Last Updated on: November 13, 2018 by Ingrid King

Dental disease is the most frequently diagnosed health problem in cats.  Seventy to ninety percent of cats have some level of dental disease.  If left untreated, it can lead to health problems for your cat, ranging from bad breath, dental pain and loose teeth to systemic illnesses that can be life-threatening.

Normal teeth in cats should be white or just a little yellow.  Gums should be light pink and smooth (except in breeds with pigmented gums).

What is dental disease?

Dental disease begins with a build up of plaque and tartar in your cat’s mouth.  Without proper preventive and therapeutic care, plaque and tartar buildup leads to periodontal disease, which manifests in red and/or swollen and tender gums, bad breath, and bleeding.  When the gums are swollen, they can be painful – a good rule of thumb is that if it looks like it might be painful, it probably is.

As bacteria from the inflammation and infection associated with periodontal disease is released into the bloodstream, this can lead to damage to other organs such as the heart, kidney and liver, resulting in serious health problems.  Dental disease in cats can also be an indicator of immune system disorders.

One common dental problem that generally shows up around the age of four or five in 25-70% of cats are feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions, also known as neck lesions, cavities or root absorptions.    Patients affected with FORLs may drool, bleed, or have difficulty eating.  A portion of affected cats do not show clinical signs.

What are the symptoms of dental disease?

  • bad breath
  • decreased appetite
  • changes in eating habits
  • drooling
  • chewing on one side of the mouth
  • loose or missing teeth
  • red or swollen gums
  • pain when mouth or gums are touched
  • bleeding from the mouth

Since cats are such masters at hiding pain, they frequently don’t show any symptoms until the situation is literally life-threatening.  They will eat even when their level of chronic mouth pain would send a person to the emergency room.  They almost never paw at their face, even with loose or abscessed teeth.  They can get pretty smelly breath from eating cat food, so it’s tough to tell by smelling the breath whether your cat has dental disease or has just eaten.  But even though they don’t show us much in the way of outward symptoms, chronic dental/periodontal disease can cause severe and often irreversible damage to internal organs.

What can you do to prevent dental disease in your cat?

Regular veterinary exams, at least once a year, and twice a year for cats seven and older or for cats with a known history of dental problems, are a must.  During the exam, the veterinarian will assess your cat’s teeth to determine the degree of dental disease.

Since our cats won’t just sit still and open their mouths to have their teeth cleaned like humans, dental procedures for pets require general anesthesia, something that makes many pet owners nervous.  While there are always risks with anesthesia, they can be minimized with a thorough pre-anesthetic check up, including bloodwork to assess kidney and liver function and rule out other underlying health issues.  This will allow your veterinarian to customize the anesthesia to your pet’s health status and potential special needs.  Keep in mind that leaving dental disease untreated may present a far greater risk than anesthesia.

What can you do at home to keep your cat’s teeth healthy?

Brushing

The most effective way to prevent dental disease is to brush your cat’s teeth.  Ideally, you get your cat used to this when she’s still a kitten, but even older cats can learn to accept having their teeth brushed.

Diet

Contrary to what you may have heard, dry food does not clean your pet’s teeth.  Most cats don’t chew their kibble long enough for any of the scraping action that is the theory behind this myth to kick in.  What little they do chew shatters into small pieces.  Some pet food manufacturers offer “dental diets” that are made up of larger than normal sized kibble to encourage chewing, but in my years at veterinary practices, I’ve seen many cats swallow even those larger size pieces whole.  Additionally, dry food leaves a carbohydrate residue in the cat’s mouth that actually encourages growth of tartar and plaque.

Cats do best on a grain-free canned or raw diet.  In fact, the moisture in these diets may actually help wash away some of the plaque, rather than allowing it to adhere to teeth.  Additionally, the enzymes present in raw food may help prevent plaque.  You can also give your cat raw chicken necks to chew on.  Never give cooked bones to your cat, they are brittle and can splinter and lodge in your cat’s intestines.

Dental treats 

Dental treats such as Greenies are simply dry food in disguise, and won’t do anything to prevent plaque.  The chlorophyll added to some of these treats may help your cat’s breath smell better, but this may mask more serious health problems.

Dental sprays or water additives

There are a number of dental sprays and water additives on the market that claim that they can prevent and even eliminate plaque.  Be very careful when evaluating these products.  Some may help, but others, at best, do nothing except provide cosmetic benefits by making the teeth appear whiter and masking more serious disease, and at worst, may actually harm your cat.  Any product taken internally can have harmful side effects, even if it’s “natural” or “herbal.”  Be especially wary of “proprietary formulas” and/or products that don’t disclose their ingredients.

I brush Allegra and Ruby’s teeth every night. Despite counseling clients in the veterinary clinics I worked at on how to do this, I confess that I never did it with my own cats until I got these two. I used a four-week program to get them used to having their teeth brushed, and they both took to it surprisingly well. So don’t rule out brushing your cat’s teeth with an immediate “no way” response. Give it a try. It may just be the best thing you do for your cat’s health.