As cats are predators by nature, their teeth are designed to grab prey, kill it and shear off pieces small enough to swallow. Their teeth are not set up to grind or gnaw on things. Our pampered domestic cats no longer need to hunt food; we supply it in neat bite-sized morsels that require no chewing, guaranteeing our cats safely acquired, disease free, and well-balanced diets.
Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee that most cats will not accumulate plaque on their teeth as they get older. Cats that eat 100% moist food generally will need dental care earlier than cats who have a combination diet of dry and wet food. Cats eating 100% dry food still get substantial plaque buildup because they often do not chew their food enough to break off any plaque. To add to the problem, many of our purebred cats seem to have inherited poor quality enamel on the surface of their teeth, thus allowing plaque to build up more rapidly than in their wild ancestors.
Another factor that makes dental care necessary in some cats is chronic viral infections of the gums. These infections will hasten the development of dental disease. A period of malnourishment during your cat’s life may also contribute to poor dental health, even if your cat is now living the good life. Whatever the reasons for poor dental health, you and I both know that when we have a toothache or an infection, we feel terrible. Unfortunately, cats rarely show us obvious symptoms of poor dental health until it is very advanced. 85% of cats over 3 years of age have periodontal disease that should be treated. This is why we at Killarney Cat Hospital believe it is so important for you, as a cat owner, to be aware of possible dental problems.
How do I Know if my Cat has a Tooth Problem?
First, lift your cat’s lips and inspect its teeth and gums. Healthy teeth should look white, shiny, and not covered with yellow-brown plaque or tartar. If you detect a disagreeable odor, gum infection may be present, which could be a symptom of unhealthy teeth or gums. Observe your cat’s behavior and eating habits. Your cat may paw at its mouth, may refuse to eat with the same gusto it always had, or in severe cases, may refuse to eat at all. Most often however, there are no symptoms that an owner will notice. Consequently, your cat can be in substantial pain without your knowing it. We often have owners report to us that, although they noticed nothing before a dental procedure, it is obvious that the cat feels much better, and is more social or content, after we have cleaned the teeth and corrected any dental disease. If you are not sure, have your veterinarian perform a thorough oral examination to determine if there is any dental disease which needs to be treated.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Poor Oral Health or Dental Disease
- Persistent bad breath.
- Sensitivity to touch around the mouth or pawing at the mouth.
- Refusing to be scratched or petted around the chin or mouth.
- Loss of appetite, difficulty eating, chewing or refusal to eat dry food.
- Weight loss.
- Plaque (often not visible unless stained) and tartar (creamy-brown, hard accumulation on the teeth).
- Swollen, inflamed or receded gums.
- Gums which bleed easily when touched.
- Loose or fractured teeth.
- Abnormal salivation.
- Sneezing and/or coughing.
- Lack or decreased interaction with family members or other pets.
If I Noticed any of these Signs Should I be Concerned?
Yes. Neglected dental disease will eventually lead to serious health problems such as periodontal disease (weakening and loosening of the teeth due to infection), dental abscess, and halitosis (bad breath). Once infection has set in, it is easy for bacteria to enter the blood stream and infect other organs, such as the liver, kidneys, and heart.
How can the Health of my Pet’s Teeth and Gums Lead to Heart Disease?
This occurs because the gums have a rich blood supply. (Have you ever noticed how easily your gums bleed sometimes when brushing your own teeth?). When an infection occurs in the gums and tooth sockets, it’s very easy for these bacteria to gain access to the bloodstream. The body’s immune system can successfully combat this infection in most cases, but the heart valves are especially vulnerable. A blood-borne infection originating in the gums and lodging in the valves of the heart often causes permanent damage, and may eventually lead to heart failure.
How can the Health of my Pet’s Teeth and Gums Lead to Liver Problems?
The liver is one of the main organs in charge of cleansing the blood of impurities such as the bacteria that gain access from the diseased gums. When gum disease is chronic, the liver has to work overtime and can become stressed. In some cases this can lead to an actual bacterial hepatitis.
How can the Health of my Pet’s Teeth and Gums Lead to Kidney Problems?
When your cat acquires an infection of the gums and tooth sockets, a small “war” starts in which the “soldiers” from the pet’s immune system (the antibodies) attack the bacteria (the antigen) and this results in complexes (the antibody bound to the antigen) which float around in the bloodstream before they are cleansed from the body. Compared to other things in the blood (red blood cells, white blood cells, hormones, minerals, protein molecules, etc.) these antigen/antibody complexes are huge structures and, because of this, the kidneys have a difficult time filtering them from the blood stream. Occasionally one of these huge antigen/antibody complexes will lodge in one of the microscopic tubules (the filtering structures) of the kidney leading to the death of that tubule. Fortunately the cat has thousands more of these tubules in the kidney so that the kidney can compensate for the repeated loss of these tubules (the filtering structures of the kidney) for months and often years. However, if the original cause of these antigen/antibody complexes (in this case the persistent gum infection) is allowed to proceed long enough, it will eventually result in the loss of enough of these tubules that the kidney simply “wears out” prematurely and is no longer able to function properly. This leads to kidney failure and premature death. Kidney failure is the leading non-infectious/non-accident related cause of death in dogs and cats.
How can Chronic Tooth Decay and Gum Disease be Prevented or Controlled?
The best ways to prevent tooth decay and gum disease are:
- Annual to bi-annual dental exams to evaluate your cat’s teeth and gums.
- Preventive or prophylactic dental cleaning when necessary.
- Home dental care.
PLAQUE: This is an accumulation of saliva, food particles and bacteria that adheres to the tooth near and under the gum line. This material is usually not visible, but is the basis for gum disease (periodontal disease). Plaque alone may result in bad breath and some inflammation of the gums (gingivitis). This is what you should be removing when you clean (brush) your pet’s teeth at home.
TARTAR: This results from the mineralization of the plaque that builds up on the teeth if they are not cleaned. Tartar is the brown material that can be seen on the tooth surface. The tartar traps and holds plaque and bacteria along the gum line and lifts the margins of the gum, letting bacteria cause a more extensive infection under the gum. The tartar is very hard and has to be removed using special dental equipment. This is usually done under general anaesthesia. The procedure is called tooth scaling or a dental prophylaxis. The teeth are also polished using a low-speed dental handpiece and a prophy paste. The polishing leaves a nice smooth surface on the tooth so it is easy to remove the plaque as it develops.
GINGIVITIS: This is the inflammation and infection of the gums due to both plaque and tartar build-up on the teeth. It will be evident by the gums being red and puffy, and they may be bleeding. The cat may show signs of having a sore mouth, drool more than normal and have bad breath. If left untreated gingivitis will lead to periodontitis. Gingivitis can also cause cavities along the gum line called neck lesion. These are very painful and should have fillings put in them or the teeth will be lost to decay.
PERIODONTITIS: The bacteria that get under the gum line and cause gingivitis, if not treated, will cause deeper infection and breakdown of the structures and tissues that hold the teeth in the root socket. This is called periodontitis or periodontal disease. At this point the gums will be receding and there will likely be some bleeding and a foul odor from the mouth. There will often be pus present under the gum. If left untreated the infection will cause the bone of the tooth socket to resorb and recede. This results in the root of the tooth becoming exposed. Now there is a pocket where food and bacteria collect. Before very long the tooth will become loose and cause severe pain and will have to be extracted. The bacteria causing the infection can get into blood-stream causing a bacteremia or blood poisoning. This can lead to serious problems such as heart and kidney disease.