VET APPROVED By Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Cats use their mouths for all sorts of activities: eating, hunting, play, defense, and grooming. Subsequently, their teeth are exposed to many different materials and can develop various forms of dental disease over time. Here are eight of the most common dental problems in cats.
Periodontal disease is the number one medical condition diagnosed in cats—more than weight problems, kidney disease, or any of the other issues we normally associate with felines. By the age of 3, most cats have some degree of periodontal disease, though we often miss the subtle signs when it is early and easily treatable.
Periodontal disease begins as a buildup of plaque and tartar on the tooth. Over time, as the plaque spreads below the gumline, it leads to inflammation, infection, and tooth loss. Starting a home oral care regimen early can make a big difference later in life by keeping the amounts of plaque and tartar lower. As periodontal disease progresses, professional cleaning and scaling are usually required to clean the teeth and remove diseased tissue.
Cancer of the oral cavity is the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in cats. Cancers can occur in the gums, lips, tongue, jawbone, or palate. Signs of oral cancer include masses in the mouth, swollen face, drooling, weight loss, sudden tooth loss, or bad breath. While different types of cancer can be found in cats, squamous cell carcinomas form most of these masses.
Early diagnosis is key for successful treatment of oral cancer, which can be very difficult to manage when larger masses start to invade bone. Many masses are found during routine cleanings and oral examinations while they are small and more easily managed, which is one of the many reasons regular preventive care is so important.
Feline stomatitis is an extremely painful condition caused by severe inflammation or ulceration of the tissues lining the oral cavity. Although some breeds such as Himalayans and Persians may be predisposed to this condition, stomatitis is seen in all breeds of cats and can begin before a cat even reaches 1 year of age. Cats who develop stomatitis have extremely reddened, inflamed mouths and resist having their teeth examined. They often have reduced appetites due to the pain caused by eating, and in severe cases develop malnourishment because it is so painful to eat.
While mild cases may respond to medical care and home care such as toothbrushing, the best results are seen with surgical removal of the affected tissues and tooth extractions using dental X-rays to confirm complete removal of the roots. While this may seem extreme, many of these cats show amazing progress and return to normal eating habits very quickly after the surgery.
Feline tooth resorption is a common and underdiagnosed condition, affecting up to three-quarters of cats over the age of 5. The tooth consists of both bony material (dentin and enamel) and the soft tissues of the tooth root, which includes blood vessels and nerves. For reasons still not fully understood, the body starts to resorb the dentin, loosening the tooth and causing painful exposure of the root.
Because this erosion begins below the gumline, it can be impossible to determine which teeth are affected without dental X-rays. The signs are subtle, usually involving a cat who suddenly develops a preference for soft food, or swallows his or her food without chewing. Tooth resorption can occur on a single tooth or multiple teeth. Once diagnosed, the affected tooth needs to be extracted
Fractured teeth are seen relatively often in felines. The most common fractures noted are the tips of the canine teeth, often referred to as fangs, though fractures of the premolars are also common. In cats, the pulp tissue extends almost all the way to the end of the tooth, which means even small fractures can result in painful root exposure. Most feline tooth fractures are caused by trauma to the oral cavity, though conditions such as tooth resorption may also weaken the teeth and predispose them to breaking.
Fractures above the gumline are visible to the naked eye, though some fractures may extend below the gumline as well. Fractured teeth may appear gray. Treatment depends on the severity of the fracture and the tooth involved, and may involve extraction or root canals. It is important not to ignore fractured teeth. In addition to being very painful, open fractures can lead to abscesses, facial swelling, or systemic infection
Stinky breath is a very common complaint in veterinary medicine. No one wants a kitty with yuck mouth breathing on them. Halitosis is the result of multiple different problems in the oral cavity, from simple periodontal disease to an infected mass. Bad breath may also be the result of a systemic illness such as diabetes or kidney disease.
Halitosis is always worth mentioning to your veterinarian, but when it is accompanied by signs such as changes in appetite, difficulty swallowing, vomiting, or diarrhea, you should call the vet sooner rather than later. It may be the only sign of a more serious underlying problem, and the sooner it is addressed, the better.
Infections in the oral cavity can occur secondary to trauma, foreign bodies in the mouth, immunosuppression, or conditions such as tooth resorption. A generalized infection of the gingival tissue will result in swelling and redness, while a localized accumulation of infection and pus can result in an abscess.
Tooth root abscesses result in pain and swelling in the jaw, quickly spreading to surrounding tissues. Owners may notice facial swelling or even a protruding eye if the infection extends to the area around the orbit. In addition to appetite changes, cats may paw at their faces due to the discomfort. Treatment, which needs to be instituted as soon as an abscess is diagnosed, involves extracting the infected tooth or performing a root canal, and treating the infection with antibiotics and pain control.
Malocclusion occurs when the teeth are in abnormal positions, which prevents the mouth from being comfortably closed. This may lead to pain and trauma to the gingival tissues as the teeth bite into the sensitive gums, and predispose a cat to periodontal disease. Malocclusions may be present from birth or occur secondary to trauma.
A thorough oral exam evaluates the bite to make sure the teeth are properly positioned. If a pet is suffering from a malocclusion, corrections are recommended to minimize pain and help the pet chew normally. Treatment may involve extractions or even orthodontics to improve the positioning of the teeth. Pets with congenital malocclusions should not be shown or bred.
Keeping Your Cat’s Mouth Healthy
Owners have two things they can do to keep their kitty’s mouth clean and healthy: home care and regular veterinary exams. Many products are available for home care, and some are better than others. Look for items with the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of approval, which have demonstrated that they work. Routine veterinary exams involve examining the mouth. Once periodontal disease is detected, follow your vet’s recommendations for dental cleaning and home care.
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