Why Dental Care Is Important For Your Cat
Dr. Fern Slack, UCVC Medical Director
So, why is feline dental care important? Are dental problems a serious health concern in cats? You bet! Here are 3 reasons why:
- Dental disease can and does cause severe pain in many cats, impacting quality of life.
- Untreated dental disease causes problems throughout the body, some irreversible.
- Feline dental disease often goes unrecognized, because cats hide it extremely well.
The Benefits of Good Cat Dental Care
It can feel rather unlikely that your cat, who is eating and acting apparently normally, could be experiencing constant oral pain – yet it happens all the time, and cats hide it very well. One way we know this is what we see happen after dental problems are addressed.
Cat guardians frequently tell us, a week after dental work, that they “have a new cat.”
Dental problems come on slowly, but curing them is almost instant, and the often-dramatic changes we see in activity, playfulness, and mood illustrate the wonder of removing chronic pain repeatedly. A pain-free cat is a happier cat!
Apart from chronic pain (which in and of itself has immunosuppressive effects), gum disease creates the same health problems in cats as it does in people. Inflamed and infected gums shower bacteria ceaselessly into the bloodstream. The bacteria tend to colonize in tissue that’s already damaged, which makes existing problems worse. Hearts with non-linear blood flow are at higher risk of colonization than normal hearts. Organ systems with chronic disease processes are also at higher risk for colonization – so if, for instance, your cat has chronic kidney disease, gum disease can make that worse. Bacterial showers are a constant strain on the immune system. The energy expended to fight the war against constant bacterial assault depletes the body of energy needed for other purposes, such as making new red blood cells, generating heat or digesting food. Keeping your cat’s mouth healthy is a great investment in his or her happiness, health, and longevity!
Common Feline Dental Problems – or — What Might Be Hiding In Your Cat’s Mouth
Cats have numerous kinds of dental problems and mouth diseases, including some that humans don’t have. The ones we see most often are tartar accumulation with gingivitis and periodontal disease, resorptive lesions, and traumatic tooth fractures. These problems create health challenges for nearly every cat at some point in their lives, and for many cats on a frequent basis. Yet because cats hide symptoms of oral disease and dental pain so well, most cat guardians remain unaware of these problems until they are discovered during a veterinary examination.
Tartar Accumulation, Gingivitis and Periodontal Disease
Cats accumulate dental plaque and tartar just like people do. The rate at which plaque and tartar accumulate varies greatly between cats, and is affected by many factors, including genetics and diet. Plaque and tartar buildup induces gingivitis, which, when left unaddressed, progresses into periodontal disease.
Home oral care can work to slow the process down, but no amount of tooth brushing or other home oral care will get rid of it, which is why humans often have dental cleanings done every 6 months or so. Cats are just the same. Those with accumulating tartar and gingivitis are best treated by receiving full professional dental cleanings as needed.
Very few cats get dental cleanings done twice a year, although many would benefit from it. Some cats may need a cleaning once or twice in a lifetime; others may need cleanings 3-4 times a year.
Tooth resorption is a common feline dental problem that humans don’t have. To understand this phenomenon, it’s easiest to think of it as a sort of “backwards cavity” – a hole in the tooth that develops from the inside out. Because we don’t know what causes resorptive lesions, we don’t know how to prevent them, but we do know how to treat them: a tooth with a resorptive lesion will usually need to be extracted. Since the problem starts on the inside, treating it like a cavity and “filling” it is both expensive and useless.
It’s quite common for cats to have multiple resorptive lesions going on at the same time, leading to a need to remove multiple teeth at once. The good news is that removing these diseased teeth leads to immediate pain relief!
Broken teeth are a common occurrence for cats, and a frequent source of unrecognized pain and infection. A fracture into the pulp will always lead to infection and death of the pulp tissue. A tooth fractured into the pulp cavity must be treated with either root canal or extraction.
Many fractured teeth in cats are the result of resorptive lesions having weakened the tooth first. In such cases, the tooth is already irreversibly damaged, and extraction is generally the best option. Once these teeth are removed and the pain is gone, our kitty will feel a whole lot better!
Cats Can Still Eat
Don’t worry, your kitty will still be able to eat after losing several if not all of their teeth. Cats naturally eat by throwing a mouthful of food straight back past the teeth and down the throat. They have no natural need to chew; their teeth have evolved to be scissors rather than grinders, as is reasonable for a carnivore. Cats eating commercially prepared food don’t need to use their teeth as scissors either, so most domestic cats don’t use their teeth at all. Humans with dental problems often experience most of their pain while trying to eat, while cats just hurt at a lower level all the time.
Addressing these common feline dental problems for your kitty can mean the difference between a grumpy, energy-depleted, painful cat and a happy, playful, healthy, pain-free and long-lived cat. Who wouldn’t want that?