How Does Dental Disease Begin?
When you have a kitten or young cat with pearly white teeth and perfectly pink gums it can be easy to forget about maintaining their dental health. However, even in these young, healthy mouths saliva, food and fluids combine to produce plaque, which, if not removed, may cause future problems.
Plaque is a natural part of your cat’s mouth; it is a soft, sticky colourless film containing millions of bacteria that can be easily removed. When plaque is not regularly removed it will harden, eventually becoming tartar. Tartar attaches firmly to the tooth’s enamel surface, it is noticeable because of its yellow or brown colour on teeth. The main concern with tartar is that it causes gum irritation, leading to gingivitis and gum disease.
Diseased gums can cause pain, abscesses and loose teeth as well as problems elsewhere in the body through the entry of bacteria into the bloodstream.
From an early age, familiarise your cat to having their face and mouth handled. This will help when it comes time for you or your vet to examine their teeth. Early and consistent intervention in dental health is best, the gold standard being daily tooth brushing with cat specific toothpaste. Whilst daily tooth brushing is a commitment, it can quickly become part of your routine once you and your cat become familiar with the procedure.
If your cat will not tolerate having their teeth brushed there are still actions you can take to improve their dental health. Feeding dry food, particularly a diet formulated to help dental health will make a difference. Dental food kibble maintains its shape when first chewed; this has the effect of scraping plaque from the tooth surface. Chews and toys designed for dental health also act by scraping off plaque.
Which Cats Get Dental Disease?
Any cat can develop dental disease at any age, however there are some breeds that are more susceptible than others. Owners of very short nosed breeds, such as Persians and British Shorthairs should pay extra attention to their pet’s teeth, as the small jawbones in these breeds often result in overcrowded and misaligned teeth. Misaligned teeth accumulate more tartar as pockets for food debris are created and normal chewing motions do not clean the teeth.
Spotting the Signs of Dental Disease
Cats will quite often show no signs of dental discomfort until their disease has become very advanced. They may become slightly more withdrawn or lethargic, but as dental disease becomes increasingly common in older animals, owners will often put these symptoms down to the aging process.
When they do show clinical signs of dental disease these may include drooling, sometimes with blood-stained saliva, a reduced appetite, face rubbing, facial swelling or even discharge from their eyes. Some cats will lash out at their food bowl if eating is causing them pain. If you suspect there is a problem with your pet’s teeth, don’t wait, book an appointment with your vet to have a full clinical examination.
Vet Dental Check
Your vet will check your pet’s mouth as part of their annual vaccination consultation. When your vet examines your cat’s mouth they are looking for signs of damaged teeth, as well as diseases of the oral soft tissues such as the gums and tongue.
They will look at the build of tartar on the teeth, how much there is and if it is reaching the gum line. Some cats with very little tartar can still have gum disease, and those with lots of tartar may still have relatively healthy gums. Having a build up of tartar creates areas of irritation, inflammation and a warm safe environment for oral bacteria to multiply.
An asymmetrical build up of tartar on one side of a cat’s mouth may be a sign that pain is causing the cat to use the other side of their mouth to chew.
All surfaces of the teeth will be examined to ensure the enamel is healthy. Gums should be light pink and even in colour, gum disease shows as areas of redness, bleeding or uneven surfaces. Missing or loose teeth may indicate a past trauma or ongoing disease in a cat’s mouth.
Cats that have been identified to have dental disease should have their mouths examined more regularly than once a year, your vet will typically recommend a recheck every three to six months.
Feline Resorptive Lesions (FRLs)
Feline resorptive lesions are erosions of the tooth enamel not associated with tartar build up. The cause of FRLs in not known, but cells which breakdown down teeth have been found within these erosions. It is good to know about FRLs as it can be confusing if your cat is showing signs of dental disease yet their teeth may appear free from tartar with pink gums. FRLs can be difficult to spot as they often occur at the tooth-gum line as a small red patch, often covered by a flap of gum.
These tooth lesions may be extremely painful as the nerve becomes exposed when the hard protective layers in the tooth are eroded away. Resorptive lesions are surprisingly common in young and old cats, with more than 70% of cats over five years of age having at least one FRL. Treatment requires dental x-rays to identify all affected teeth, then tooth removal under general anaesthetic.
Always listen to your vet’s advice, they may recommend at-home interventions, such as a specific diet, chew or toy to help keep teeth clean. They may also recommend a scale and polish, with or without other treatment, this will be done under routine anaesthetic. Routine anaesthesia is a low risk procedure and early intervention may reduce the need for an anaesthetic in later years when your pet is more likely to have additional health problems. Even in older pets, anaesthesia for dental procedures is very safe, although your vet may require a blood test prior to anaesthesia to check the health of their vital organs.
Frequently owners are amazed at the improvement in demeanor of their cat following treatment of painful teeth, particularly when there were no obvious signs of dental disease before.
Knowing how dental disease can affect your cat will allow you to take steps to prevent future problems and recognise when there is dental disease, meaning you can get early treatment.
Written by Lindsay Rose MA VetMB CertAVP CertVBM MRCVS.