Matters of the Mouth: Learn the importance of dental care for cats


Your pet’s teeth need daily attention, just as yours do.
By Arnold Plotnick, DVM

Dental problems are some of the most common diseases seen in cats. Cats often hide their oral discomfort, but occasionally, a cat may reveal its pain by pawing at its mouth, drooling or turning its head to one side while eating, to avoid chewing on the painful side of its mouth. Some cats stop eating because of dental pain. Others may stop eating dry food and only eat wet food.

Your Cat’s Mouth
Kittens are born without teeth. Baby teeth begin to appear in the first two weeks. At 6 weeks of age, all 26 of your kitten’s baby teeth should be present. By 6 months of age, 30 adult teeth replace your kitten’s baby teeth. The 30 teeth include 12 little incisors in front, four canine teeth (the two upper and two lower fangs), 10 pre-molars and four molars.

Periodontal Disease
Periodontal disease, or gum disease, commonly affects cats. This disease is caused by plaque the sticky, bacteria-laden coating on the tooth surface and the body’s response to those bacteria and the toxins they release. Oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through diseased oral tissues, affecting other organs, such as the heart valves and kidneys. As the immune system responds to the plaque, the gums become inflamed. This is the first phase of periodontal disease: gingivitis.

Left untreated, the inflammation progresses and the second phase of periodontal disease (periodontitis) occurs, and may cause receding gums, bone loss and periodontal ligament damage. If not removed, the plaque mineralizes into tartar or calculus within days and requires mechanical removal.

Fortunately, the first stage (gingivitis) is reversible if your cat receives a professional cleaning and if you institute a home care program.

Periodontitis, however, is irreversible. The early stages are characterized by gingivitis and halitosis (bad breath). Up to 80 percent of cats 3 years of age and older suffer from gingivitis. You must alert your veterinarian to the red flags of gingivitis and begin professional cleaning, in some cases, between 6 months and 1 year of age.

Home Care
Daily home care is essential. Brushing your cat’s teeth can help prevent dental disease. Within only a few days of a professional dental cleaning, plaque is already building up on your cat’s teeth. The ultimate goal of home care is to remove plaque before it becomes calculus.

Introduce home dental care during kittenhood, so cats become used to having their lips lifted, their mouth and gums touched and handled, and their teeth brushed.

Owners of older cats may still institute home care, but it depends largely on the cat’s nature. A compliant cat will likely allow home dental care despite the late introduction. Introduce your adult cat in the same way you would introduce a kitten – gradually. Get your cat used to having its lips lifted and its teeth and gums touched. Then add toothpaste. Next, try toothpaste with the brush.

If you have difficulty with a traditional pet toothbrush, try a finger brush, a plastic cap with nubs that slips over your finger. Choose a cat-specific enzymatic toothpaste to apply to the brush and gently brush your cat’s teeth and gums. Never use human toothpaste; cat-specific toothpastes are formulated for feline tastes and include flavors such as poultry, beef, seafood and malt.

Many cats tolerate the procedure, albeit reluctantly. Brushing every day is ideal, but for difficult cats, brushing two or three times a week is satisfactory.

If your cat will not tolerate tooth brushing, there are many other feline dental hygiene products available, such as gels, oral rinses and sprays. A cat that will not tolerate any oral manipulation needs regular dental checkups at least every four to six months.

Dental diets are a more recent veterinary development. These diets are designed to prevent or dramatically slow the accumulation of tartar on the teeth. They do not replace home care and they may be inappropriate for cats with advanced periodontitis, because the hard kibbles can irritate the gums.

Many cats like tartar-control treats. If you regularly offer your cat treats, consider using crunchy, tartar-control treats instead of the softer versions.

Remember that by taking regular care of your cat’s teeth, you are caring for its overall health.

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