If you have ever had a toothache, then you will understand just how painful dental problems can be. Sadly, this is not just the case for humans – our cats can get some very painful issues in their mouths, too. It can be hard for our cats to let us know when they have tooth pain, so as owners we must make sure our cats’ teeth are well.
What Dental Problems Can Cats Get?
There are several common problems that cats can get with their teeth. Some of them are similar to human tooth decay and can be prevented or reduced with regular cleaning, but others are quite different and cannot be prevented in the same way.
Over time, cats’ teeth will naturally develop some plaque – a film of bacteria over the surface of the tooth. This is often invisible and is present on almost all cats’ teeth. Over time, plaque can become solid and harden to form tartar (also known as calculus). The tartar provides a home for the bacteria, and over time they will grow and spread, and the tartar will get larger and thicker.
When the tartar presses up against the cat’s gums, then bacteria can then infect the gum and cause pain and inflammation, also known as gingivitis. The bacteria can also travel up around the root of the tooth and infect the ligaments that hold the tooth in place. This is called periodontitis and is very painful.
All cats will eventually experience this series of events, but how quickly they happen will vary. Most cats who suffer from tartar and gingivitis are older, but some unlucky cats will develop these problems when they are quite young. This is why it is important to prevent this where possible by brushing, to get your cat’s teeth checked regularly (usually at their annual vaccination) and to treat tartar quickly to prevent things from worsening.
This is a different kind of inflammation in cats’ mouths, which is not directly related to a bacterial infection. It is properly called “Feline Gingivo-Stomatitis Complex” or FGCS and causes red, raw, sore gums even though the teeth themselves appear healthy. In severe cases, it can also sometimes affect other areas too, such as the base of the tongue and the sides of the mouth. It can happen at any age, and sadly is often seen in younger cats.
Vets are not quite sure why this inflammation happens, and there may be several different causes, including viral infections, stress, or an over-reaction to normal bacteria in the mouth.
Properly called “Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesion” or FORL, tooth resorption is a peculiar issue that is rare in other species, but sadly common in cats. It happens when the gum starts to grow into the root of the tooth, causing that root to start disintegrating down and eventually to disappear. This process is very painful but is not usually obvious when looking in a cat’s mouth. To find a FORL, a vet must probe around a cat’s teeth whilst they are under anaesthesia, or take x-rays of the tooth.
What Are the Symptoms of Dental Problems?
All of these different dental problems can have very similar symptoms. These include:
- Bad breath
- Drooling more
- Eating food more slowly
- Chewing on one side of the mouth
- Blood in the saliva
However, it is very rare for cats to stop eating when they have dental problems – this is usually a sign of some other kind of illness. Most cats will show few, if any, signs until the dental condition is relatively severe. This is why, if you spot any of these symptoms in your cat, you should arrange for them to be seen by one of the vets sooner rather than later.
Treating Dental Problems
All of these dental problems need to be treated by your vet whilst your cat is under anaesthesia. Your vet will examine your cat’s teeth, clean them, and remove any diseased or damaged teeth that are causing your cat pain. Sometimes they may take x-rays to examine the roots of your cats’ teeth, to try and work out if there are any problems that we cannot see from the outside. This is a great advantage to having dedicated up-to-date digital X-ray equipment that we can use to assess each tooth.
Preventing Dental Problems
There are some things you can do to keep your cats’ teeth healthy, which may prevent or slow down the rate that your cat gets periodontal disease. There are no direct known ways to prevent FGSC or tooth resorption, but keeping the teeth healthy may help with both of these diseases.
Cats who eat only wet food are likely to develop periodontal disease more quickly. This is thought to be because wet food is stickier, so it gets trapped between the teeth and around the gum more easily. This then feeds the bacteria who live there, and they grow and produce more plaque.
In contrast, dry diets are slightly abrasive and may help to reduce the number of bacteria on the surface of cats’ teeth. They may also be less likely to get stuck between cats’ teeth.
Some special dry diets and chews are specifically designed to help keep cats’ teeth clean – see here for a list of those that are recommended by the Veterinary Oral Health Council.
If your cat is on a diet that has been recommended by your vet or has any other health conditions, then speak to us before making any changes to their diet.
It might sound odd, but the best way to prevent dental disease in cats is to brush their teeth – same as in humans! This can be tricky and not every cat will accept it, but with gradual training, it can often work. It is easier to start when cats are young kittens, as they are more accepting of new things.
You will need a small, soft toothbrush (you can get ones designed for cats from us or online) and a toothpaste that is designed for cats. You must introduce tooth brushing slowly and carefully, or your cat may become stressed and reject it. See here for more details.
Do not use human toothpaste as these can be poisonous to pets.
Dental problems are sadly common in cats and can be very painful. Your cat should come and see us for regular dental check-ups, and if you spot any problems at home, be sure to make an appointment quickly to get them checked out!
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