Dental diseases are extremely common in cats. The American Veterinary Dental Society reports that approximately 70 percent of cats are affected by a dental disease by the time they’re 3 years old, and the likelihood increases as they age. Excessive tartar and plaque or tooth decay can cause painful dental problems in cats. These problems can also lead to other medical conditions in the heart, liver and kidneys, many of which can be fatal.
Veterinary experts agree that regular oral care is essential to helping your cat live a long, healthy life. According to the Dr. Carol McConnell, vice president and chief veterinary medical officer for VPI, in Veterinary Pet Insurance article “Cats and Dogs Need Dentists, Too:”
“Most people brush regularly and take care of their teeth because they know dental conditions can be painful and costly … Ideally, this mindset should translate to how people care for their pets’ teeth.”
Treating dental disease in cats can also be costly. In 2011, VPI policyholders filed more than $8.5 million in claims for dental care, and more than 1,000 of those claims were for tooth abscesses. However, with proper preventative care, you can avoid the higher costs of surgery and tooth extraction for potential dental issues.
Signs of Cat Toothaches
Unlike humans, cats can’t tell you when they’re in pain, and they will often continue to eat and act normally. Some cats with dental conditions will eat by chewing on one side of the mouth to avoid hurting the affected side, or swallow dry food whole to avoid chewing completely.
Subtle changes in behavior, like hiding under the bed, may indicate that a cat is suffering from a dental condition. Other symptoms can include:
- Bad breath
- Pawing at the mouth
- Grooming less often or not at all
- Sensitivity to being touched
- Red and inflamed gums
- Exposed roots of teeth
- Loose teeth
Many of these symptoms can also be signs of other medical problems in cats, so it’s important to have them examined by a veterinarian if you notice any changes in behavior. Sometimes, a cat may not show any symptoms at all, so routine checkups are key to early diagnosis and treatment.
Jen Heller Meservey
Brushing your cat's teeth daily can help prevent dental disease.
Dental Problems in Cats
- Periodontal disease: The most common dental problem in cats is periodontal disease, which includes gingivitis and periodontitis. These conditions are caused by a buildup of plaque and tartar between the teeth and the gums. This leads to infection and inflammation of the gums, and can sometimes cause teeth to become loose and fall out. Periodontal disease can lead to or exacerbate diseases of the heart, liver and kidneys.
- Tooth abscesses: When a cat’s tooth becomes infected by dental disease, abscesses can form in the gums. These are pus-filled pockets where white blood cells buildup to fight the infection. Abscesses are very painful to the touch, and can make it difficult for your cat to eat or groom.
- Feline Chronic Gingivostomatitis (FCGS): This painful condition happens as a result of periodontal disease, when the gums become extremely inflamed, even to the point of completely covering the teeth. Ulcers can also form on the lips and inside the mouth. Currently, the most effective treatment for this condition is extracting all of the teeth from the cat’s mouth.
- Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions (FORLs): This is the second most common dental disease in cats, affecting over one-third of all adult domestic cats and dating as far back as the 13th century. These lesions look like small areas of redness or an irregularly shaped gum line, but underneath, the teeth are being eaten away. Sometimes part of the tooth will break off, leaving a painful exposed root.
- Broken teeth: As cats grow older, their teeth become weaker. Senior cats are very susceptible to broken teeth, especially the sharp canine teeth. Your cat may bite down on something hard and split a tooth, or cause part of it to break off. A broken tooth can expose the pulp inside the tooth, which contains blood vessels and nerves. This can be very painful for the cat, and lead to infection.
- Malocclusion: In some cats, malformed teeth or bones can lead to malocclusion, the inability to close the mouth and chew properly. This is normally found in kittens whose adult teeth fail to grow in correctly, or breeds with flatter faces, like Persians. This condition sometimes causes the teeth to dig into the gums or mouth, causing painful ulcers.
Cat Dental Conditions Treatments
Treating dental conditions in your cat can lead to high veterinary bills. First, your cat will require a thorough oral exam. Some conditions may require an X-ray to make an accurate diagnosis. Antibiotics or steroids may be prescribed to treat an infection, and painkillers to treat the pain. However, the most common treatment for dental conditions like periodontal disease or broken teeth is tooth extraction.
Dental extractions are either surgical or nonsurgical, depending on the condition of the tooth. A surgical extraction is required if the tooth has a broken root, or if the tooth is healthy, but must be removed due to malocclusion. Nonsurgical extractions are usually performed when the teeth are infected by periodontal disease.
Cats must be put under general anesthesia for a tooth extraction, and may need to be hospitalized afterwards. Costs of tooth extraction may include anesthesia, medication, X-rays, surgical supplies, and hospitalization. The price varies by condition and by veterinarian, but can range from $300 to almost $1,300.
Jen Heller Meservey
The most common dental problem in cats is periodontal disease.
How to Prevent Cat Tooth Problems
Just like humans, cats need regular oral care to help prevent dental diseases and other conditions. You can help keep your cats teeth clean and healthy in the following ways:
- Tooth brushing: This is by far the most effective way to prevent dental disease in your cat. Regularly brushing your cats teeth will remove tartar, plaque and bacteria that can cause infections. Be sure to use a special cat toothbrush and cat toothpaste. (Do not use human toothpaste — it can be harmful to cats.) These can be supplied by your vet, or purchased at a pet store. Start by getting your cat used to brushing once a week, then work your way up to once a day.
- Water additives: For those who have difficulty brushing their cat’s teeth, antiseptic water additives can kill some bacteria in your cat’s mouth and help prevent dental disease. These can also help freshen your cat’s breath.
- Food and treats: Some types of dry cat food and crunchy treats can help keep your cat’s teeth clean by reducing plaque buildup. Larger dry kibble encourages more chewing, which can help remove plaque from your cat’s teeth.
- Regular dental cleanings: Another good way to prevent dental disease in your cat is to schedule regular dental cleanings with your veterinarian. “When having your pet's teeth professionally cleaned, expect more than merely a simple process akin to a tooth version of a car wash and detail,” said Anson Tsugawa, VMD, DAVDC, of the Dog and Cat Dentist center in Culver City, Calif., in the article “Top Three Tips for Pet Dental Care from a Veterinary Dental Specialist.” Your cat will need to be under general anesthesia for the cleaning, and may also need special X-rays called dental radiographs. Your veterinarian will clean your cat’s teeth using the same kinds of tools your dentist uses to clean your teeth. These cleanings can be expensive, but they will help save you money on costly tooth extractions in the long run.
Many cat owners don’t realize that their cats’ teeth need care just as much as the rest of them. The truth is, proper cat dental care can help keep both you and your cat happy. Talk to your veterinarian about ways you can help prevent painful and dangerous dental problems in your cat, and save yourself the high cost of treating them.