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National Pet Dental Health Month: Caring For Your Cat's Teeth

February is National Pet Dental Health Month and, as veterinarians, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to shine a light on such a pivotal topic. And while we seem to hear more about dog dental care, cat dentistry gets far too little attention. Just like dogs with dental disease, cats can have trouble eating, painful mouths, and the infections can even spread into the bloodstream. Thankfully, there are many things you can do as the cat owner and we can do as veterinarians to prevent the situation from becoming this dire. We’ve taken the time to answer some frequently asked questions on cat dental care below in hopes that you will make sure that your furry feline’s care includes those (hopefully!) pearly whites.

What is involved in cat dental care?

Cat dental care encompasses a broad spectrum of treatments, starting with a basic physical exam to uncover any issues. If we see dental issues in your cat’s mouth, this treatment will extend to a thorough dental cleaning that features scaling, polishing, and fluoride treatments. If the problem has gotten too extensive, extractions may be necessary.

How does dental health impact the overall health and wellbeing of my cat?

Good dental health impacts overall pet health in much the same way that it does with humans. You might not realize it but the teeth affect everything that goes on inside the body. If the teeth are infected and gums are inflamed, that's going to affect the cat’s appetite and how well they eat. The bacteria that form on the surface of the teeth can get into the bloodstream and negatively affect things like the heart, heart valves, liver, kidneys, or virtually any organ in the cat's body.

Cats are also very good at hiding pain and discomfort. When cats have dental disease—a bad tooth, gingivitis, or any sort of mouth pain—it can be hard to detect that. They often have a painful mouth, and they hide it well until it's gotten to the point where they can't do so any longer. By that time it's usually a serious issue for them, causing a lot of pain and issues with their quality of life.

What types of dental care should I give my cat at home?

Home dental care for cats can be challenging for pet owners, as it can be tough to get their teeth brushed. If you have a cat that allows you to brush teeth, that is the best way to keep their mouth healthy. There are special toothbrushes that you can buy and even little finger brushes that you can put on the tip of your finger as well as cat toothpaste. You can find these products online, at the pet store, or your veterinarian likely sells them. Start when they're a kitten and get them used to brushing their teeth. Any amount of brushing you can do - even if it's just once or twice a week - is helpful. Ideally, you should brush your cat’s teeth daily we understand that that's hard to do with busy work schedules.

If brushing becomes too challenging, you might have to rely on dental treats or toys. Dental treats for cats rub on the side of the tooth and this action can remove plaque. Dental toys are similar to that and, although they won't fall apart like dental treats, they usually have grooves in them that the tooth can fall into and do the same mechanical action there. Cats have to eat every day, so feeding your cat a dental-approved diet can be extremely beneficial.

What are some of the signs and symptoms of oral health issues in my cat?

The most common sign of oral health issues in cats is typically either drooling or diminished appetite. As dental disease progresses, your cat can also experience halitosis, or a bad odor, as well as swollen mouth and gums. Various stages of tartar/periodontal disease can also gradually take place. And while this doesn't have to do with teeth, per se, cats can also get things like tumors and growths. Whether these tumors are malignant or benign can affect the mouth or gingival tissue.

Beyond the drooling and diminished appetite, you always want to take note of any behavior changes in your cat. Some cats will paw at their face if they have a painful tooth. They may be reluctant to eat, or they'll eat but some of their food comes out of their mouths because it’s painful. You might even see excessive grooming, weight loss, or increased water intake. Again, if you notice any significant changes in your cat, please bring them to your veterinarian so they can assess the problem.

How do veterinarians diagnose dental problems in cats?

The first thing we do is a complete physical exam. You schedule an appointment for your cat’s annual exam and we would look in the mouth for signs of dental disease, gingivitis, or abnormal lesions. If there's any indication during a physical exam that we have a bad tooth or there's something abnormal in the mouth, then we would move on to making an estimate for you for general anesthesia for a full dental cleaning.

Most veterinarians will do full x-rays of the mouth for any dental procedure because the disease is often below the gumline. We need to take x-rays so we can see the roots of the teeth. Based on what we find during the procedure and during the dental cleaning and x-rays, we call and discuss if any extractions may be indicated and go from there based on the complete picture. Again, your cat should have an annual exam but some cats may need twice-yearly dental visits.

What are some possible conditions caused by poor cat dental care and the treatments for these issues?

Gingivitis, periodontal disease, loose teeth, and sore or swollen gums are all very common problems found during cat dental exams. One of the more severe things we see is broken teeth. Cats are also notorious for getting a condition called FORL, or feline oral resorptive lesions. That is where the enamel of the tooth, usually at the base right above the gum line, will start to erode. They're very painful and can be difficult to diagnose because they're hiding right above the gums and cats don't necessarily show them to you. Some cats get viral infections that can cause severe gingivitis and infection in the mouth. Bacterial shedding from the mouth into the body can affect all other organs, which is why we recommend doing routine blood work before we go into any anesthetic procedure. We make sure that all of the organ functions are normal before anesthesia.

The treatments vary depending on the diagnosis. Veterinarians treat gingivitis and tartar buildup with a simple dental cleaning. The aforementioned resorptive lesions, or broken teeth, often have to be extracted. There are special water additives that you can add to their water—antibacterial solutions that help with the plaque biofilm on the teeth. Some cats don't like the flavor of that, and so they may not drink the water with the additive in it. The other thing that we have are prescription diets that help with preventing plaque buildup on the teeth. Hills has a prescription diet as well as Royal Canin. Again, however, sometimes cats can be picky. That’s why the main thing we recommend for all cats is a dental cleaning every year at the vet hospital with general anesthesia and x-rays to stay on top of things that may be occurring in the mouth.

If you have questions, suspect your cat has a painful mouth, or are due for your next cat dental visit, please give us a call!