Written by Dr. Kate Todd
North Town Veterinary Hospital
Cats always seem to like to do things their own special way… they like the litter box cleaned just so, they like their chins rubbed occasionally but not too often, and they certainly enjoy their cat naps. They also seem to be individuals when it comes to their dental health. Cats are prone to some interesting types of dental disease that we don’t see as often in other species.
It is always a good idea to have your cat’s general health assessed as part of determining their dental health. Some viral conditions such as feline immunodeficiency virus, can predispose an individual cat to more severe dental disease than they might otherwise be prone to. Young cats or unvaccinated cats can be prone to infection with various viruses which can also predispose them to painful oral ulcerations. A regular physical examination, vaccinations, and sometimes screening bloodwork are helpful to determine the factors contributing to their dental health.
One of the most insidious dental conditions that cats may develop is something called an oral resorptive lesion. This condition may appear on general inspection to be some significant, inflamed gingival tissue surrounding any number of feline teeth (although certain teeth seem to be more commonly affected than others). However, these lesions or affected teeth often are more painful for cats then the average tooth with gingivitis. Cats may flinch away or resent their oral examination, and they may actually show signs of pain like jaw chattering or lip smacking when the individual tooth is touched. The reason for this pain is a disease process which can be brewing below the gumline, where it is only visible on dental radiographs (xrays). With tooth resorption, effectively the tooth root is deteriorating, almost dissolving, below the gumline. In some cases, this is secondary to gingivitis and inflammation/infection along the gumline, other cases have more complex predisposing factors. The problem with this disease is that the whole process of resorption is often very painful for the cat, and affected teeth ultimately need to be extracted to relieve them from that discomfort. Dental radiographs are an essential tool when it comes to diagnosing this disease, because it occurs below the gumline where we can’t see it.
Cats are also prone to a very severe form of gingivitis with oral ulceration that can be painful for the cat and frustrating to treat. While the exact cause of this disease is not known, this severe inflammation can cause a lot of discomfort for your feline friend. Treatment often includes extraction of most if not all of the cat’s teeth, as well as efforts in the longer term to minimize the bacterial population of the mouth with good hygienic care at home, and sometimes antibiotic and immunosuppressive medications. Some cats who develop this condition may also show some improvement with a transition to a hypoallergenic diet, although these decisions are made on a case by case basis with your veterinarian’s assistance.
One of the most common lesions we see with cats is an abscess of diseased tooth roots. This can cause a real tooth ache for any cat! Often cats will present to the veterinarian for not eating, and when an oral examination is performed, some severe disease and recession of their gums is revealed. Occasionally they will have a foul smell of infection and some facial swelling occurring as well as the pocket of infection around the tooth root is either actively draining or building up to the point of bursting. This painful condition occurs when dental tartar and disease has been progressing over a number of years. The treatment involves a complete dental cleaning and extraction of the teeth whose roots are infected, to remove the source of discomfort.
These are just a few of the ways that our feline patients like to keep veterinary life interesting. Your vet is available to discuss ways you can help prevent dental disease for your pet, and to help you determine if a dental condition is causing your cat any health issues presently. Dental diets are available as a way to help minimize the tartar build up in your cat’s mouth, and regular tooth brushing goes a long way at minimizing the plaque development and keeping nasty bacteria at bay. To learn more, our technicians are available to give you instruction on at home care as part of a dental consultation in February and March.