Many of the dental disorders of cats are similar to those found in people. Treatment methods are also similar. Proper dental care can help keep your cat's teeth and gums healthy. Learning the terms your veterinarian uses to describe dental disorders will help you understand and discuss any dental problems your cat may develop (see Digestive Disorders of Dogs: Dental Terms).
Gum (periodontal) disease is inflammation of the tissue surrounding the teeth. It is caused by the accumulation of many different bacteria (plaque) at the gum line due—in part—to a lack of proper oral hygiene. This infection causes inflammation of the gums, the ligaments that anchor the teeth, and the surrounding bone. If periodontal disease goes untreated, teeth can be lost due to the loss of their supporting tissues. There are 2 forms of periodontal disease: gingivitis and periodontitis.
In gingivitis, the gums become inflamed because of bacterial plaque, but the ligaments and bone are not yet affected. The gums change in color from coral-pink to red or purple, and the edge of the gum swells. The gums tend to bleed on contact. Bad breath is common. Gingivitis can be reversed with proper tooth cleaning but, if untreated, may lead to periodontitis (see Digestive Disorders of Cats: Periodontitis).
A form of juvenile-onset gingivitis is seen in some cats at 6 to 8 months of age. Cats with this condition often have swollen gums and bad breath.
Gingivitis can usually be treated by thorough professional cleaning of the teeth. This includes cleaning below the gum line. If gingivitis does not improve, your cat should be examined again to determine if more extensive cleaning is required. When cleanings are completed, your veterinarian may apply a sealant to the teeth to prevent bacterial buildup and improve healing. Cats that do not respond to treatment should be evaluated for other diseases such as immune system problems, diabetes, and especially feline Bartonella infection (cat scratch fever). Gingivitis will reoccur if the teeth are not kept clean and free of plaque.
In periodontitis, the tissue damage is more severe and includes the gums, the ligaments, and bone. It usually is seen after the development of plaque, tartar, and gingivitis. It is irreversible and results in permanent loss of tooth support. Gingivitis is often first noticed at about 2 years of age but improves if treated. Periodontitis usually begins at 4 to 6 years of age and, if untreated, results in tooth loss. In some cats this disease can be seen as early as 1 year of age.
Periodontitis is treated with thorough professional cleaning above and below the gum line. If your cat has been treated for periodontitis, you will need to continue oral hygiene care at home. Follow your veterinarian's instructions, which might include daily toothbrushing, dietary changes, plaque prevention gel, and oral rinses. Frequent (every 3 months to 1 year) preventive cleanings will help to avoid relapse and prevent further bone loss.
The most important point to remember is that gum disease rarely develops around clean teeth. At-home methods to keep your pet's teeth clean, such as toothbrushing and diet, along with regular dental examinations, are the best ways to help prevent gum disease. Your veterinarian might also apply a barrier sealant or recommend a plaque prevention gel.
Endodontic disease occurs inside the teeth. The causes include injury and tooth decay. This problem requires tooth extraction or a root canal procedure. Signs can include poor appetite, painful teeth that your cat resists having touched or tapped, or a tooth with a reddish-brown or gray color. However, most cats mask their signs, and waiting until signs occur is not in the cat's best interest. X-rays of the mouth will reveal the presence of disease before signs occur.
Feline Gingivitis/Stomatitis Syndrome
A cat's mouth may react intensely to disease and become severely inflamed. Signs include mouth pain, drooling, bad breath, and loss of appetite. A veterinarian's examination may reveal inflammation of the gums, the inside of the mouth, and the upper throat. The underlying disease must be diagnosed accurately in order for treatment to be successful. Many viral and bacterial diseases contribute to this problem. Some cats are also infected by the bacteria that cause cat scratch fever (a disease that can be passed to people), which must be considered as a possible cause.
Treatment includes controlling or eliminating the cause of the condition and aggressive dental care, including home care if possible. In cases where the pain is severe, home care might not be possible. Many cats have been successfully treated by having all of their teeth extracted; sometimes the canine teeth (“fangs”) can be left in. This solution is not as bad as it sounds, because most cats can eat moist food (and eventually even solid food) even after the teeth have been extracted.
Cervical Line Lesions (Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions)
Cats do not develop cavities like those seen in humans. However, they may develop cervical line lesions, also called feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions. In fact, these are the most frequently seen dental abnormality in cats. The cause is unknown, but the condition results in the breakdown and loss of tooth material and is often associated with bright red gum inflammation. The crown of the tooth may be completely lost, with the root that is left covered over by the gum. Signs associated with cervical line lesions include pain on contact, loss of appetite, drooling, and generally not feeling well.
The condition is not thought to be contagious. Mouth infections may develop because of tooth loss, however. Damage to the roots of the teeth can be detected with x-rays of the jaws. In most cases, affected teeth will need to be extracted. Techniques to restore the teeth yield only fair success rates, except for very early cases.
Developmental problems with the teeth include a misaligned bite and defects in the tooth enamel. These abnormalities often have a genetic component.
Proper growth and development of the mouth and teeth depends on a series of events that must occur in proper sequence or longterm complications will occur. Early detection and intervention is the best way to prevent more serious problems later in the cat's life. Dental development can be divided into 3 stages: Stage 1 is from 0 to 16 weeks of age, Stage 2 is from 16 weeks to 7 months of age, and Stage 3 is from 7 months to 1½ years of age.
Stage 1: Kittens are born with relatively long upper jaws (“overbite”), which allow them to nurse. As the kitten grows and begins to eat solid food, the lower jaw goes through a growth spurt. If certain of the lower baby teeth come in before the growth spurt, they can get caught behind the upper teeth and prevent the lower jaw from developing to its proper length. The usual treatment is to remove several of the baby lower teeth. This will allow the lower jaw to reach its full length and avert problems with the permanent teeth.
The reverse situation can also occur. In these cases, the lower jaw grows faster than usual and becomes too long for the upper jaw, producing an “underbite.” This condition can be detected as early as 8 weeks of age. Again, certain teeth from the upper jaw may become caught behind those of the lower jaw, preventing proper growth of the upper jaw. As in the previous situation, the treatment is usually to extract several teeth; in this case, upper teeth are removed.
Stage 2: The most important problem that can occur during this stage is the retention of baby teeth. Abnormal tooth position and bite may result if the baby teeth are not lost at the time the corresponding permanent teeth are coming in. If retained baby teeth are removed by a veterinarian as soon as they are noticed; complications can usually be prevented.
Another developmental defect noted in this stage is abnormal positioning (tilting) of the upper canine teeth. Depending on the specific situation and age of the cat, orthodontic treatment (that is, “braces” for your pet) can be used to align teeth in their correct positions. This treatment is only effective in some cats. In most cases, tooth shortening or extractions might be necessary.
Stage 3: Additional types of incorrect tooth placement and crowding of teeth can occur during this stage of your pet's growth. Treatment, if necessary, may include orthodontic treatment and possibly tooth extraction.
During the development of tooth enamel, fevers and the deposition of certain chemicals within the tooth may cause permanent damage. Severe malnutrition in young cats or trauma to a tooth may also cause enamel defects. Treatment of these conditions can include the bonding of synthetic materials to the teeth, fluoride treatment, and frequent dental preventive care.
Trauma to the Face and Jaw
Fractured teeth should be inspected by a veterinarian to determine whether there has been damage to the tooth pulp. If fractures extend into the pulp, root canal treatment or tooth extraction will be needed. Wounds to the gums or other soft tissues should be treated by the veterinarian as well.
Bone fractures will need to be stabilized by the veterinarian using wires, pins, or other materials. As long as the correct bite position can be maintained, healing is rapid and most of the supporting material can be removed by the veterinarian in about 6 to 8 weeks. A feeding tube may be needed if the cat has difficulty eating while the injury heals.
Last full review/revision July 2011 by Dana G. Allen, DVM, MSc, DACVIM; Sharon Campbell, DVM, MS, DACVIM; Ben H. Colmery, DVM, DAVDC; James G. Fox, DVM, MS, DACLAM; Carlton L. Gyles, DVM, PhD, FCAHS; Walter Ingwersen, DVM, DVSc, DACVIM; Lisa E. Moore, DVM, DACVIM; Sofie Muylle, DVM, PhD; Sharon Patton, MS, PhD; Andrew S. Peregrine, BVMS, PhD, DVM, DEVPC; Stanley I. Rubin, DVM, MS, DACVIM; H. Carolien Rutgers, DVM, MS, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA, DSAM, MRCVS; Jörg M. Steiner, DrMedVet, PhD, DACVIM, DECVIM-CA; Thomas W. Swerczek, DVM, PhD