Cat Dental Care
As with people, your cat needs to have good oral hygiene to keep a healthy set of teeth and gums throughout its life. Gums should be a healthy pink colour, with no redness or bleeding where the gums meet the teeth. (Some breeds have pigmentation of the gums or patches of black pigmentation which is normal). Teeth should be clean and white (not discoloured or coated with yellow or brown tartar deposits). There should be no pain or discomfort when eating.
Bad breath (halitosis) only develops if there are problems with oral disease or disease elsewhere in the body (e.g. diabetes, kidney disease). As our pets are a huge part of the family, we should want to be close to them without having to tolerate nasty smelly breath.
By the age of 3 years 80% of cats have some form of dental disease. Problems with oral health often begin with accumulation of plaque on the surface of teeth. This is a mixture of oral bacteria, food debris and protein from saliva, which forms a sticky film over teeth that are not brushed. Plaque then hardens and can form tartar, which has a roughened surface, with lots of tiny pockets into which more bacteria and food debris can accumulate, thus starting a rapidly progressing vicious cycle – more tartar, more food debris, more plaque etc.
As layers of tartar build up, the tartar starts to overhang the edge of the tooth beside the gum which leads to inflammation and infection of the gum (gingivitis). This is seen as redness of the gum along the base of the tooth. Very quickly this leads to bleeding gums and they start to recede away from the tooth roots. The structures supporting the tooth in its socket become damaged, eventually leading to tooth loss or tooth root infections and abscesses.
Tooth root abscesses cause tremendous pain and may be first noticed by an animal dribbling, stopping eating, or refusing to eat dry food due to the pain of chewing. However, sometimes the first thing you will notice will be a swelling on the cheek underneath one eye, or on the lower jaw. At this stage, tooth extraction is the only treatment.
Also once gums become inflamed and start to bleed, the bacteria trapped in the tartar can start to enter the bloodstream, causing the animal to develop systemic infection. This may make the animal dull and subdued or it may cause a fever to develop; the animal may go off its food. Sometimes we can see a worsening of pre-existing heart or kidney problems as the bacteria settle out of the bloodstream in already damaged organs.
Factors That May Contribute to Dental Problems
- Poor Oral Hygiene – Without preventative care, plaque and tartar will accumulate and lead to dental disease and gingivitis.
- Food – Feeding your pet on sticky food will lead to a more rapid accumulation of plaque and tartar.
- Age – As your pet becomes older it is more prone to dental disease
- Breed – Certain breeds are more prone to gingivitis (for example Siamese cats) or tooth overcrowding (e.g. Persians)
What should I look out for?
The signs of dental disease are varied but it is worth getting your pet checked if it shows any of the following signs:
- Build up of tartar on the teeth – this is a grey/brown deposit that usually starts near the gum and spreads over the tooth.
- Smelly breath
- Some pets will have trouble chewing food and may spit it out or refuse to eat. This is more common with hard foods.
- A red area on the tooth gum border.
- Erosion of the gum around the tooth.
If possible, brushing your pet’s teeth regularly is the most effective way to prevent plaque accumulating. There are special soft-brushes and finger ‘thimble’ brushes available and specially formulated chicken or fish-flavoured toothpastes which most pets actually like!
Our veterinary nurses are happy to show you how to clean your cat’s teeth, It is good to start slowly, with just a few teeth at each attempt, handling the animal quietly and gently lifting the lip to expose the teeth. A demonstration often helps. If your animal co-operates, give them plenty of praise and a reward. Gradually build-up the process and incorporate it into your routine. There are also dental treats and mouth washes which can be used if brushing proves impossible.
A balanced complete diet in growing animals ensures essential nutrients needed for strong, healthy teeth. Diet is a major factor in the development of plaque and tartar. In the wild, animals would eat a diet that includes bone, skin and tough fibrous material. This material effectively acts as a toothbrush for the teeth: the abrasive action during chewing helps to physically clean the teeth. The natural diet would also not contain many of the sugars and sticky agents seen in so many processed diets. Thus animals fed solely tinned, soft diets are at a much higher risk of plaque and tartar accumulation, sticking to teeth and favouring bacterial growth.
Feeding our pets dry foods, biscuits and abrasive diets helps to remove plaque and prevent subsequent dental disease. Any food which encourages your pet to chew will help clean the teeth.
Regular dental checks
A professional examination and assessment is the best way of determining if your pet has dental disease. We can check for signs of tooth or gum damage, and if early in the process, can advise on cleaning/diet changes that may prevent further problems. However, if moderate to severe dental disease is present, we may advise a ‘dental’ procedure.
Scaling and polishing you pet’s teeth may be all that is required to restore beautiful, white healthy teeth. Some cats suffer from a condition called FORL’s ( feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions). These cats spontaneously develop holes (cavities) in the enamel of the teeth. The only treatment for these teeth is extraction. In more severe cases it may be necessary to remove any loose or damaged teeth. For these procedures to be safe and effective, your pet will require a general anaesthetic. Owners may be concerned about this and may ‘put-off’ coming to seek advice. It is much better we check the teeth and discuss your concerns than ignore the situation leading to much worse problems. Dental disease can be tremendously painful and have far-reaching health consequences in animals of any age so it is important to deal with it at an early stage.