Tooth Be Told

by Lyn T. Garson, CVT, CCRP

Let’s talk about teeth. Adult cats hold a mouthful – 30 to be exact – which is 12 fewer than dogs have but surprisingly only two fewer than humans do. Cats’ teeth consist of incisors, premolars, molars, and four “fangs” that are called canine teeth, just like our own. Although we humans brush at least twice daily, do you ever consider your cat’s oral hygiene? Probably not. But it is important to be aware of feline dental health, and here’s why:

Dental disease is painful; cats are masters at hiding pain. To subtly disguise their dental discomfort, they might be reluctant to chew crunchy dry food. Eventually they may stop eating completely, which, beyond the obvious consequences, can cause a variety of serious medical conditions.

Routine veterinary examination and keeping a careful watch for these signs can help identify dental problems, and in some cases, other disease processes:
• Halitosis (bad breath)
• Difficulty chewing, reluctance to eat, especially dry food
• Inflammation and/or bleeding from gums or mouth
• Excessive drooling
• Facial swelling, discharge from nose or eyes
• Pawing at the mouth, gagging, sneezing
• Broken, loose, discolored teeth
• Sudden changes in your cat’s behavior, hiding, growling, biting

Can Cats Get Cavities?
The most common cause of tooth loss in cats is from tooth resorption – an erosion of single or multiple teeth. Although these defects resemble cavities, the teeth are not actually decayed. Instead their structure breaks down from within the tooth. Erosion may be visible on the surface of the tooth, however in cases where it occurs beyond the gumline, the use of x-rays may be necessary for detection. Tooth resorption is a frequently-seen progressive process with no determined cause or method of prevention. It is extremely painful and requires removal of affected teeth. Even cats with full mouth extractions, however, can still easily resume a dry food diet once they are healed and the source of pain is resolved.

Animals maintain cleanliness through grooming, but they can’t brush their own teeth. Without daily brushing, a filmy plaque builds up, creating a bacterial environment leading to red, swollen, painful inflammation of the gums called gingivitis. Over time, plaque hardens into tartar, which if not removed, eventually causes tissue and bone loss around the teeth, characteristic of periodontal disease. Early stages of periodontal disease can be reversed with professional dental cleaning, however bone loss is not reversible. Gingivitis is also commonly seen in cats with infectious or systemic diseases such as feline calicivirus, feline leukemia virus, and feline immunodeficiency virus.

Sniff Out Bad Breath – A Red Flag
After consuming a meal of stinky tuna, you might expect a whiff of kitty dragon breath. But a persistent mouth odor can signify dental disease, an oral growth/tumor, oral trauma, or even be indicative of diabetes, kidney disease or liver disease. By the same token, it is vital to note that untreated dental problems may lead to systemic health damage. In other instances, a foul odor is the result of a piece of food, toy, or an object such as string that gets lodged in the gums or mouth. Unbelievably, a common finding is a threaded sewing needle that a cat has attempted to swallow. Biting on electrical cords can cause oral burns. Fractured, loose or diseased teeth due to injury are susceptible to infection and painful abscesses. Additionally, both benign and cancerous growths can be present in the mouth, some even pushing normal teeth from their sockets.

Healthy Mouth, Happy Cat
February has been designated National Pet Dental Health Month, underscoring the importance of dental health and how it affects your pet’s quality of life. Discuss with your veterinarian options for improving your cat’s oral health, such as feeding them dental treats versus brushing their teeth. Proceed with caution if brushing, and never use toothpaste designed for human use – use only toothpaste that is specifically made for pets. If your cat requires dental work, beware of cosmetic cleaning methods that entail chipping tartar off teeth while pets are awake. These shortcuts are not recommended and can actually cause harm. Veterinary dental cleaning procedures include professional gum probing and examination, tooth scaling, polishing, and full-mouth intra-oral radiographs (x-rays), all of which can only be safely performed while your cat snoozes under general anesthesia. In that case, your cat won’t mind going to the dentist! And with all those sparkling healthy teeth, their mouths will be pain-free and ready to smile for close-ups!