How to Detect and Treat Dental Disease in Cats

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This is a sponsored post by veterinarian Elizabeth Arguelles, owner of Just Cats Clinic at Lake Anne Plaza. She writes weekly on Reston Now.

Dental disease is one of the most common ailments that affect cats. About two-thirds of felines older than three have it in some form or another ranging from mild tartar build up to resorptive lesions.

What causes dental diseases?

Many dental diseases are the result of tartar buildup on a cat’s teeth. Tartar can be easily identified by its tan or brown color. As a cat eats, some of the food gets stuck to its teeth and turns into plaque. Though some of that is removed naturally when the cat eats or licks its teeth, the remainder quickly mineralizes and becomes tartar and calculus. If the tartar is left untreated it can lead to gingivitis or inflammation of the gums.

Gingivitis normally starts at the edge of the gum. In some of the most severe cases, it can end up covering the entire tooth. The disease may cause inflammation or infection of the bone and ligaments that support the tooth. And as it progresses, it can cause destruction of the tissue, leading to excessive tooth mobility and eventual tooth loss. If left untreated for a longer period of time, gingivitis can lead to irreversible periodontal disease or the formation of an abscess.

One of the most common dental issues in cats is the feline oral resorptive lesion (FORL). While we aren’t sure what causes them, we do know they are usually found in cats older than four and on the outside of the surface of the tooth where the gum meets the tooth surface. FORLS erode the outside of the tooth causing increased pain and sensitivity. Unfortunately, FORLS are degenerative and often require tooth extraction for the affected area.

What are the classic signs of dental diseases in cats?

  • Chewing with obvious discomfort
  • Dropping food from its mouth
  • Excessive drooling
  • Very bad breath
  • Pawing at its mouth

While these are the more obvious and severe symptoms of dental disease, sometimes more subtle behaviors like sleeping more, being less active, and even weight loss can be side effects of dental problems. Any time you feel your cat is just not his/herself, contact your veterinarian for exam.

Many cats will refuse to eat dry kibble or even wet food when they are suffering from dental discomfort or pain. If your cat suddenly develops a finicky appetite, this may be a sign that it has dental problems.

What can you do to help your cat?

If you see that your cat has tartar, redness around its gums or any signs of pain or discomfort, take it to your veterinarian for an examination. Treatment usually consists of dental cleanings under general anesthesia followed by home care such as brushing your cat’s teeth or feeding Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) certified treats or diets.

How can you prevent dental disease?

The best way to prevent dental disease is by practicing good oral hygiene and reducing tartar buildup on your cat’s teeth. Regular dental exams and cleanings at your veterinarian, brushing your cat’s teeth and feeding VOHC approved treats are the best ways to keep your cat’s teeth healthy.

Dental cleanings and procedures at your veterinarian’s office should always consist of dental radiographs, local blocks at any extraction sites, pain management for any extractions, and should absolutely always be performed under general anesthesia. Dental radiographs are essential for any dental procedure, even just a cleaning, to ensure that no decay on the inside of the tooth or at the root is being missed because it’s not visible. Additionally, post extraction radiographs ensure that the entire tooth has been removed, ensuring no partial roots were left behind that will be sensitive and painful for your cat in the future.

The most effective way to reduce plaque at home is to gently brush your cat’s teeth at least 3 times a week, if your cat will tolerate it. There are a number of toothbrushes and toothpastes specifically designed for cats. Always be sure you are using a VOHC approved toothpaste. Never use human toothpaste or products as they can be dangerous to your feline.

If you are not able to brush your cat’s teeth (as many of us aren’t), there are a variety of other options that can help your cat’s dental health at home. Talk to your veterinarian about different oral rinses, treats, and even prescription diets that might be a good option for your cat.

For more information on dental disease please visit this fact sheet in our feline library.

For Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) approved treats/products please visit:

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