How to prevent and treat dental disease in your cat

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How to prevent and treat dental disease in your cat - cat on couch meowing

Dental disease is a common condition among pet cats, but can be prevented. All cat owners should provide dental care for their pets, both at home and with regular professional dental cleanings under anesthesia. This article is for you if you have ever wondered:

  • What are the symptoms of dental disease in cats?
  • What types of dental diseases do cats get?
  • Should I brush my cat’s teeth?
  • Will dental cat food and treats prevent dental disease?
  • Does my cat need dental cleanings at the vet?

Dental disease is an umbrella term used for a wide variety of conditions affecting the teeth and gums. Feline dental disease is common, with studies reporting 50 to 90% of cats older than four years suffer from some kind of dental disease or tooth decay.

What are the symptoms of dental disease in cats?

Feline dental disease has many symptoms, but many go unnoticed by pet owners. Symptoms of dental disease in cats include:

  • Chronic bad breath
  • Swollen, red, or bleeding gums
  • Missing or loose teeth
  • Pink spots on teeth
  • Brown or yellow tartar buildup
  • Pain - avoiding hard food or chewing on one side of the mouth
  • Drooling
  • Blood in saliva

Don’t assume that your cat’s teeth are healthy just because they are still eating normally. “Cats display signs of pain differently than humans do, and it’s rare for dental disease to lead to appetite loss or weight loss,” states Vetster veterinarian Dr. Jo Myers. “Unless you are checking your cat’s mouth on a regular basis, many of these symptoms can be easily overlooked.” When dental disease progresses, it can lead to other medical conditions and illnesses such as:

Ignoring dental disease can affect the longevity and quality of your cat’s life.

A graphic of the quote above

What are the types of feline dental diseases?

Three common types of dental disease in cats are gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption.

1 - Gingivitis in cats

Gingivitis is a form of gum disease that causes gums to become red, swollen, and painful around the teeth. It is usually a result of a buildup of plaque and bacteria in the mouth around the gum line. Plaque should be removed regularly to prevent gingivitis and other progressive forms of dental disease. Fortunately, gingivitis can usually be reversed with regular brushing at home and dental cleanings performed under anesthesia in the clinic by a veterinarian. Advanced gingivitis from plaque and tartar accumulation can lead to periodontal disease.

2 - Periodontitis in cats

Periodontal disease, or periodontitis, is an advanced-stage gum disease that occurs when gingivitis is not controlled. With periodontitis, the tissue that connects the tooth to the surrounding gums and bone is weakened by bacteria present in the accumulated plaque and tartar. Periodontitis can cause tooth loss, bleeding gums, and pain. It is an irreversible condition and requires more invasive treatments, such as extracting affected teeth.

3 - Feline tooth resorption

Feline odontoclastic resorption, or tooth resorption, occurs when the tooth structure begins to break down, causing tooth decay with resorptive lesions. It is a common dental issue that affects 30 to 70% of cats at some point in their lifetime. The condition starts with a small defect in the enamel on the crown of the tooth, causing a pink spot. The pink spot expands and may turn brownish-red as the enamel wears away, until the entire crown of the tooth dissolves. Tooth resorption in cats has no known origin or cause and cannot be prevented. Tooth extraction and pain management is the best way to treat the condition.

Your primary care veterinarian is a valuable expert with skills and experience to handle each of these common dental issues. Your veterinarian may also refer you to a feline dental specialist for more advanced procedures, such as root canals.

What are the risk factors for dental disease in cats?

Risk factors for feline dental disease include:

  • Poor home dental care
  • Few veterinary visits and dental cleanings over the course of life
  • Malnutrition (cats that aren’t provided nutritionally complete cat food, or kittens with parasites)
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Tooth overcrowding (often as a result of genetics)
  • Diseases, such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV)
  • Advanced age

Brushing your cat’s teeth at home is the best way to prevent and delay the progression of dental disease. Genetics and other health conditions also affect the oral cavity and saliva and contribute to how rapidly plaque and tartar build up. Dental diseases occur in cats of all ages but are most likely to occur in older cats due to the buildup of tartar over time.

Should you brush your cat’s teeth?

Cats owners should regularly brush their pet’s teeth at home. Daily brushing is recommended since it is the best way to prevent dental issues and keep gums healthy. It’s also the best way to delay and lengthen the interval between veterinary dental cleanings. Cat toothpastes may help cats with brushing as they come in tasty flavors like chicken. Toothpaste is not essential, however, because it’s the friction of brushing or wiping that removes plaque. A variety of toothbrush styles are available, or a simple damp cloth wrapped around your finger can do the trick.

Note: Human toothpaste should never be used to brush your cat’s teeth as it is not meant to be swallowed. Human toothpaste can contain potentially toxic ingredients, such as xylitol, or cause an upset stomach with vomiting or diarrhea.

Slowly getting your cat accustomed to brushing, especially at a young age, will help develop a daily routine. If it’s too much of a battle, don’t despair. Just follow your veterinarian’s recommendations for professional cleanings to keep those pearly whites healthy.

Can dental cat food and treats prevent dental disease?

Many treats and other products that claim to remove plaque or tartar have little to no evidence supporting this. Only foods and treats that have the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal have been shown to help with cat dental health.

Even the best dental products are not a substitute for brushing at home. Food and treats, even when endorsed by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC),  cannot fully prevent dental disease or completely remove plaque and tartar. They are best used in young cats before the onset of dental disease and after veterinary dental cleanings. If you find that your cat has plaque, tartar, or other dental issues, a dental treat, food, or other dental products, even if it carries the VOHC seal, will not fix the problem. At this point, it’s time to consult a veterinarian.

Are veterinary dental cleanings necessary for cats?

Even with thorough daily brushing at home, you can only remove plaque up to the gum line at home. Anesthetic dental cleanings by a vet are the only way to clean under the gum line and remove hardened tartar. Dental exams, x-rays, and probing are also crucial to find dental conditions early so that they can be treated. Dental care appointments and professional cleanings are essential for oral health care and the early detection of cat gum and dental disease.

Are veterinary dental cleanings expensive?

Veterinary dental cleanings can be expensive but are much more cost-effective than treating advanced dental diseases. Treating dental decay, cysts, and broken teeth is invasive, expensive, and can be painful for your cat. It’s best to prevent dental disease whenever possible, and veterinary dental cleanings are an important part of prevention.

Is my cat too old for anesthesia?

Anesthesia at any age has its risks, but the risks of anesthesia, even for older cats, are minimal. Veterinarians perform a thorough physical examination and will recommend diagnostic tests like bloodwork and ECG prior to the procedure. Consenting to these tests helps minimize the risk because they enable the vet to assess your cat’s current state of health and determine the degree of risk in each individual case. Anesthetic protocols are tailored to each individual and take the patient’s age and other medical conditions into consideration. Monitoring vital signs and providing IV fluids during the procedure also help reduce risk. Overall,the health risks of advanced dental disease usually outweigh the risks of general anesthesia for most cats, and your veterinarian has the training and experience to help you make informed decisions when it is not.

How can you help your cat’s dental health?

Daily brushing, veterinary dental checkups, and routine dental cleanings are crucial to providing the best oral care for your pet. Advanced dental disease can occur quickly with symptoms easily overlooked at home until it is irreversible. It is best to prevent feline dental disease before it occurs. If you have questions or concerns about your cat’s dental hygiene or feline dentistry, you can make an online virtual care appointment with Vetster to get answers.

FAQ - How to prevent and treat dental disease in your cat

How often should I brush my cat’s teeth?

Daily tooth brushing is the best way to prevent dental and gum disease in cats. If your cat is resistant to brushing, slowly acclimating them to the brush will help lay the foundation for a daily dental routine. Tasty cat toothpaste can also help entice them to brush their teeth.

How do I take care of my cat’s teeth?

Daily brushing, regular veterinary checkups, and routine veterinary dental cleanings are crucial to take care of your cat’s teeth. Dental treats, food, and oral rinses are not a substitute for brushing your cat’s teeth.

How do I keep my cat’s teeth clean without brushing?

Unfortunately, you cannot keep your cat’s teeth clean without brushing. The friction of a toothbrush or damp cloth on your cat’s teeth is the only way to remove plaque and prevent buildup of tartar on teeth. Genetics plays a role and some cats don’t build up tartar as rapidly as others, but you can count on needing to keep your cat’s teeth clean in order to keep them healthy.