If you have ever had a cavity or dental work done, you know how uncomfortable and inconvenient it can be. For humans, caring for our teeth is something we do almost automatically. Since cats are unable to brush their own teeth and, like humans, do not have a natural, built-in way to keep teeth clean, it falls on you to maintain your cat’s dental health. The best way to ensure the overall dental health of your cat is to establish a timetable for routine dental check ups with your vet.
Veterinary research indicates that dental disease, in its various forms, is the number one health issue in feline medicine and about 70% of cats over the age of three have some kind of dental problem. Fortunately for your cat, dental disease is preventable!
At about 4-6 months of age, kittens start losing their baby teeth and form their permanent teeth. An adult cat, after losing all of his baby teeth, should have 30 teeth – canines, incisors, pre-molars and molars. Once your cat has his adult teeth, dental exams should be done regularly. Toothaches and dental problems can be extremely painful and may cause your cat to stop eating or show symptoms of illness. Waiting until this point can often create undue stress and discomfort for your cat.
Specific problems can include:
- Tartar Build-up
- Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions (FORLs) – the feline cavity counterpart
- Lost or Broken Teeth
- Periodontal Disease
- Oral Cancer
Since cats very rarely get cavities, they are much more prone to gum disease and excessive tartar build-up. Food particles and bacteria collect along the gum line and if ignored, forms plaque. When plaque builds up and is not removed promptly, your cat’s saliva combines with the plaque to form tartar. Irritating to the gums, the tartar causes an inflammation called gingivitis. Can you see the progression? The two most common dental diseases, gingivitis and periodontitis, are preventable through the regular removal of plaque. Unfortunately for most cats, while gingivitis is reversible, late stage periodontal disease is not and can cause further dental problems that most cats find painful. If diagnosed and treated by your vet it can be slowed or stopped.
Recognizing the signs of dental disease is crucial as part of your cat’s overall health. Symptoms may include:
- Decreased appetite or complete loss of appetite
- Bad breath
- Weight loss
- Yellow, brown, or black teeth
- Swollen, red, or bleeding gums
- Blood in the saliva
- Receding gums
- Missing or broken teeth
There are other signs of dental problems that may be more subtle. Your cat may choose softer foods, play with chew toys less and decline crunchy treats. You may also notice your cat chewing on one side of his mouth more than the other. Your cat may chew less in general, causing him to vomit undigested, poorly chewed food, increased salivation, pawing at or rubbing the face are indicators of oral pain. If you notice any of these signs or think that your cat may be presenting signs of dental disease or oral pain that are not listed here, contact your vet for a complete dental exam. Often the cause of the discomfort and pain can be stopped if not reversed with immediate care.
Dental prophylaxis (teeth cleaning and polishing) is the most common dental procedure performed on cats. Generally, the process takes about an hour and your cat can usually go home at the end of the day. Though general anesthesia is required for any kind of veterinary dental work, the risks are minimal. Risks involved with general anesthesia can be minimized if pre-anesthesia screening tests are performed. Once your cat has been anesthetized, the vet performs a complete oral examination and begins cleaning the teeth.
Dental radiographs may be taken to asses the extent of any damage. Tartar is removed by hand scaling and through the use of an ultrasonic instrument. After all the tartar and plaque has been removed, the teeth are polished. If any extractions are necessary, they are usually done at this time.
Now that your cat has sparkling teeth and improved health, it is important for you to continue at home. Home care is essential to the oral health of your cat and needs to be part of a regular routine.
Look for warning signs of gum disease such as bad breath, red and swollen gums, any plaque or tartar around the gum line and pain or bleeding when you touch the gums or mouth. Any discolored, fractured or missing teeth should also be noted. Should you notice any bumps or masses within or around your cat’s mouth, call your vet for a check-up.
Brush your cat’s teeth at least once a week. There are a number of conventional brushing kits available. The kits generally include a finger brush, a small pet toothbrush and special toothpaste. You should never use human toothpaste as it is too foamy and requires rinsing. By routinely brushing and massaging your cat’s teeth and mouth, he should get accustomed to your fingers in and around his mouth. There are also a variety of ways to help your cat enjoy having his teeth brushed. A little tuna juice on the brush goes a long way or making the brushing an integral part of a daily snuggle session should help. Whichever way works best for your cat, the necessity of brushing his teeth as preventive care cannot be over stated.
Studies have shown that hard kibbles are slightly better at keeping plaque from accumulating on the teeth. There are also special treats designed specifically for general dental hygiene. Consult your vet about special foods or treats that may be appropriate for your cat. Again ask your feline vet as their are now some very good cheap specialist feeds for cats with dental problems.
A greater awareness of the dangers of dental disease contributes significantly to the early recognition and prevention of dental problems in cats. Since periodontal disease may ultimately have a serious impact on your cat’s well-being, routinely checking your cat’s teeth and mouth at home, as well as scheduling regular check-ups with your vet, are important for your cat’s health. Recent advances in veterinary dentistry, combined with the cooperative efforts of cat owners, make caring for your cat’s oral health an easy and wise decision.