Gently lift the lip and touch the gum, and offer a treat to get your cat to associate the act with something positive. (You may also dip a cotton swab in tuna juice and rub it on your cat’s gum line.)
- Gradually work your way up to placing the toothbrush to the tooth, first without toothpaste, then with toothpaste.
Remember, any brushing (even if it’s not daily) is better than none; if daily brushing is too difficult, aim for at least three times weekly.
Schedule Professional Teeth-Cleaning Appointments
Cat oral care does not stop at home. Just like humans, cats should have regular professional dental cleanings to scale for tartar under the gum line and between teeth, as well as detect other oral problems.
Most cats should start an annual prophylactic dental cleaning before 3 years of age. Thereafter, most cats require an annual cleaning, while others with worse disease may need biannual cleanings. Ideally, no more than two years should pass between cat dental cleanings after age 3.
How to Help Prevent Cat Dental Disease
While daily cat tooth brushing is the most important step pet parents can take to help offset dental disease, additional preventative measures may also assist.
Feeding dry cat food can partially help crack off some tartar accumulation. Food may either be a commercial consumer or prescription diet.
However, keep in mind that cats with severe pre-existing dental disease may have a difficult time eating dry food due to pain. Furthermore, cats with bladder or kidney issues may be better off eating canned wet diets. Please note that raw diets, which carry significant health risks, have not been scientifically proven to help prevent dental disease in pets.
Dental Treats and Water Additives
Cat dental treats can also help remove some daily plaque accumulation but are no substitute for daily brushing. These treats should be used in moderation to help maintain a healthy weight. Look for products bearing the seal of approval from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC).
VOHC-approved water additives for cats can also help reduce oral bacteria that would otherwise cause plaque development.
Certain cat chew toys can help rub off daily plaque. As with dogs, avoid hard chew toys such as deer antlers, which can cause broken teeth and other cat dental problems. Steer clear of anything with threads or string, as these can pose a linear gastrointestinal foreign body risk to cats.