One of the best things a cat owner can do to insure the overall health of their pet is to do routine checking of the teeth, gums and oral cavity. Cats, being unable to brush on their own, are prone to numerous dental problems. In fact a dental issue is the number one health problem in felines, and about 50% of cats over 5 years of age have some type of dental problem!
A kitten will begin to form baby teeth around 2-4 weeks of age. When the baby teeth get sharp enough to hurt the mother while nursing (around 4 weeks or so) she will start to wean her kittens. These baby teeth are then lost for permanent teeth at about four to six months of age. A healthy adult cat will have 30 teeth – canines, incisors, pre-molars and molars. Cats who don’t have their teeth checked out and cleaned can suffer other problems down the road. These problems include:
- Tartar build-up
- Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions (FORLs) – the feline counterpart to cavities
- Lost/broken teeth
- Gingivitis (gum disease)
- Periodontal disease
- Oral Cancer
Although the minor dental problems alone don’t sound terribly dangerous, it has been shown that bacteria from the mouth can and will get into the cat’s bloodstream damaging the kidneys, heart and liver if left untreated over a long period of time.
Plaque is the underlying cause of gum disease and the first step in preventing dental problems. Plaque is composed of food debris, saliva and bacteria. After each meal the plaque sticks to the surface of the tooth, and can only be removed by mechanical means (chewing, scaling or brushing). This is the same as what happens when we humans eat and don’t brush our teeth. If the plaque is not removed, it will calcify into tartar (calculus) build up within 48 hours. The calculus that you can see on the teeth allows further plaque build up to occur. Calculus can only be removed by your veterinarian. So your best bet is to remove plaque before it becomes calculus.
The plaque that really causes damage to the teeth and gums is found under the gum line. The bacteria in the plaque multiply and invade the gums and the bone, causing inflammation and irritation. This irritation and inflammation of the gum area is known as gingivitis. If the bone of the tooth socket is eaten away by the infection, the tooth eventually becomes loose and may either fall out or may need to be extracted. Broken teeth, FORLs, tooth loss are common problems of older cats who have never had good dental hygiene.
In more extreme cases cats can have stomatitis or oral cancerous tumors. Stomatitis, inflammation of the mouth, is thought to be caused by an overproductive immune system reaction that attacks the bacteria of the mouth. This leads to extreme inflammation of the mouth and is very painful for cats. A cat with stomatitis is usually seen drooling and being unable to eat or drink. Cancerous tumors are also seen in cats with severe dental disease. This type of cancer can be difficult to treat, so prevention is the best precaution against oral cancers.
The best way to avoid dental problems in your pet is to begin a regimen of dental cleaning once a week. Also make sure to feed your cat a staple of dry food only once he/she is weaned. Wet food has a tendency to sit on the teeth and form plaque. And wet food, for many other reasons besides plaque build-up, is not as good for your cat’s health in the long run as a staple of dry food.
If you suspect any sort of dental health issues in your cat take him or her to the vet asap. At minimum your vet can give your cat a professional tooth cleaning and mouth check up.
Symptoms to look for
- Not eating
- Red, bleeding gums
- Blood in the saliva
- Receding gums
- Bad breath (this can also indicate kidney problems so be sure it is just ‘dirty mouth’ bad breath)
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of weight
- Yellow/brown/black teeth
- Swollen, red gums
- Missing or broken teeth
If you do not regularly brush your cat’s teeth, or have never brushed your cat’s teeth you should take him/her to the vet for the first check up. Your vet may put your cat under anaesthesia. Unfortunately cats don’t ‘sit still’ for teeth cleanings so it is often necessary to put the cat under. Your vet will clean your cat’s teeth, remove all plaque and tartar, and will check your cat’s gums and teeth for any abnormalities or problems. It is a good idea to take your cat to the vet at least once a year for a good oral checkup.
At home you should brush your cat’s teeth at least once a week. You should start brushing at a very young age and start slowly so that your cat can get used to having his/her teeth cleaned. Read below under Precautionary Measures to find out how to brush your cat’s teeth. You can also feed your cat tartar control foods/treats and even give her a plaque controlling gel after meals.
Brush your cat’s teeth at home at least once a week. There are plenty of conventional brushing kits on the market. These kits will generally contain a fingerbrush, a small pet toothbrush, and special pet toothpaste. You should never use human toothpaste on your cat, human tooth paste is too foamy and thus requires ‘rinsing’. Something which cats are not very good at, feline toothpaste is specially designed so that you don’t need to rinse.
Whether you choose the fingerbrush or the regular brush is up to you and your cat. To help your cat get used to the brush, you may want to start by placing a drop of tuna juice on the brush and letting your cat sniff or lick it. Then slowly and gently brush your cat’s teeth using a small amount of paste and brushing for a very short period of time (a few seconds), then work your way up to brushing your cat’s teeth fully. Again, your cat won’t need to rinse, the toothpaste is specially designed so you don’t have to.
Once your cat gets comfortable with brushing you can also start massaging your cat’s gums after you brush. This will help stimulate blood flow to the gums and keep the gums healthy. You will also be able to feel for any oddities, broken teeth, or inflamed gums during the massage. If you do see or feel anything out of the ordinary consult your vet.
Lastly you can make sure to give your cat dry food as a primary food source and give him/her treats that are specially designed for tatar removal and dental hygiene. You can also use plaque control gels. Such gels are created so that you just need to place a small layer on your cat’s teeth and gums once a day. Don’t mix the gel into your cat’s food; however, cat’s don’t chew their food as well as they should so if you put the gel on your cat’s food chances are that it won’t stay on their teeth long enough to do any good.
For more information on Dental Health please visit the Pets Need Dental Care, Too