Feline Dental Disease

Sometimes our 32 pearly whites aren’t exactly white, and need a little work at the dental office, the same can be said about our kitties. Though their 30 teeth may not look like ours, they too can suffer from disease and decay, causing discomfort and even tooth loss. Typically the feline oral diseases we see most often are periodontal disease, stomatitis, tooth resorption, tooth fractures and cancer.

Periodontal disease is a very common problem in cats, especially as they age, because it results from food and bacteria accumulating along the gum line to form plaque which becomes tartar. Tartar is the thick, hard material that traps bacteria to the teeth and gums, causing gingivitis and eventual gum and bone loss (I talked about that a lot last week in dogs). Like dogs, and people, cats benefit from brushing of the teeth daily to cut down on the plaque buildup and prevent gum and bone loss.

Another very common problem in kitties, probably the most common issue I see in cats with dental disease, is related to tooth resorption. Though the cause of the condition is yet to be known, there are numerous theories but none proven. What we do know is that anywhere from 20-60% of cats are affected and an estimated 75% of cats over the age of five years have at least one resorptive lesion. These lesions occur when the dentin erodes away and eventually areas on the crown and root become involved, so cats will have the roots of their teeth resorbed completely causing loss of the crown, which may or may not be painful at the time. Most often cats with resorptive lesions present drooling, pawing at their mouth, and chewing abnormally. These signs are typically due to pain from the dentin erosion allowing pulp exposure of affected teeth. Treatment for resorption is extraction, the tooth will continue to be a problem until it is removed, but once it is gone and the pet’s mouth is healed, the pain will be resolved. Though one resorptive lesion does not necessarily guarantee more are in the future, it often does, so annual dental exams and dental x-rays are needed to look for further lesions.

Another painful condition cats suffer from is gingivostomatitis. This condition, thought to be autoimmune in origin, is presumed an overactive immune system response to plaque causing severe inflammation and pain to the tissues in the mouth, not only around the teeth, but sometimes on the tongue and down the throat. Cats with stomatitis are often very uncomfortable, opting to not eat or eat very little, drooling, pawing at their mouths and frequently have very bad breath. Treatment for these cats often starts with medical management with various antibiotics and pain medications, but often ends with dental extractions (sometimes all teeth need to be removed). Though, once the teeth (crown and root) are completely removed, these cats often do very well and can continue on pain free, and are still able to eat well!

Tooth fractures can occur due to an underlying dental disease (especially resorptive lesions) but can also be due to trauma like biting someone or something, a fall or any blunt trauma to the head. Tooth fractures allow painful nerve ending to be exposed and are often an immediate and constant source of pain until they are treated. Usually fractured teeth are extracted but root canals, crowns and other tooth-saving procedures can be performed by veterinary dentists if the fracture is not severe and not already infected.

The last condition I mentioned on my list of feline oral diseases is cancer. It doesn’t necessarily involve teeth like the others on the list but can cause the same signs; drooling, pawing at the face, decreased appetite and bad breath. Unfortunately cats are prone to an oral cancer called squamous cell carcinoma and it is often aggressive and fatal. The best way to determine the extent of disease, if cancer is suspected, is radiographs. Severe bone loss and invasion into soft tissues typically indicates severe disease to which treatment is difficult if possible at all. Overall cancer is the last on the list as far as being the most common causes of oral disease, so don’t fret and suspect cancer when your kitty has bad breath - it’s more than likely something else entirely.

If your cat is drooling (and they don’t normally do so like my old kitty Gidget that drooled all the time when she purred), doesn’t want to eat, or has breath that curls your nose hairs, they likely need to have a good oral exam and maybe some x-rays!! We want to save your cats teeth, and even if we can’t, they will be much more comfortable without those diseased teeth.