February is Dental Awareness Month, so it’s a perfect time to start the year off right by providing good dental care for your cat. Dental or periodontal disease can lead to many serious health and medical issues if left untreated. And untreated dental disease can be very painful for your cat and can even cause them to stop eating. The key to good dental care and managing dental disease is prevention.
Dental disease and oral tumors can start in cats as young as 1-2 years old so it’s important to have your cat’s mouth, gums and teeth evaluated starting when they are young. Gum disease is an infection that results from a build-up of dental plaque or bacteria on the surfaces of the teeth around the gum line. If plaque is allowed to accumulate it can lead to infection in the bone surrounding the teeth. The gums will then become inflamed causing bleeding and oral pain. Inflammation can progress affecting both soft and bony tissues causing gum disease, bone loss, and periodontal damage. When severe periodontal disease is present bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream and damage the kidneys, heart and liver.
The first stage of gum disease, gingivitis, is reversible with regular veterinary dental cleaning under anesthesia, but the second more serious stage, which is periodontal disease, is irreversible. The good news is, in most cases, this second stage can be prevented if detected early and treated appropriately. Treatment by your vet will include removing all plaque and calculus, and cleaning root surfaces. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to be given days before the procedure and continue for several days following the procedure to prevent infection.
Providing Routine Home Mouth Checks
A good habit to get into every month is to check your cat’s mouth by examining their teeth and gums. With your cat’s mouth held open, you want to look for signs of disease such as swollen or inflamed gums, red around the gum line, any lumps, sores or discolored areas, bleeding from the gum line or teeth, excessive salivation or drooling, tooth fractures or broken teeth, bad breath, and mouth sensitivity. Another sign to pay attention to is if your cat has difficulty or trouble eating, especially dry food. If you see any of these signs it’s time to get your cat to the vet for a checkup and an oral exam.
Good Home Dental Care for Cats
There are several things you can do at home to keep your cat’s gums and mouth in the best health possible, but always consult with your vet before buying or using these products:
- Examine your cat’s gums and mouth every month by giving a home routine mouth check.
- Take your cat to the vet every year for an annual checkup and oral exam and schedule regular dental cleanings.
- Brush your cat’s teeth with a “soft kitty tooth brush” and “kitty toothpaste” like Verbac C.E.T. Cat Tooth Paste from your vet’s office. Here’s a helpful video on how to brush your cat’s teeth. Do not use human toothpaste on cats— use only toothpaste formulated specifically for cats.
- Brush your cat’s teeth using a rubber finger brush is a popular option, where a rubber brush simply slips over your finger for brushing.
- Give oral antimicrobial rinses like Verbac C.E.T. Oral Hygiene Rinse or Maxi/Guard Oral Cleansing Gel (not a rinse) (Chlorhexidine-Free only). Prescribed through a veterinary office.
- Give tarter-control chew treats approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) to reduce tartar. Make sure these treats are VOHC certified. Prescribed through a veterinary office.
Here are some of the most common dental diseases in cats that need treatment:
Oral Tumors and Cancer
Lumps, excessive salivation or drooling, weight loss, bad breath, oral bleeding, swelling, lesions, or discolored areas in your cats’ mouth can be caused by oral tumors. If you see any of these signs, they are very serious and require immediate and aggressive diagnosis and treatment by a vet. There are a variety of neoplastic (cancerous) and non-neoplastic tumors in cats, but among the more common neoplastic or oral cancers are squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), fibrosarcoma (FSA), lymphoma, and malignant melanoma, with squamous cell carcinoma being the most common. Your cat should get a complete physical and oral examination with a full blood workup and urinalysis first. Your vet may order X-rays to evaluate if the tumor has spread to other areas including the lungs. Sometimes X-rays or CT scans are done to see of the tumor has spread into the bone. An oral biopsy procedure will accurately identify the specific type of tumor.
Feline Oral Resorptive Lesions (FORLs)
This very painful condition is more common in cats over the age of five and affects between about 30-40% of healthy adult cats. Signs include excessive salivation, bleeding from the gum line or teeth, and difficulty eating—especially dry kibble. Tooth resorption usually starts at the gum line and can look like gum tissue is growing over or into the tooth. It’s a progressive disease signified by five stages, and the most common treatment is extraction of the affected teeth and removing all remnants of the tooth structure to remove the infection and prevent any further problems associated with the disease. Many cats that have FORLs often have stomatitis as well.
Some vets are not equipped with the proper dental X-ray and surgical equipment necessary to treat this disease, so be sure to request a referral for a specialist if this is the case. To diagnose the condition your vet will do a complete oral exam and whole mouth dental X-rays will be needed. Then following treatment semiannual dental exams with X-rays are recommended for all cats that have this diagnosis and surgery. The exact cause of FORLs has not been determined, but it is suspected by some research studies that contributing factors may include: age, poor dental care, lack of dental cleaning, and excessive vitamin D.
This painful and debilitating disease is caused by severe oral inflammation or ulceration. Symptoms are bad breath, swollen gums, excessive salivation or drooling, problems or difficulty eating and possible weight loss. With this condition there are lesions and painful raw areas inside the mouth and your cat’s mouth will be extremely sensitive and painful. The typical treatment is usually extraction of most or all of the teeth (and roots) to give your cat the greatest relief from pain and suffering. Cats with stomatitis usually require further veterinary follow up to manage the disease. The exact cause is unknown although it is thought to be an immune-mediated disorder.
Fractured Teeth in Cats
Fractured teeth in cats can cause problems when the pulp tissue inside the tooth is exposed. The pulp tissue is very close to the tip of the tooth in cats, and even small fractures can mean these are exposed and painful for your cat. Your vet will need to examine the extent of the fracture and will take an X-ray to evaluate whether or not the pulp tissue is exposed. Your vet will determine whether or not the tooth can stay, or a full extraction is needed.
When you take care of your cat’s teeth and gums with regular vet checkups and oral exams, good home dental care like brushing your cat’s teeth, and regular dental cleaning by your veterinarian—you are taking care of your cat’s overall health, well being and happiness too!