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Dental Disease in Cats

Checking cat for dental disease
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It’s estimated that more than half of all pets over the age of three have some form of dental disease. That’s a huge amount of dental problems! 

Dental disease in cats often goes unnoticed because cats rarely show obvious symptoms of dental disease until the problem is severe. That’s why good home dental care is essential to protect your cat’s teeth and gums.

What is Dental Disease in Cats?

Dental disease is a naturally occurring process that happens in both domestic and feral cats. The problem starts with plaque – a slime of bacteria that forms on the teeth and under the gingival (gum) tissue. 

When plaque isn’t removed through regular brushing it hardens into tartar. Tartar has a rough surface which harbors more bacteria, allowing new plaque to form more readily. The same process occurs in humans, which is why your dentist recommends brushing your teeth after you eat to remove plaque before it hardens into tartar – a process which occurs within about 24-48 hours. Imagine if you didn’t brush your teeth for months or years, and you can begin to imagine what is happening inside your cat’s mouth!

Cats, unlike humans, rarely get dental cavities. However, cats do develop gingivitis and periodontitis similar to humans. Cats can also develop resorptive lesions, a unique condition where tooth material is progressively broken down over time. 

Cats of any age can develop dental disease, but your cat is less likely to experience these problems if you practice a good oral hygiene routine at home.

Causes of Dental Disease in Cats

The primary cause of dental disease is a lack of good oral hygiene. The best way to prevent dental disease in your cat is to brush your cat’s teeth daily with a toothbrush, finger brush, or dental wipes and a pet-friendly toothpaste. This removes plaque from the teeth before it can harden into tartar. 

Cat Dental Disease Symptoms

Cat with bad teeth

The first symptom of dental disease most pet owners notice is bad breath. While you may think that stinky breath is natural for animals, it’s not! A cat’s breath should not have a disagreeable odor. If it does, that is a sure sign of a problem and a good reason to schedule an examination with your veterinarian. 

Other signs of dental disease in your cat can include:

  • Drooling
  • Red, inflamed gums
  • Bleeding gums
  • Difficulty chewing
  • Reluctance to eat hard foods
  • Pawing at the mouth
  • Teeth chattering
  • Dropping food
  • Discolored teeth

If you notice signs of dental disease in your cat, see your veterinarian for an examination and a treatment plan. 

While brushing your cat’s teeth regularly can prevent tartar formation, it cannot remove existing tartar or reverse dental disease once it starts. A professional dental treatment from your veterinarian will be necessary to address your cat’s dental disease.

Types of Dental Disease in Cats

The three most common types of dental disease in cats are gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption. These conditions can occur simultaneously with varying degrees of severity. 

Gingitivitis is inflammation of the gingiva (gums). The gums become red, swollen, and painful due to the buildup of plaque on the teeth and underneath the gums. As bacteria buildup on and under the gums, they release substances that damage the healthy gum tissue. The body also mounts an immune response against the invading bacteria, resulting in inflammation. Gingivitis is characterized by red, swollen, and painful gums. In some cases, the gums may bleed when touched. Gingivitis can be reversed with thorough professional dental cleaning performed under general anesthesia to address the bacterial buildup both above and below the gum line.

Peridontitis is inflammation of the structures that attach the tooth to the underlying gums and bone. The periodontium includes the gums, the cementum (the covering of the tooth root), the periodontal ligament (which attaches the tooth root to the bone), and the alveolar bone. Damage to these structures is irreversible and causes loss of support to the tooth. This can lead to loose teeth and tooth loss. Peridontitis is typically the result of untreated gingivitis, so addressing the problem early is essential. Peridontitis is irreversible, and extraction of the affected tooth or teeth under general anesthesia will be required.

Tooth resorption is the most common cause of tooth loss in cats, and it is not known why this process occurs. With tooth resorption, the crown and/or the root of the tooth is slowly destroyed. The process can begin either internally or externally. The result is slowly progressive holes in the affected teeth that are often painful and may also cause inflammation of the surrounding soft tissues. This process is irreversible and extraction of the affected teeth under general anesthesia is required. 

Cat Dental Disease Stages

Cat showing teeth

Dental disease is typically staged when your pet is under general anesthesia. The veterinarian uses a dental probe and intraoral radiographs (X-rays) to assess the degree of disease present in your pet’s mouth. The disease is then categorized in stages as follows:

Stage 1: Gingitivitis. In this stage, there is only inflammation of the gingival tissue (gums) and no loss of support to the teeth. 

Stage 2: Early Periodontitis. In the second stage, less than 25% of the tooth’s support structure has been lost. 

Stage 3: Moderate Periodontitis. In this stage, 25-50% of the tooth’s support has been lost.

Stage 4: Advanced Periodontitis. In the final stage of dental disease, more than 50% of support loss has been experienced.

Gingivitis is the only reversible stage, and it can be fixed with professional dental treatment from your veterinarian. Catching your cat’s dental disease early is essential to ensure a good outcome and to save your pet’s teeth. 

Once dental disease progresses to periodontitis, the resulting damage is not reversible. With moderate and advanced periodontitis, extraction of the affected tooth or teeth is recommended to treat the source of pain and infection.

Diagnosing Dental Disease in Cats

The first step to diagnosing dental disease is a thorough physical examination with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian may recommend sedating your cat to enable a thorough examination of the oral cavity, which may be scary or uncomfortable for your cat while he or she is awake. Sedation allows your veterinarian to fully open your pet’s mouth and carefully examine all of the tooth surfaces, so that potential problems like gingivitis and resorptive lesions can be identified.

If dental disease is diagnosed on routine physical examination, the next step will be a thorough dental examination under general anesthesia. This allows your veterinarian and the veterinary team to perform dental probing, dental radiographs (X-rays), and dental charting to document the health of each of your pet’s teeth. 

Cat Dental Disease Treatment

If any diseased teeth are identified, your veterinarian will discuss your treatment options with you. This may include surgery to extract the diseased tooth or teeth. Your cat’s teeth will also be cleaned and polished to remove plaque and tartar both above and below the gum line.

Cost to Treat Dental Disease in Cats

The cost to treat dental disease in cats depends on the severity of the disease and the available treatment options. However, pet owners should expect to spend $1,000 to $2,000 on a dental cleaning procedure, with the cost varying depending on whether dental surgery is also necessary.

How to Prevent Dental Disease in Cats

Brushing a cat's teeth

The best way to prevent dental disease is through a good home dental care regimen. This should include daily tooth brushing. Use a pet-specific toothpaste and a toothbrush, finger brush, or dental wipes to gently clean your pet’s teeth and along the gum line. This reduces plaque buildup and prevents dental disease. 

Other home dental care options include the use of prescription veterinary dental diets, water additives, and dental treats. To ensure you’re getting a product that has been tested and proven to reduce plaque buildup, look for products labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal.

Dental Disease in Cats Infographic