Dental Disease in Cats

Dental disease is one of the most common health issues we see in cats. If your cat has bad breath, or shows indications of oral pain such as swollen, bleeding gums, pawing at its mouth or difficulty eating meals, your fur baby may be suffering from dental disease.

Dental disease (also known as periodontal disease) affects the teeth and surrounding tissue that plays a key role in supporting the teeth and keeping them healthy. Dental disease in cats is typically caused by a build-up of dental plaque produced by bacteria that live in the mouth and the formation of tartar.

Some plaque is removed during the process of eating or by movement of the tongue. However, the excess plaque mineralises to form a hardened crust of tartar. Dental disease (periodontitis) and gum disease (gingivitis) occur as a result of the body’s immune system responding to foreign matter — in this case, accumulated plaque.

The build-up of bacteria and tartar on the surfaces of the cat’s teeth can result in the gums becoming infected and inflamed (gingivitis). If veterinary attention is sought in the early stages, your veterinarian will scale and polish your cat’s teeth to remove the accumulated plaque, and chances of a full recovery are good. However, if the gum disease is left untreated, it will progress further, leading to dental disease resulting in irreversible damage.

Dental disease occurs when the ligaments and bone that support the teeth become infected or inflamed. As the disease progresses, the supporting tissues surrounding the tooth are damaged, causing teeth to become loose and eventually fall out. Bacteria can make their way into the tooth socket, resulting in a tooth abscess or infections in the jaw bone. Bacteria can also get into the bloodstream, where it can cause other health issues, including heart infections.

Once dental disease starts to cause degenerative changes to the teeth and supporting structures, the damage cannot be reversed. The damaged teeth and gums allow more plaque to accumulate, promoting further disease which leads to a downward spiral in oral health.

In order to prevent your cat from suffering from dental disease you need to prevent plaque and tartar from accumulating. There are two ways of doing this:

  1. Feed a diet that helps reduce the rate of tartar accumulation and promotes optimal oral health.
  2. Brush your pet’s teeth regularly to remove any plaque or tartar that has accumulated on the surface of the teeth. Purchase a soft toothbrush, preferably one that is specifically designed for cats, and only use a non-foaming pet toothpaste that is safe for your cat to swallow. Ask your veterinarian for advice and recommendations on the best oral health care products to use to keep your feline’s fangs as healthy as can be.

If you notice any sign of tartar build-up, gum disease, or indication that your pet is experiencing pain or discomfort when he eats, you should make an appointment for your veterinarian to examine him. Your veterinarian may recommend that your cat’s teeth are thoroughly cleaned, where they will be scaled and polished, and possibly, that he is x-rayed to determine the extent of damage to the gums, bone and other supporting structures. This will most likely have to be done while your pet is under general anaesthetic. Although in some cases, an anaesthetic-free dental may be offered.

The rate at which tartar accumulates varies significantly from cat to cat. In severe cases, a cat may need to have his teeth professionally cleaned once or twice a year. Consult with your veterinarian, who will be able to determine how often your pet should have this done.

While you can brush your pet’s teeth to help prevent plaque and tartar from accumulating, never try to scrape tartar from your pet’s teeth yourself using a metal instrument. Besides the fact that you run the risk of injuring your cat’s mouth, or him injuring you, you can also scratch the surface of the teeth, providing a rough surface for bacteria to attach to, promoting further plaque formation, exacerbating the problem further. This is why the professional dental cleaning procedure conducted by the veterinarian includes polishing to smooth the tooth surface after the tartar has been scraped off during the descaling process.

Like anything, prevention is better than cure. Keep an eye on your cat’s gums and teeth. If you notice any sign of dental disease in your pet, consult with your veterinarian who can advise you on the best course of action to take. Feeding an appropriate diet that promotes optimal oral health, together with regular brushing or dental scale and polishes to remove any tartar that has accumulated are best practices to prevent dental disease in cats.

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