Cat Dental Care
By Chyrle Bonk, DVM August 03, 2019
A morning wake-up call by your feline friend can be one of the greatest joys in life (as long as it’s not too early!). But if that wake-up is accompanied by a blast of bad breath, then it may be far less welcoming. Bad breath can be one sign that your kitty’s teeth need attention. Let’s learn why dental health in cats is important, and how you can help your cat’s teeth keep a healthy, pearly white shine.
Why Is It Important For Cats to Have Healthy Teeth and Gums?
This might seem like an easy question to answer because you don’t want to smell your cat’s bad breath! While that is definitely true, bad breath is only part of the reason your cat needs to have healthy teeth and gums. As with humans, a cat’s mouth is literally dripping with bacteria. While some bacteria are good in small amounts, an unhealthy cat’s mouth can be overrun with bacteria. An excessive amount of bacteria in the mouth can cause infections that make your cat’s teeth and gums sore, and it can also lead to other illnesses throughout the body, like heart disease. Dental diseases like gingivitis or an abscessed tooth can be very painful. Cats that have sore mouths aren’t going to want to eat, and we all know how important it is that our cats receive proper nutrition. As you can see, proper dental health in your kitty can affect more than just his smile and breath.
What Should Healthy Cat Teeth and Gums Look Like?
An adult cat should have 30 teeth. These teeth are going to vary in size and shape, with the tiny incisors up front followed by long, pointed canines. Behind the canines come the premolars and molars. These are still sharp, but they have a larger surface area to chew and grind the food that they eat. There are normal empty spaces between the canine and premolars. This spacing is larger on the bottom jaw.
Healthy cat teeth should be white, and healthy gums should be a light pink. Any discoloration to the teeth could indicate staining or tartar buildup. Redness or swelling of the gums, especially along the gum line could be due to gingivitis. Some kitties, especially black ones, may have some black pigmentation on the gums. This is nothing to worry about, although it may make spotting gingivitis a bit more difficult.
What Should Cat Breath Smell Like?
Cat breath should not be totally odorless, but there is a definite difference between healthy and unhealthy breath. For most cat parents the way that their kitty’s breath smells is usually the first indication they have that something is wrong
- Healthy Breath
A healthy kitty’s breath should smell like their cat food. Most describe it as a light fishy smell. It shouldn’t be overpowering or have you thinking about needing to brush your own teeth.
- Unhealthy Breath
Bad cat breath loses the light fishy smell and instead takes on an odor of rot or decay. It can be very strong and unpleasant, and you may even notice that the smell lingers after your cat licks you.
As a side note, a cat’s breath can take on other odors that indicate health issues. If you notice that your cat’s breath smells sweet or like acetone, you should see your veterinarian for a complete exam and blood work.
What Are The Causes of Cat Dental Issues?
It’s estimated that nearly half of cats three years of age and older have some degree of dental disease, but what exactly does that mean?
- Tartar and Calculus
Most dental disease starts with tartar and calculus buildup. It is the main issue that cat parents should look out for since it is the easiest to deal with and can lead to much deeper problems if left unresolved. All cats have a layer of bacteria called plaque that coats their teeth. Most of the plaque is removed naturally throughout the day by your cat’s tongue, the action of eating, or by you brushing it away. Plaque that isn’t removed mineralizes and turns to tartar and calculus. These are much harder to remove and usually require some veterinary intervention. When you notice a yellowish or brownish tinge to your cat’s teeth or a buildup near the gum line, then that is tartar and calculus.
Gingivitis is the infection and inflammation of the gums due to your cat’s immune response to tartar. Your cat’s body doesn’t want tartar on its teeth because it is irritating and tries to get rid of it with an inflammatory response. Gingivitis shows up as redness and swelling near the gum line. It can also cause bleeding and soreness. Mild to moderate gingivitis usually goes away once the tartar is removed. More severe gingivitis may require antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.
- Periodontal Disease
If gingivitis is left untreated, it can lead to periodontal disease, which is an infection and inflammation of the ligaments and bone that surround the tooth. Periodontal disease is irreversible, and it usually results in loss of the tooth and possibly abscesses or bone infections in the jaw.
- Tooth Resorption
This is similar to cavities in people, but the cause is unknown. Tooth resorption starts with a break-down in the hard surfaces of the tooth exposing the sensitive pulp to the oral cavity. It is a very painful process that typically results in needing to remove the tooth.
Stomatitis is a severe inflammation of a cat’s mouth that results from an allergic response to plaque. It is very painful and some cats may require proactive removal of all molars and premolars, while others will need frequent dental cleanings to control it.
What Are The Signs of Cat Dental Problems?
The signs of dental disease are going to vary from cat to cat, so it’s important to take any concerns to your veterinarian. Sometimes cats with dental disease won’t show any outward signs. This is where those annual or biannual wellness exams come in.
- Bad Breath
As we said before, sometimes the only thing you’ll notice is that your cat’s breath smells bad. However, not all cats with dental disease will have bad breath, and bad breath can come from other areas as well.
Cats that are experiencing pain in their mouth may drool. This is simply because the body is secreting excess amounts of saliva to help combat the infection. It may also hurt your cat to swallow or to close their mouth. You may notice tinges of blood in their saliva as well.
Cats with mouth pain may paw at their mouth, rub it on the floor or you, or shake their head. You may also notice them being reluctant to swallow.
- Decreased Appetite
If your kitty is experiencing dental disease, then they may be unwilling to eat, especially hard kibble. The reluctance to eat comes from pain and discomfort. Some finicky eaters may not be finicky at all once their dental troubles are addressed.
How Can You Care For Your Cat’s Teeth?
With all the yuckiness that we just talked about, you’re probably wondering how to take care of your cat’s teeth so that they never have to go through that. Great! So where do you start?
- Brushing Teeth
Brushing your cat’s teeth is the most effective way of removing plaque before it forms tartar. Fortunately, the veterinary medicine market has answered this need with many cat-specific toothbrushes and toothpastes. When brushing your cat’s teeth, it’s important that you start slow and proceed with caution. Most kitties aren’t going to take to this right away. Find a toothpaste meant for pets in a flavor that you think your cat will like. Many come in poultry, fish, or even mint varieties. Never use human toothpaste since it isn’t meant to be swallowed. Start by offering your cat some of the toothpaste on your finger or by gently wiping it on their teeth. Once your cat is comfortable with that, then you can start using either a finger toothbrush or a small cat toothbrush to apply the toothpaste. You may have to do this several times before your cat is willing to accept the brushing motion. Once they are comfortable with having the brush move along their teeth, then you should do this every other day or at least two to three times a week.
- Dental Treats
There is a place for dental treats in a healthy oral care regime. However, giving out dental treats shouldn’t be the only thing that you’re doing to keep your cat's teeth clean. In other words, you don’t want to rely on dental treats to do the whole job. When given as a reward for good behavior, dental treats can help to further clean your cat’s teeth. You just don’t want them taking the place of their normal diet.
We all know that dogs love bones, and so do cats! In the wild, cats routinely consume the bones of their prey. The simple act of gnawing on bones helps to remove tartar and stimulate the gums. Since your indoor kitty doesn’t have bones readily available, you can give some as occasional treats. Use large raw bones that won’t splinter or break easily and avoid chicken, pork, or fish bones.
- Regular Vet Visits
Nothing replaces the importance of regular vet visits to care for your cat’s teeth. Most kitties should see the vet at least once a year, and this should increase as your cat ages. Your vet will be able to determine the presence and extent of dental disease with an oral examination, and then they can perform cleanings and radiographs to further detect and treat. For kitties that have extensive dental issues, your vet will be able to set up a proper at-home care and exam schedule to get and keep their teeth healthy.
- Natural Remedies
There are some natural remedies that can help combat dental disease in kitties. Lactoferrin, a protein found in milk, and vitamin C can be given to help boost your cat’s immune system to fight off oral infections. Herbs such as calendula and myrrh can be applied to relieve inflammation and promote healing of the gums and surrounding tissues. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian before giving your kitty anything.
Feeding your cat dry kibble is another way to reduce tartar buildup and massage the gums. The kibble should be large enough that your cat has to chew it well. While kibble might not be the most comfortable to eat while your cat is suffering from dental disease, it should be part of their overall diet once their teeth are healthy.
- Water Additives and Gels
Popular dental care products on the market are water additives and tartar prevention gels. Water additives are like mouthwash for cats (unlike mouthwash, however, water additives are safe for your cat to drink!) that they drink. Most are flavored to your cat’s liking and are easy for cat parents to use. They work by killing the bacteria in order to prevent plaque from becoming tartar, and they work best on clean teeth. Oral gels can also be effective at preventing and cleaning tartar from teeth. Most gels are flavored and will need to be applied weekly.
Preventative Measures You Can Take for Dental Disease in Cats
The best prevention for dental disease in your feline friend is getting to know your cat. Sounds easy and fun, right? Noticing little details such as when your cat is only chewing on one side of their mouth or that tiny spot of blood on the water dish can alert you to budding problems in your cat’s mouth. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of checking the teeth yourself. If your cat is a willing patient, lift their lips once a week or so and look for any signs of discoloration of the teeth or redness to the gums. If you’ve developed a tooth brushing routine, then this is a great time to look at their gums.
Anytime you’re at the vet, whether it be for vaccinations or an illness, have them look at your cat’s teeth. Discuss any concerns that you have about your kitty’s appetite or breath odor. Don’t be afraid to ask them to take a second look if you feel that they didn’t do a thorough oral exam.
Your kitty's teeth may seem small in comparison to other features on their body, but they are no less important. Good dental health is the foundation for an overall healthy kitty, but unfortunately most of our cats suffer from some degree of dental disease. Consistency is key for prevention or treatment when it comes to dental disease. Get to know your kitty and be sure to report anything that is even a little suspicious to your veterinarian. After all, they should be your cat’s teeth’s best friend.