Updated - Oct 13th, 2022
Dental disease affects 50% to 90% of cats over the age of four.
Wild or outdoor cats eat rodents – typically consuming everything including the fur (flossing action) and the bones (abrasive action).
Your indoor cat, that fearsome carnivore, probably isn’t regularly catching and eating mice or other small rodents. Without that, your domestic kitty probably isn’t meeting their dental care needs and can develop dental disease.
Let’s look at why.
Inside a cat’s mouth
Cats are obligate carnivores. Their digestive system is designed to process high amounts of protein, with very few carbohydrates. With that comes a unique set of teeth designed for ripping and tearing, compared to flatter human teeth designed for grinding. They also don’t have the enzymes in their mouths to fight bacteria like we do.
The unique shape of cat teeth allows the food to get caught between the teeth and sit along the gumline. The combination of saliva, food, and bacteria creates plaque, a sticky substance that adheres to the tooth surface. This causes redness, swelling, and pain along the gumline called gingivitis.
Without dental care, the plaque hardens to create tartar. The tartar adheres to the teeth around the gumline and beneath to the roots of the teeth. It quickly leads to periodontal disease, a painful condition needing professional veterinary dental care.
If left, advanced periodontal disease can trigger Feline Tooth Resorption. This is the most common reason for tooth loss for cats. It affects 75% of cats over the age of five. The dentin in the tooth erodes to the point of infection, requiring extraction. The cause is not known, but it’s a painful condition for your cat.
When significant periodontal disease is present, the harmful bacteria produced in your cat’s mouth can enter the bloodstream and can gradually damage the heart, kidneys, and liver.
Signs, symptoms, treatments & treatment cost
Signs of dental disease
Cats don’t show us when they’re in pain until it’s severe. Tooth or mouth pain is especially hard to spot because a cat will continue eating until the dental problems are advanced and very painful.
Signs of feline dental disease:
- Bad breath
- Visible tartar or tooth discoloration
- Exposed tooth roots
- Red, swollen or bleeding gums
- Drooling that may contain blood
- Pawing the teeth or mouth\
- Grooming less often
- Difficulty eating
- Weight loss
Changes in your cat’s appetite or eating habits are important to monitor. “Kitties stop eating for a myriad of reasons. Often when they stop eating, it can be worrisome and difficult to get them back to eating normally. Dental disease can be a common cause for decreased appetite.”Dr. Michelle Vitulli, Caring Hands Animal Hospital
Costs of dental care
Dental care can be expensive, and most pet parents quake at the thought of it. Where you live, the age, and health of your cat, and the extent of medical treatment needed are all factors when determining the cost of feline dentistry.
The cost of a tooth extraction for cats can cost $300 – $1300. This usually includes bloodwork, x-rays, and cleaning, and medication. More severe dental procedures can quickly become more expensive with extractions being the most common reason for higher costs.
Healthcare insurance for your cat may help with these expenses. Few pet insurance providers offer complete coverage for cat dental care. But the dental coverage offered by Pumpkin covers many costs when dental disease is diagnosed. Their coverage can help make it easier to choose quality dental care for your cat’s health without breaking the bank.
“Dental cleanings can be costly, especially when there are multiple teeth that require extraction. Spending $350-400 on a routine dental prophy seems like a lot at the time, but these regular cleanings help to avoid the need to undergo more complicated dental procedures down the road when extractions may be required. When I see a cat with mild or moderate dental tartar or gingivitis, I really try to stress to the owner that getting in and doing a dental cleaning then is going to cost less in the long run and also help to keep their cat healthy and pain free.Dr. Meghan Dail, Mid-Atlantic Cat Hospital
The dental disease is only going to get worse with time, so by waiting and putting off a cleaning for a year or two, it will ultimately cost more at that time when extractions may be necessary. Also, the cat may end up dealing with pain or infection by foregoing the routine cleaning.”
Pet Pro Tip: Any responsible pet owner should seriously consider pet insurance. Properly understanding how pet insurance works and what pet insurance covers can help you make an informed decision about your pet’s health needs and plan your finances accordingly!
How to Help Prevent Dental Disease
Regular, consistent dental care is the gold standard when fighting feline dental disease. Since most cats over the age of four have some type of dental disease, it’s best to start when your cat is a kitten. It can contribute to a longer life-span and happier life for your cat.
Three most effective steps supporting dental health are:
- Nutrition & Diet
- Regular professional dental checkups
- A home dental care routine
Let’s look at each step.
1. Nutrition & Diet
Diet matters in combating dental disease. A well-balanced, healthy cat food will protect your cat’s whole health, giving it the ability to fight off diseases and aid in healing.
Some cat parents believe kibble or hard food will provide the abrasive action needed to clean teeth. This is not true. Most cats don’t chew their food, but swallow it whole. Cat food manufacturers have developed many shapes of kibble to encourage a cat to bite or chew, but none clean the teeth adequately.
2. The Dental Checkup
Depending on your cat’s age, genetics, diet, and overall health, your vet may advise annual, or twice-yearly dental examinations.
“Keeping on top of their oral health is of primary importance. The best way to do that is have your cat’s mouth evaluated by a veterinarian. If there is evidence of inflammation at the gum line, early intervention is key to a successful outcome.Dr. Michelle Vitulli, Caring Hands Animal Hospital
At the initial dental check up, your vet will do a physical exam of your cat’s mouth. This gives them a window into the condition of the teeth and jaw. Here’s what they will look for:
- How the teeth fit together and the jaw aligns (missing or extra teeth, an overbite, or an under-bite).
- Fractured, or broken teeth
- Plaque build up on the teeth
- Gingivitis or periodontal disease
- Tartar buildup on the teeth and along the gumline
- Abscesses or signs of tooth resorption
- Bumps or lesions that may indicate a tumor
- Any facial swelling
Depending on the results of the physical exam, and bloodwork, your veterinarian will develop a plan for your dog or schedule a more thorough examination.
Many times, the vet can’t know the extent of the dental disease until the cat is under the general anesthesia and they perform a complete dental exam, including x-rays. That can mean that your cat goes in for simple teeth cleaning, but more issues are found, requiring more invasive dental procedures.
The teeth are scaled to remove plaque and tartar above and below the gumline. They are then polished so plaque can’t easily adhere to the smooth surface. Once completed, the mouth will be rinsed to dislodge any remaining tartar, plaque, or bacteria.
Finally, a blunt dental probe will is used to explore the extent of any periodontal disease, or the condition of eroding teeth.
If it’s determined your cat needs oral surgery, a Veterinary Dental Specialist may be called in for procedures such as removing tumors, excising gums with severe periodontal disease, or tooth extractions for damaged, resorption, or impacted teeth.
Oral surgery, like tooth extractions, can sound frightening, especially for an older cat, but they’re commonly back to their former self and eating well very quickly. The benefits of ridding the mouth of bacteria and infections far outweighs holding off on necessary dental procedures.
“We see all our patients one week after extractions for a follow up visit. It still amazes me when I talk to a client after their cat had a painful tooth extracted and hear how quickly their kitty resumed eating. Many cats return to eating with gusto soon after a diseased tooth is surgically extracted…”Dr. Michelle Vitulli, Caring Hands Animal Hospital
3. A home dental care routine
A good dental care routine you can do at home includes brushing your cat’s teeth regularly, providing dental care supplements or chews, and a healthy diet.
Many cats don’t take kindly to messing with their mouths, but it’s possible to ease them into the process with patience and treats. The earlier you can start your cat on dental care, the easier it will be.
Brushing your cat’s teeth
Brushing your cat’s teeth is considered the gold standard of preventative oral care and should happen at least three times per week.
“Start young! Training a kitten to allow you to brush their teeth is going to be your best bet for long-term success. Just like getting them used to touching their paws at a young age will make nail trims easier, getting them used to you touching the outside of their mouth, opening their mouth, and touching the outside of their teeth, will make trying to get in there with a toothbrush much easier.Dr. Meghan Dail, Mid-Atlantic Cat Hospital
- Proper tools: You’ll need a cat toothbrush, toothpaste (Don’t use human toothpaste, the fluoride is toxic to your cat), and dental gauze or a finger brush.
- Start slow: Get your cat used to you messing with its face and mouth. Gently rub around the mouth to start and gradually, when your cat is comfortable with it, try slipping your finger in between it’s lips and massaging or at least touching their gums.
Once your cat accepts touching their gums, you can try rubbing your finger over their teeth as well.
- Add some yum: The next step is to add the toothpaste. Cat toothpastes come flavored with chicken or fish and cats readily accept it. A dab on your finger, the finger brush, or gauze is all you need. Let your cat smell and lick it..
If your cat likes it, you can try rubbing it gently on the outside of the teeth.
- Introduce the brush: Cats like to chew on bristles, so offer it with or without the toothpaste to let your cat get used to the texture and having the brush in their mouth. The act of chewing the bristles will scrape some plaque off the teeth.
Once you accomplish that step, try introducing the toothbrush, finger brush, or gauze with toothpaste, into your cat’s mouth, gently rubbing against the outside of the teeth in small, slow circles. Be sure to massage the gums as well. If your cat is food motivated, treats will help the process along. It should be a calm, relaxing effort to avoid anxiety in both you and your cat.
Ideally, your cat’s teeth should be brushed daily, but at least three times per week will still help with your cat’s oral health and preventing gum disease.
Dental products for cats
If your cat doesn’t welcome tooth brushing (and many don’t), alternative dental products will meet their dental care needs between dental cleanings. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) provides a comprehensive list of approved dental products for your cat.
Dental treats and supplements
These contain enzymes and ingredients that de-mineralize the plaque and tartar to fight bacteria.
Oral rinses include sprays to be spritzed in your cat’s cheek, or put on a gauze and rub inside your cat’s cheek or along the gums.
Sea Kelp is a good additive for fighting tooth decay and bacteria in the mouth. It’s seaweed and cats generally like it. It can be added to food, since the amount needed is very tiny.
When cats have dental disease, their vet may prescribe a dental food designed to reduce the growth of bacteria and plaque. The food pieces are larger, encouraging chewing or biting to create the abrasive action of cleaning the teeth.
The most reliable source for dental products is the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). They provide a comprehensive list of products they endorse (through rigorous testing) on their website. Each product lists all ingredients so you can decide which is best for your cat.
In conclusion, dental disease is serious and can increase your cat’s risk of some cancers, diseases of the heart and lungs, cause gastrointestinal problems, and kidney disease. Proper and consistent dental care will extend your cat’s happiness and ability to fight off disease.
Your kitty’s yearly exam is a great time to discuss their dental health with your veterinarian and learn what preventive care, treatments and daily home habits they recommend.