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What You Need to Know About Cats and Dental Disease

The feline mouth is a marvel of evolutionary success, but it's subject to 3 common problems.

JaneA Kelley  |  Sep 14th 2016


Every single fur, fiber, and muscle of a cat’s body is designed to be the ultimate little predator. But the one thing that really defines the cat is her teeth. Yes, they’re super-cute with their little pointy fangs, but what else is going on in that mouth?

First of all, let’s talk about typical cat teeth. The most noticeable teeth are the fangs, which are properly called the canine teeth. Then the little tiny teeth in the front are called the incisors. The teeth behind the canines are the premolars and molars, also known as the carnassial teeth.

One crucial thing you can do with all those awesome teeth is to keep them clean. Why is dental hygiene so important? Well, dental disease is very common in cats — in fact, it’s estimated that as much as 85 percent of cats older than age three have it — and it’s as painful for our feline friends as it is for us. The three most common forms of dental disease are gingivitis, resorptive lesions, and stomatitis.

Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 adult teeth. Photo CC-BY-SA Danielle Kellogg

Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 adult teeth. Photo CC-BY-SA Danielle Kellogg

Gingivitis occurs because the gums get irritated by a buildup of tartar. This buildup can be prevented by brushing your cat’s teeth and giving cats treats that allow them to scrape the tartar off their teeth just by eating.

Resorptive lesions are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “kitty cavities.” The difference between cavities and resorptive lesions? Cavities are caused by tooth decay. Resorptive lesions are just that: erosions in the tooth, commonly formed around the gum line but sometimes also under the gums and thus invisible to the naked eye. It’s still not known what causes resorptive lesions, but cells called odontoclasts, which break down the substance of the tooth, are found in the lesions.

As you can see in this illustration, gum tissue can grow up around a resorptive lesion, or your vet may see a tiny spot on your cat's tooth.

As you can see in this illustration, gum tissue can grow up around a resorptive lesion, or your vet may see a tiny spot on your cat’s tooth.

Sometimes, the gum tissue, or gingiva, grows up the tooth because the gums are irritated by the lesion. This is one of the signs veterinarians look for when they clean your cat’s teeth.

But even if the gingiva doesn’t grow up around the lesion, the hole your vet would see, at least in early stages, is very tiny. Unfortunately, that tiny hole can disguise the fact that a lot of resorption is happening inside the tooth.

Sometimes the lesions can’t even be seen until the vet takes X-rays during your cat’s dental cleaning. On those X-rays, the lesions show up as areas of less dense material in the teeth.

A resorptive lesion can be much bigger on the inside than on the outside.

A resorptive lesion can be much bigger on the inside than on the outside.

While cleaning your cat’s teeth, your vet will also note any “chatter response.” When a cat has diseased and sore teeth, her mouth will rapidly open and close, or chatter, in response to the pain. This happens even though your cat is under anesthesia during the cleaning, so that should give you an idea just how much resorptive lesions hurt your cat.

The most common treatment for resorptive lesions is extraction of the affected teeth. Cats do just fine with fewer teeth, and you’ll probably notice a huge positive change in your cat’s personality once her painful teeth are removed.

Stomatitis is an extremely painful generalized inflammation of the mouth, mostly around the gums and the back of the mouth near the throat. This is often a chronic condition, and unfortunately, the cause of stomatitis is still unknown. It is known that FIV infection can predispose cats to the disease. In other cases, stomatitis may be caused by the cat’s immune system overreacting to the bacteria in the mouth. Treatment usually begins with a thorough dental cleaning, followed by home care, antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. If the disease persists, the cat may need steroids to control the inflammation, and possibly even removal of all the teeth.

The most important thing you need to know is that there is no home treatment for dental disease. Only a thorough cleaning and, as needed, extractions, will treat it.

You can prevent dental disease by brushing your cat’s teeth or feeding her treats that help her to scrape the tartar off her teeth just by eating them. Regular cleanings at your vet’s office, under general anesthesia, are another crucial part of dental disease prevention. It’s worth the money to spare your cat the pain and suffering of gingivitis, stomatitis or resorptive lesions.