By Kate Hughes
While some amount of drooling may be expected with dogs, for most cat owners, seeing saliva dripping from their kitty’s mouth is a very unnatural sight. “Cats, unlike people and dogs, don’t start drooling when you offer them something tasty,” notes Dr. Alexander Reiter, associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery and clinician educator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. Because drooling is almost never normal in cats, it can be indicative of a larger medical problem. If you see your cat drooling, here’s what you need to know.
What Causes Drooling in Cats?
There are several issues that could cause a cat to start drooling. Reiter says one of the leading causes of drooling in cats is oral pain. “Oral pain can create situations where a cat is either unwilling or unable to swallow,” he describes. “If the cat can’t swallow, excess saliva flows out of the mouth.”
Oral pain has a myriad of causes. It can be the result of anything from dental disease and mouth sores, to a tumor caused by oral cancer or problems with the tongue. Dr. Kathryn McGonigle, a clinical associate professor of medicine who specializes in internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, adds that some types of oral pain are caused by injury. “Cats may chew on cords and could get an electric shock or burns in their mouths. It’s rare, but it’s a possibility.”
And oral pain isn’t the only cause of drooling in cats. There’s also the possibility that the cat ingested something foul-tasting or toxic. “If a cat eats something it shouldn’t and it tastes really bad, the cat may start drooling,” McGonigle says. “Toxins can also cause oral erosions, which would also lead to drooling.”
Reiter adds, “It can also be caused by a foreign body in the esophagus. If that’s the case, the saliva has nowhere to go. It’ll start pooling in the esophagus and then eventually run out of the cat’s mouth.”
Medications may also induce excess saliva in cats. “It’s important to note that different cats have different reactions to medication,” McGonigle says. “One cat may be fine, while another other may start drooling. You won’t know until you administer the medicine for the first time.” Especially bitter medications are usually to blame.
There are also systemic causes that may lead to excessive drooling. Both McGonigle and Reiter note that a cat may drool when nauseous, as well as if they have gastrointestinal, liver, or kidney disease. “When it’s a gastrointestinal disorder, however, there isn’t usually much excess saliva,” McGonigle says. “Maybe there’s a little bit around the gums or the cat is blowing bubbles. It’s much more subtle than drooling.”
Is Drooling Ever Normal for Cats?
Some cats may drool when they’re either really happy or really nervous. “I’ve definitely had clients tell me that when they’re scratching their cat’s ears and that cat is super happy, she’ll drool,” McGonigle describes. “Or, when they bring the cat into the office, she gets really nervous and starts producing ropey, Mastiff-like drool. But both of these are quite uncommon.”
Cats who drool when they’re nervous or very happy have done it their entire lives, McGonigle notes. If your cat suddenly starts drooling when she never did before, it’s a cause for concern.
Additionally, if you find your cat drooling, but it stops pretty quickly and Fluffy is otherwise acting normal, there’s no need to rush to the vet. “If the cat starts drooling during a stressful event—like if you have a house party—and then stops and is acting fine, you should keep an eye on her, but she’s likely OK,” McGonigle says. “If the drooling is ongoing and combined with another issue—like the cat isn’t eating—then you should go to the vet.”
What Can an Owner Expect at the Vet?
If your cat’s drooling is ongoing, you need to go to the vet so that the root cause of the drooling can be found. “A vet will look inside the cat’s mouth to ensure everything looks good and check for tumors, lesions, or other kinds of dental disease,” Reiter says. “They should also manipulate the jaws, evaluate the teeth, and examine the tongue for any pain reaction. Overall, a very thorough oral exam.” A complete physical exam will also be part of the work-up.
If a cause isn’t readily apparent, the veterinarian may ask some specific questions. “What did the cat eat recently? Are there any poisonous plants in your house? These are all potential causes,” Reiter adds.
If the exam and history doesn’t turn up anything, that’s when the vet will start running some diagnostic tests. “We would do a contrast radiograph or endoscopy to look for a blockage,” Reiter says, adding that they might also do blood work to rule out liver or kidney disease.
If you’re ever in doubt about whether to take your drooling cat to the vet, err on the side of caution, McGonigle says. “Cats hide pain very well, and disease can be very far along before they start showing any signs. It’s better take them in and make sure you’re not missing anything.”