By Kate Hughes
You may be well aware that your cat’s breath smells like cat food, but are you really familiar with what’s going on with her teeth? The inside of a cat’s mouth is a mystery to many pet owners (seriously, how often do you take a look in there?), but keeping up-to-date on your kitty’s dental situation is key to maintaining her overall health and wellness. When it comes to health matters the best defense is a good offense, so read on to begin your feline dental education.
1. Human teeth and cat teeth have some similarities.
While cats’ teeth look quite different from humans’ pearly whites, both humans and cats are diphyodont animals. This means that we have two successive sets of teeth. The first set—the deciduous or baby teeth—fall out when we’re young. Then, a permanent set comes in. However, cats’ dental timeline is a bit more accelerated than humans’. “Cats are born without teeth, but their baby teeth start coming in when they’re about 2 weeks old,” describes Dr. Dan Carmichael, a board-certified veterinary dentist at NYC’s Animal Medical Center. “Then, the baby teeth start falling out at around four months to make room for the permanent teeth.” If properly cared for, a cat’s permanent teeth should last into his old age.
BONUS FACT: Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 permanent teeth. For comparison, humans have 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent teeth. Dogs have 28 baby teeth and 42 permanent teeth.
2. Cat teeth are optimized for hunting.
“The crown shapes of cat teeth reflect the function of a true carnivore,” says Dr. Alexander Reiter, associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery and clinician educator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. “There are no particular teeth for grinding; they are all for seizing prey and cutting and tearing flesh. Additionally, the groove on the labial surface of the canine teeth (the fangs) of cats has been referred to as a ‘bleeding groove,’ an adaptation of carnivore teeth, which is thought to allow prey to bleed around the tooth.”
3. Different teeth serve different functions.
A cat’s incisors—those tiny teeth set between the canines in the front of cats’ mouths—aren’t of much use when hunting. They are good, however, for grooming. “They’re very helpful if a cat has to nibble at something,” Carmichael notes. Reiter adds that some cats use their incisors to chew on their claws and remove loose pieces of their nails, as well as “scratch” itches.
4. Cats don’t get cavities.
Well, they don’t get cavities in the sense that humans or dogs get cavities, which can also be referred to as “caries.” This is due to the shape of their teeth. “Unlike humans and dogs, cats do not have occlusal tables [horizontal surfaces] on their molars; thus, they do not develop true carious lesions,” Reiter says. The sugar-eating bacteria that cause caries thrives on the pits and divots typically found in occlusal tables, which are meant for grinding food. As carnivores, cats’ teeth have evolved without such surfaces, making them much less susceptible to cavities.
5. However, cats can have other dental issues.
Like humans, cats can develop periodontal disease (a condition that weakens the structures that support the teeth), as well as oral inflammation and oral cancer. They are also prone to a condition called tooth resorption. This happens when structures within one or more teeth are destroyed and eventually disappear. “This can be quite painful for cats,” Carmichael says. Tooth resorption can be difficult to diagnose, as symptoms range from an actual hole in the tooth to a little red dot at the gum line. If a vet diagnoses tooth resorption, he or she will likely extract the tooth.
6. Cats rarely show dental pain.
“Cats hide their pain,” Carmichael says. “The most common symptom I see in cats with dental problems is no symptoms at all. It’s up to pet owners and veterinarians to be on top of cats’ dental issues and be proactive when looking for problems.”
Remaining diligent involves keeping an eye out for drooling, red gums, and changes in a cat’s eating habits, as well as noting any changes in your cat’s breath. “Oral health issues often have a distinct, rotten odor,” Carmichael says “At its worst, it reminds me of the penguins in the Central Park Zoo—a really fishy rotten smell.”
7. House cats are pretty OK with having teeth removed.
If your cat is diagnosed with dental issues that require extraction, don’t be too distressed. Cats can eat wet cat foods (and sometimes even dry!) without some or even all of their teeth and live a long and healthy life. “It's more important to have a healthy and a pain-free mouth than to have a mouth full of teeth,” Carmichael notes.
8. Regular dental visits and tooth brushing will protect your kitty’s dental health.
Both Reiter and Carmichael tout the benefits of daily tooth brushing for cats. Like people, it prevents the buildup of bacteria that cause many dental issues. “Also, cat owners should always ask that an oral examination be performed during annual wellness visits,” Reiter notes.
Carmichael adds that pet owners who are seeking dental care for their pets should actively search for veterinarians who have all the necessary equipment to diagnose dental issues on hand. “It is imperative that you visit a veterinarian who uses dental X-rays to diagnose and perform dental treatments. Vets have to know what’s going on under the gum line to properly plan procedures.” Veterinary dentists are available for the really tough cases.
9. There is a ton of information out there about pet dental health.
Cat owners looking for more information about their cat’s oral health, as well as guidance regarding which products are best for kitty’s teeth, should consult the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website. “Any product featuring that VOHC seal has undergone rigorous scientific study and meets a high standard of efficacy,” Carmichael says.