Modern cats may seem like a far cry from their saber-toothed cousins… until they open their mouths, that is. Beneath that cute and cuddly exterior, your cat has teeth like razors, just like their fierce feline ancestors. These “obligate carnivores” were born to hunt and depended on their teeth to capture, immobilize, and shred their prey.
Your sweet housecat is more likely to spend their time stalking stuffed toys and devouring kibble than tearing into tough prey. However, your cat’s teeth are just as essential to their anatomy as they were for their ancestors.
Cat Teeth Anatomy: A Basic Overview
Your cat’s teeth are made up of several distinct components. The portion of the tooth above the gum line is called the crown. It’s covered in a hard, protective coating known as enamel that protects the dentin—the softer part of the tooth underneath.
The portion of the tooth below the gum line is called the root. It’s covered in a thin layer of dental tissue called cementum. Inside the tooth, the portion called the pulp is made up of nerves and blood vessels.
How Many Teeth Do Cats Have?
The number of teeth in your cat’s mouth depends on their age, according to Dr. Bruce Kornreich, diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and director of the Cornell Feline Health Center.
Kittens are born without teeth. Within two to four weeks, their deciduous teeth—also known as milk teeth—start growing. Within eight weeks, kittens typically have around 26 teeth. And by the time they are 6 months old, kittens typically have a full set of 30 “adult” or permanent teeth: 12 incisors, 10 premolars, four molars, and four canine teeth.
Kornreich notes that all adult cats, regardless of breed, have the same number of teeth.
Do Cats Lose Baby Teeth?
Yes, kittens do lose their teeth. Deciduous teeth start falling out around 3 months of age but kittens have such tiny teeth, you may never even notice that they are missing or have been replaced with adult teeth.
Do Cats Lose Teeth?
While all kittens lose their baby teeth, Kornreich notes that it’s possible for adult cats to lose teeth, too.
Dental disease is one of the most common reasons cats could lose their teeth.
“Periodontal disease starts with gingivitis or accumulation of plaque on the teeth, which provides an environment where bacteria can grow,” says Kornreich. “It causes an inflammatory response in the tissue around the tooth… and compromises the supporting structures that attach the tooth root to the bone, leading to tooth loss.”
Trauma from car accidents, falls, and fights can also cause cats to break or lose their teeth.
5 Surprising Cat Teeth Facts
Different teeth have different jobs.
Cats have four different kinds of teeth: incisors, canines, premolars, and molars. And most types of cat teeth have different jobs, according to Kornreich.
Cats use their canine teeth to puncture skin and grab their prey. They tear off pieces of prey and grind them up with their premolars and molars. And cats depend on their incisors—the small teeth between the canine teeth—to pick things up and help with grooming.
Toothless cats can still eat.
In the wild, cats depend on their teeth to capture and devour prey. Losing those teeth can put a wild cat’s life at risk since they could easily starve. But domesticated cats with no teeth can still gobble up bowls of kibble at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“Domesticated cats don’t have to catch their cat food,” Kornreich says. “Domesticated cats, even with full mouth extractions, can still eat; they may develop a preference for wet food, but, in some cases, they’ll even eat dry food.”
Cats don’t get cavities.
The term “cavities” conjures up black holes that need to be drilled out and filled; cats don’t get these kinds of cavities.
“Cats don’t have horizontal tooth surfaces, so they don’t develop dental cavities in the same way that people do,” Kornreich explains.
Cats can get feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs). These painful “cat cavities” occur at or below the gum line and are the result of tooth resorption, not decay. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association reports that FORLs are on the rise, perhaps due to factors such as diet, chronic disease, inflammation, or genetics (1). Often the lesions go undetected, but they can cause symptoms like pain, excess salivation, tooth loss, and trouble eating.
Cats can get other dental diseases.
Cats are susceptible to a variety of dental diseases. In fact, studies show that up to 90 percent of cats over 4 years old suffer from dental conditions, including (2):
- Gingivitis: red, swollen, and painful gums
- Periodontitis: irreversible swelling of the gums and weakening of the jawbone, which can lead to tooth loss
- Tooth resorption: the breakdown of the tooth structure, also a cause of tooth loss.
Each of these diseases can cause issues ranging from pain and discomfort to appetite loss and infection.
You might not notice dental disease.
Some cats are quite stoic and might hide the signs of dental disease or pain. Be on the lookout for symptoms such as excessive drool, bad breath, blood-tinged saliva, preference for wet food, or loss of appetite.
“The biggest surprise is when people realize how advanced their cat’s oral disease is,” Kornreich adds. “If you’re not looking for symptoms, they can be subtle and you may not notice anything is even wrong.”
Taking Care of Cat Teeth: Tips and Advice
Good oral health starts with a good diet. Several studies have found that cats fed dry food diets had better oral health than those fed wet foods (3).
In addition to feeding your cat a complete and balanced diet, Kornreich recommends establishing a dental care routine at home. Yes, that means brushing your cat’s teeth daily.
“Most cats will tolerate having their teeth brushed if you start when they’re young and get them used to it,” he adds.
Skip the tube of toothpaste in your medicine cabinet, which could contain ingredients that could be harmful to cats. Instead, choose products that have been approved for cats (the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal is a good indicator that a toothpaste is safe for your cat). There are even toothbrushes designed for cats.
There are also a number of dental chews on the market. One study found that cats who received dental chews in addition to their dry food diet for four weeks had less plaque and tartar on their teeth and less severe gingivitis than cats who were fed dry food alone (4).
Cats should receive regular oral exams during their veterinary visits. The American Animal Hospital Association recommends that kittens receive complete oral exams to check for “missing, unerupted or slow-to-erupt teeth,” as well as baby teeth that fail to fall out in time (which could make it harder for permanent teeth to come in at the right positions) (5).
“Many cats may need regular professional dental cleanings,” Kornreich says. If you’re not sure what kind of care or cleaning your cat’s teeth need, check with your veterinarian. According to Kornreich, “Monitoring for dental disease is an important part of any normal veterinary visit.”