When it comes to the health of our feline friends, one aspect that often gets overlooked is dental health. Yet, the condition of a cat’s teeth can significantly impact their health and quality of life. This is made more concerning by studies reporting that 85 percent of cats aged 3 years and older suffer from some form of dental disease.
Unlike humans, cats can’t tell us when something hurts or feels off in their mouth. That’s why it’s crucial for pet parents to recognize the subtle signs of dental issues in cats (such as difficulty eating and bad breath) and get them prompt dental care.
We spoke to vet experts to uncover the specific behaviors and symptoms that could indicate your kitty is facing dental issues.
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14 Signs of Unhealthy Cat Teeth
“A strong or offensive mouth odor—as opposed to normal ‘kitty breath’—indicates that something is amiss in your cat’s mouth,” says Dr. Sarah Wooten, DVM, CVJ, a veterinarian in Silverthorne, Colorado.
This bad breath could stem from a range of issues, including periodontal disease, tooth resorption, infections, cancer or various other mouth, tooth or gum disorders, she adds. Each of these conditions can lead to discomfort or pain for your feline friend.
2Red or Inflamed Gums
3Difficulty Eating or Loss of Appetite
4Tartar or Plaque
A buildup of plaque and tartar on your cat’s teeth is more than just an aesthetic issue—it’s a health concern. When you spot a yellowish-brown buildup, especially near the gum line, it’s a sign that your cat might be developing dental problems, says Dr. Boronat.
Left unchecked, this can lead to more serious conditions like periodontal disease. Regular dental checkups and teeth cleanings are crucial in managing this buildup and maintaining your cat’s oral health.
Drooling while eating is a common indicator of oral issues in cats. Particularly concerning is when the drool or your cat’s water dish contains traces of blood, says Dr. Wooten. This symptom can result from conditions like gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), cervical line lesions (abnormalities or damage in the region involving the neck of the tooth) or other sources of dental pain.
Drooling that occurs even when your cat is not eating could also signal underlying problems that warrant immediate veterinary attention.
6Tooth Loss or Tooth Mobility
“In severe cases, you may notice loose teeth or missing teeth,” says Dr. Boronat. “This can occur due to advanced periodontal disease.”
Signs of tooth loss or tooth mobility in your cat can include discreet signs, like trouble biting down, or more apparent signs, like visibly wiggling or missing teeth.
Chattering, characterized by a shaking or quivering jaw, is commonly seen in cats with resorptive lesions on their teeth, says Dr. Wooten. These painful lesions, where specialized cells absorb tooth structure, can create cavity-like holes, erode teeth or transform tooth roots into bone.
This type of chattering typically happens when a cat eats, washes their face or grooms, and is triggered by sharp pain emanating from the tooth root, says Dr. Wooten. It can sometimes be loud enough to hear, and chattering during eating or grooming is always abnormal and indicative of discomfort or pain in their mouth.
8Pawing at or Rubbing Their Face
9Excessive Yawning or Teeth Grinding
10Head Shaking or Tilt
Although often linked to ear issues, head shaking or a head tilt can also indicate dental pain in cats. A cat suffering from dental disease might frequently shake their head or tilt it towards the side of the mouth where the issue is located, says Dr. Wooten.
“If head shaking happens in conjunction with drooling or another sign on this list, dental problems are the prime suspects,” she adds.
“In some cases, dental disease can lead to facial swelling, particularly around the eyes or cheeks,” says Dr. Boronat.
This swelling can be a sign of an underlying infection or abscess stemming from a dental issue.
12Decrease in Self-Grooming
13Pulling Away or Meowing When Touched Near the Mouth
Cats with dental pain caused by issues such as resorptive lesions or gingivitis may react negatively when their mouth area is touched, says Dr. Wooten. They might pull away, meow or even hiss, swipe at you or try to bite you.
This change in behavior, especially in a typically docile or affectionate cat, is a strong indicator of dental pain.
14Changes in Normal Behavior
Any changes in a cat’s usual behavior can be a subtle sign of dental issues. This may manifest as increased irritability, decreased playfulness or changes in social interactions with humans and other pets.
Cats experiencing dental pain might also seek out more secluded spots to rest, avoiding their typical favorite places. Such shifts in behavior, especially when combined with any other signs of dental distress, should prompt a closer examination of your cat’s oral health.
Common Cat Dental Issues
So, which conditions might give rise to the above signs and symptoms? The most common dental ailments in cats include:
- Gingivitis: Often the first stage of cat periodontal disease, gingivitis is a reversible inflammation of the gums around the teeth, says Dr. Boronat. It commonly stems from the accumulation of plaque and tartar on one or more teeth, she adds. Plaque and tartar develop over time due to the accumulation of food residue and bacteria in the mouth. Gingivitis is characterized by red, swollen gums and can escalate to more severe dental conditions if not treated promptly.
- Periodontitis: If gingivitis is left unchecked, it can progress to periodontitis. This condition, which starts with plaque buildup, is an inflammatory disease that progressively destroys the tissues that attach the tooth, says Dr. Boronat. It can eventually affect the underlying bone, causing loose teeth or tooth loss. The damage caused by periodontitis is irreversible, but progression of the disease can be stopped with proper treatment.
- Tooth resorption: This condition occurs when a cat’s tooth structure begins to break down or gets absorbed back into their body, leading to tooth loss and significant discomfort. The cause of tooth resorption in cats is currently unknown.
When To See a Vet
While routine, at-home dental care can significantly contribute to your cat’s oral health, it’s not enough. Your cat also needs professional dental cleanings.
The frequency of professional dental cleanings for cats can vary based on individual factors such as age, breed, overall health and the condition of their teeth and gums. Typically, veterinarians advise an annual dental checkup and suggest preventive cleanings every one to two years.
Professional cleanings are essential for removing hardened tartar that at-home brushing simply can’t tackle.
It’s crucial to remain vigilant for any signs and symptoms of dental issues between these cleanings. If you notice any of the above symptoms, take your kitty in for a checkup as soon as possible. Prompt treatment is key to preventing discomfort, mitigating the risk of worsening dental health and helping maintain your cat’s overall health and quality of life.
Treating Cat Dental Issues
The first step in treating your cat’s dental issues is getting a veterinary assessment. A vet can perform a comprehensive oral examination to accurately diagnose the issue. In some cases, dental X-rays might also be needed.
The approach to addressing dental issues in cats varies depending on the specific problem they’re facing:
- For hardened tartar buildup and gingivitis, a thorough cleaning under anesthesia is typically the first step. This process removes plaque and tartar on the teeth and below the gum line. Following the removal (scaling) process, the teeth are polished to smooth out any microscopic scratches, which helps slow the accumulation of new plaque. The application of a dental sealer might also be suggested to further reduce plaque buildup.
- For periodontitis, your vet will focus on eliminating plaque and mineral deposits through scaling and polishing the teeth, aiming to preserve as many teeth as possible. However, in advanced cases of periodontitis, it may be necessary to extract (remove surgically) one or several teeth to effectively address the condition.
- For tooth resorption, treatment may entail surgically removing the affected tooth and, sometimes, its root.
After dental procedures, your vet may prescribe pain medications and recommend a soft food diet, especially if extractions were performed.
How To Keep Your Cat’s Teeth Healthy
Maintaining your cat’s dental hygiene between professional cleanings is crucial for their overall health. Here are some effective ways to ensure your feline friend’s teeth stay in tip-top condition.
Brush your cat’s teeth at least every other day—but preferably every day—using a cat-specific toothpaste and toothbrush. This reduces plaque and prevents tartar buildup. Do not use human toothpaste on your kitty, as many brands contain ingredients that can be harmful to pets, such as fluoride, detergents and artificial sweeteners like xylitol.
Before starting a regular brushing routine, get your cat comfortable with having their mouth handled and gradually introduce them to the brushing process.
In a pinch, dental wipes, such as Petkin Plaque Toothwipes, can also be used to remove icky buildup.
Give Your Cat Dental Treats
Cat dental chews not only make for a yummy snack but also help scrape the plaque off your kitty’s chompers. Follow the directions on the package to determine how many treats are acceptable to give your cat.
Consider Dental Toys
Put Dental Additives in Your Cat’s Water and Food
Water and food additives, which mix into your cat’s drinking water or wet cat food, contain enzymes that break down plaque. These additives are usually tasteless and can be a simple and discreet way to improve your kitty’s dental health.
Consider a Specially Formulated Dental Diet
For cats prone to dental issues, your veterinarian might suggest a prescription food formulated to support dental health, such as Hill’s Prescription Diet t/d Dental Care dry cat food or Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Dental dry cat food. These dry foods are designed to reduce plaque and tartar buildup.
Monitor Your Cat for Signs of Dental Issues
Start regularly looking in your cat’s mouth at a young age to familiarize yourself with what’s normal. This also helps your kitty become accustomed to humans looking inside their mouth.
Monitor your cat for signs of dental problems, such as bad breath, difficulty eating or head shaking. Detecting problems early is key to preventing more serious issues.
Do Product Research
“There are several dental products on the market, but not all of them are equal or promote the necessary effects to prevent plaque buildup,” says Dr. Boronat. As such, she recommends referencing the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) for information about the effectiveness of specific brands of cat oral health products, including toothbrushes, toothpaste, chews, and food and water additives. Products awarded a VOHC seal have been proven through clinical trials to decrease plaque or tartar formation by at least 10 to 20 percent, says Dr. Boronat.
However, it’s important to note that a 10 to 20 percent reduction in plaque or tartar alone will not protect your cat from periodontal disease. Rather, prevention requires a multi-pronged approach, including diet, dental chew treats, brushing and professional care.
It’s also important to note that products without a VOHC seal may also be effective, as not all product manufacturers choose to go through the lengthy verification process. Referencing customer reviews can help you make informed choices.
FAQs About Unhealthy Cat Teeth
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