A cat with his mouth open.
A cat with his mouth open. Photography ©SensorSpot | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Get the Facts on Cat Tooth Resorption

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Cats don’t get cavities like humans do. Did you know that? I didn’t. What pet owners often mistake for a cavity in a cat is something called cat tooth resorption. And guess what? No one really knows what causes it. Here’s the story of what my cat went through, and how I learned about this cat health issue.

Being a thrifty cat mom, when I heard in February that our vet offered a discount on dental cleanings, I signed up for three Fridays in a row, one cat per week. I ended up with a month of sheer misery — the cats’ and mine. It was largely spent going from cat to cat, administering post-oral surgery kitty morphine. Allie lost a back molar; Maxwell lost three. Poor Faraday took home the win for Most Teeth Lost, with four. Between three cats, that’s eight teeth.

Seriously, I asked my vet. What’s up with this? Is it something in the water?

Before we talk about cat tooth resorption, let’s talk about cat teeth themselves

Before talking about cat tooth resorption, it might help to know a little something about cats’ teeth. Imagine a bunch of concentric ovals. The outermost layer above the gums is the enamel. It’s very thin, but it’s the toughest part of the tooth. It also happens to be the hardest substance in the body — human or feline.

The next layer takes up the most room. It’s made from a bone-like material called dentin. Inside is a very soft substance: the pulp of the tooth. A lot goes on here. It’s the rich environment that feeds and nourishes the tooth, and it serves as the tooth’s nerve center. These are the tooth’s security and alarm systems, letting its host know when something’s wrong by sending signals of sensitivity or pain.

So, what is cat tooth resorption?

The illustration above is of a healthy tooth. The one below is Faraday’s. A big chunk of his tooth is just … gone. It was reabsorbed into the surrounding tissue. That’s where this condition differs from cavities. A cavity occurs when erosion or decay is present. Tooth resorption is the process where a substance is absorbed back into its surroundings.

What happens during cat tooth resorption?

In the case of tooth resorption — or TR— the outer layers begin to be eaten away, absorbed into internal layers. In many cases, the roots reabsorb into the surrounding flesh until nothing remains. That was the case with poor Faraday. X-rays showed nothing but soft tissue, a tooth cap resting precariously at the gum line, the base of the tooth exposing all that soft pulp.

The tooth is irreparably damaged, and there is no option but to remove it. Removal can be a dicey process, too, as these teeth are often so compromised that they have become brittle and may shatter during extraction.

As resorption progresses and the nerve center is exposed, a cat can experience a lot of pain. Cats are notorious at hiding pain, so you might have to pay close attention to see this. Look for drooling, a preference for eating on one side of the mouth, or suddenly starting to swallow food whole. If your cat will let you, look at his teeth and see if you notice any red spots on the tooth, or — in Faraday’s case— gaping holes.

We can’t prevent cat tooth resorption just yet. To do that, we’d need to know its cause. We don’t, although a few studies suggest a culprit: diet. Specifically, the amount of Vitamin D in a cat’s diet.

Cat tooth resorption, cats and vitamin D

I was surprised to learn that cats cannot absorb vitamin D through their skin, much to their chagrin — after all, they so love to sunbathe! That means they need to get their vitamin D from food, so it’s good that pet food manufacturers add it.

Yet a 2006 study found 41 percent of canned cat foods had over 30 times the amount of vitamin D recommended for cats, according to an article in dvm360.com. Since 2003, a few studies have found correlations between excessive vitamin D and cats suffering from tooth resorption. Another study recorded how vitamin D affected dental and gum tissue when large amounts of it were introduced. The changes recorded were very similar to those seen in tooth-resorption-damaged teeth.

But then a report from the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry found the inverse: Out of 64 cats studied, the ones with tooth resorption had much lower vitamin D serum levels than those without. All were fed dry cat food. No canned food was in this study. And it wasn’t dry food that was discovered in 2006 to have excessive levels of vitamin D — it was wet food.

So until a new study is commissioned that investigates cat tooth resorption in cats fed wet diets, all we have are conflicting studies and a lot of questions.

So, what should we do about cat tooth resorption?

A cat chewing on a toothbrush.
A cat chewing on a toothbrush. Photography by Nadinelle / Shutterstock.

It’s incontrovertible that high levels of vitamin D pose a health risk to your pet. Low levels of vitamin D are equally dangerous. Most pet food labels list vitamin D as a supplement, but they don’t include the amount it contains. It doesn’t matter, since there’s no definitive decision on how much is good or bad.

Until the vitamin D for cats debate is solved, there are a few things you can do if your cat has been diagnosed with cat tooth resorption:

  • Take your cat in for dental checkups twice a year instead of just at the annual wellness exam.
  • Some researchers believe that inflammation plays a role, so consider brushing to remove plaque, or rubbing an anti-inflammatory such as Ellagic fatty acid complex on the gums.

I hope veterinary medicine will identify the cause of tooth resorption in the near future, so we can work to prevent it. In the meantime, proactive dental hygiene, scheduling regular exams and professional cat teeth cleanings are our best defense.

Thumbnail: Photography ©SensorSpot | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

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9 thoughts on “Get the Facts on Cat Tooth Resorption”

  1. Mrs. Jennifer Lahti

    We have 19 rescue cats and 2 chi girls. We are having a significant issues with dental in everyone. Poor Oliver had to have 8 pulled at one time and still has terrible drooling and pain. We paid almost $1350 between just 2 of our kitties to the vet in ESVA. I honestly don’t know how we will get everyone the help they need at these prices but I’m hopeful (as always, ????) that things will happen as they’re supposed to but at this point we are struggling to figure it all out. Good luck and thank you for sharing.

  2. I took my tortoiseshell in to have her teeth cleaned even though her vet said she didn’t have much tartar
    Once anaethatised the vet saw 2 molars needed extraction – one of these , the back right molar was abscessed. She ate well & behaved normally.
    The only unusual thing was that her right tear duct
    often had a watery discharge.

    My vet wants to know if the tooth extraction will cause the tear duct problem to stop.
    7 days after surgery I notice the tear duct discharge is
    decreasing.
    I find your magazine very helpful & interesting

  3. This is fascinating, thank you! I’m not sure it’s the same for us Humans but, I actually had 2 upper molars removed (one on each side) years ago because of resorption. They had both not dropped down all the way and were being resorbed back in to themselves (i think…)…. *I* was asked by an Orthodontist if i wanted to have surgery to have them “pulled down” (i was 12, i think!) and, of course, i said NO. Years later i still have multiple dental issues b/c of those 2 damn teeth not being there…

  4. Cats will hardly let me pill them, let alone brush their teeth. Only time I have had to deal with tooth loss has been with rescues, as dental exams seem to be the topic of the minute. If they could get a handle on proper cat nutrition and straightforward product labeling, perhaps we could do some preventive maintenance.

  5. My 11 year old cat just had this issue dealt with, $800 and that was because we took her to a country vet they want $1500 to $2000 in N Va area………. And I had never heard of it either………

    1. Mrs. Jennifer Lahti

      We have 19 rescue cats and 2 chi girls. We are having a significant issues with dental in everyone. Poor Oliver had to have 8 pulled at one time and still has terrible drooling and pain. We paid almost $1350 between just 2 of our kitties to the vet in ESVA. I honestly don’t know how we will get everyone the help they need at these prices but I’m hopeful (as always, ????) that things will happen as they’re supposed to but at this point we are struggling to figure it all out. Good luck and thank you for sharing.

  6. I just went through this with my 6 1/2 year old male. He didn’t have any signs or symptoms, but he lost 2 teeth. Now all my babies get regular dental exams.

  7. In my 40+ years of rescuing and having cats, I never knew of this disease until 2017. I observed my 5 year old tortie was not eating and was losing weight. A trip to the vet revealed dental issues so a dental appointment was scheduled. Under anesthesia they found that indeed she was a victim of tooth resorption. That day under extended surgery she lost 27 teeth. Now she lives exclusively on canned food and will let me know when she’s hungry so we can barricade ourselves in the upstairs bathroom so she can eat in peace. She only has 3 teeth remaining but seems to be thriving and is pain free. Who knew???

  8. Thank you so much for the information.You gave most useful information. My poor kitty, Condo, had to have all but two teeth pulled or cut out. I didn’t see any signs until her yearly shots from Petco. I love your magazine and website.

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