Dental disease is the most commonly diagnosed medical problem in cats over 3 years old. Yes, 3 years. This is not an old cat problem, or a purebred problem, or an indoor cat problem. This could be a problem in YOUR cat. The genetics of cats make their teeth (and their kidneys, but that’s another blog) their Achilles heels. How often do we really look in our cats’ mouths? Not very often. Chronic dental problems can lead to pain, systemic infection, and tooth loss. Think about how nasty your mouth would be if you never brushed your teeth!
There are various stages of dental disease, from just a little tartar and plaque to severe periodontal disease and infection. Any redness of the gums is an indication of inflammation and unhealthiness, and when the gums are unhealthy, it provides a gateway for oral bacteria to enter into the cat’s bloodstream and cause systemic disease. That oral bacteria can settle in the heart, kidneys, or other organs and lead to severe illness.
To examine your cat’s teeth, you can gently lift up on the gums and peek in. Most cats will tolerate this if it is associated with lots of love and is done in a non-aggressive way. If you have new kittens, start practicing this with them when they are young so they are used to it when they are big. You should see white teeth and pink gums. Tartar can appear as flat, brownish discoloration, or may be a protruding, rock-like formation growing on the teeth. The gums may be reddish along the tooth-line, or may be swollen and actually bleeding if there are severe problems. Furthermore, cats get what we call resorptive lesions, kind of like our cavities. They may appear as a pinkish growth from the gums down over the tooth, or a pink spot on the tooth. If you see any of these changes, or are unsure, your cat should be seen by your veterinarian.
Dental cleanings may be very straightforward, or they can be extremely involved oral surgery if severe periodontal disease is present. Tooth extraction is frequently necessary for teeth with resorptive lesions or with significant bone loss under the gumline. Appropriate dental care should ALWAYS include radiographs of all of the teeth, not just the obviously diseased ones, as frequently there is disease under the gumline that would be missed by just looking at the surface.
The best treatment, as for most things, is prevention if possible. Tooth brushing, some dental treats, and other products may be beneficial for some cats. There is also some thought that canned food is better for cats’ teeth than dry because it doesn’t have so much sugar in it to help contribute to the formation of plaque and tartar. Dry food for the most part, contrary to popular belief, does not actually help scrape off tartar and plaque.
If prevention is not effective or not enough, most owners are very impressed with how much better their cats feel after having the dental work completed. First of all, the improvement in cat breath is dramatic!! In addition, the chronic pain associated with dental disease is now gone, and often times the cat’s whole personality improves. They can’t tell us they hurt! We never get tired of hearing how happy people are to have their cat back! Things develop and change so slowly that sometimes people don’t even realize how much their cat has changed. And the health benefits to having a healthy mouth again can’t possibly be understated.
If you have any questions at all about your cat’s oral health, ask your vet, and have her show you the teeth and gums at every visit.