Reviewed and updated for accuracy on October 3, 2019 by Dr. Hanie Elfenbein, DVM, PhD
Cats use their mouths for all sorts of activities, like eating, hunting, biting toys and grooming. Their busy teeth are exposed to many different materials and can develop various forms of dental disease over time.
Taking your cat for regular dental cleanings and routine exams will help you avoid these issues.
Here are seven of the most common dental problems in cats.
Stinky cat breath is a very common complaint in veterinary medicine.
Known as halitosis, bad breath can be the result of multiple problems in the oral cavity, from simple periodontal disease to an infected mass.
Bad breath is always worth mentioning to your veterinarian, and you should keep an eye out for additional signs of problems.
If your cat has also had changes in appetite, difficulty swallowing, vomiting or diarrhea, you should call the vet sooner rather than later. These may be signs of a more serious underlying problem that needs to be addressed quickly.
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 early on when it’s easily treatable.
Periodontal disease begins as a buildup of plaque and tartar on the tooth. Over time, as the plaque spreads below the gumline, which leads to inflammation, infection and eventually tooth loss.
Starting an at-home dental care regimen early can make a big difference later in your cat’s life by keeping the amount of plaque and tartar lower.
Feline stomatitis is an extremely painful condition caused by severe inflammation or ulceration of the tissues lining the oral cavity (gums, cheek, tongue, etc.).
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, they can 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 cleaning, 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 cats show amazing progress and return to normal eating habits very quickly after the surgery, even if multiple teeth are extracted.
Infections in the oral cavity can occur as secondary reactions 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 cause pain and swelling in the jaw, which quickly spreads to surrounding tissues. You may notice facial swelling or even a protruding eye if the infection extends to the area around the eye socket.
You may also notice that your cat is not eating or is eating less, and cats may paw at their faces due to the discomfort.
Treatment needs to be instituted as soon as an abscess is diagnosed. This involves extracting the infected tooth or performing a root canal, and treating the infection with antibiotics and pain control.
Feline tooth resorption is a common and under-diagnosed 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 break down the dentin, which loosens the tooth and causes 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 cat food without chewing.
Tooth resorption can occur on a single tooth or multiple teeth. Once diagnosed, the affected tooth needs to be extracted. This condition is very painful.
Fractured teeth are seen relatively often in felines. The most common fractures noted are at 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 that 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. Fractured teeth may also appear to be 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.
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.
There are two things you can do to keep your kitty’s mouth clean and healthy: provide home care and take your cat for regular veterinary exams and dental cleanings.
Look for cat dental care products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council seal of approval, which have demonstrated that they work to keep your cat’s mouth healthy.
During routine veterinary exams, your veterinarian will examine your cat’s mouth for any signs of disease. Once periodontal disease is detected, follow your vet’s recommendations for dental cleaning and home care.