Feline Dental Disease

By E.G.D McCarrison BVMS MRCVS

Cats, like all carnivores, (meat eaters) have two sets of teeth – their ‘baby’ teeth and their ‘adult’ teeth. The baby teeth are called deciduous, and by the time cats are some 6 months of age these have been replaced by their adult teeth – which have to last them the rest of their lives. Hence it is extremely important that cat owners are alert to dental problems.

A cat’s mouth can be one of the most neglected areas of feline health. We have said on other pages that cats are extremely good at hiding health problems; this is true of dental disease as well. Cats will continue eating despite quite significant disease in their mouths. An additional problem for cat owners is that many cats resent being handled and refuse to have their mouths examined.

The sooner a dental problem is spotted the better, hence enabling early treatment. If left, the disease will worsen, possibly resulting in the extraction of a number of teeth. Too many cat owners are under the mistaken impression that only older cats suffer from dental disease, whereas this common problem is frequently found in young cats as well.

So what are the signs which might signal that our feline companion may be suffering from this painful disease ?

Some signs can be obvious and these include the cat not eating, excessive dribbling from the mouth, pawing at the mouth, a chattering of the teeth, smelly breath, or blood at the corners of the mouth or in the food bowl.

Other less obvious signs can include weight loss, eating on one side of the mouth, eating more slowly, choosing soft food and ignoring biscuits, or appearing interested in food but backing away when it’s offered. Any change in a cat’s behaviour around meal-time can suggest a mouth problem, and therefore veterinary advice should be sought as soon as possible.

There are countless conditions which affect a cat’s teeth and mouth, and we example a few of the most common here:


    Plaque is the most common cause of dental disease. It develops on the surface of the teeth, and as it grows it becomes thicker – looking like a white or grey film over the teeth. If not removed it will inflame the gums, causing ‘GINGIVITIS’ – which is seen as a reddening of the gums around the affected teeth. If this is not treated the cat will experience considerable pain. At this stage the condition is treatable and can be reversed.

     Mild tartar and early gingivitis

    If the plaque is not removed and left to develop it becomes hardened due to the deposit of substances such as calcium in the layer of plaque. This hardened layer is known as ‘Tartar’ – appearing as a yellow or brown layer on the surface of the teeth. Tartar further inflames and undermines the gums, and invariably leads to a condition called ‘PERIODONTITIS’. By this stage the likelihood is that only dental scaling (under a general anaesthetic) by your vet will remove it.
    Periodontitis is a progressive gum condition which starts to disrupt the tissues which support the teeth, and eventually dissolves the bone which is holding the teeth. The infected teeth become unstable, and the roots to the teeth are exposed. The removal of the infected teeth is the only treatment. This condition is intensely painful for the cat, but despite the degree of pain many owners will be unaware that their cat is suffering because he/she will try to carry on eating.
    Resorptive Lesions are a common feline dental problem. The tooth enamel and dentine dissolve, leaving a hole (often far too small to be seen) in the tooth around the gum line or just below it. No matter how small the holes are they are intensely painful for the cat, which may demonstrate this pain in its behaviour. Close examination may reveal a small pink spot on the tooth close to the gum line. This is the gum itself, attempting to fill in the hole. If left untreated the crown of the tooth may break off, leaving only remnants of the root behind. Therefore early veterinary intervention is essential, with the whole tooth and root being extracted. X rays are very effective at spotting these lesions and the changes taking place below the gum line.
    Stomatitis is an inflammation of the mouth, the cause of which is not always obvious. It is yet another painful condition, but unfortunately it does not always responds to antibiotics, steroids and many other drugs designed to remove or alleviate inflammation. Sometimes cleaning and scaling, followed by a course of corticosteroids or even stronger drugs may help; but in severe cases the only remedy is often to remove all the teeth except perhaps the incisors and canines.
    Cats can also suffer from a range of viral infections, such as Feline Leukaemia (FeLV), Feline Immunodefficiency Virus (FIV) and an upper respiratory virus called Calici, which can – through various means – lead to a prolonged and painful infection of the gums and the lining of the mouth, especially towards the throat area. Blood tests and sometimes mouth swabs will be undertaken by your vet to identify the cause.


So what can we do to reduce the risk of disease, and the associated welfare issues, that tooth problems cause our cats ?

  • DIET
    In the wild cats are hunters, catching a wide variety of prey such as birds and mice and other small mammals. Eating and crunching on small bones gives cats exercise for their teeth and mouth, and helps a great deal in keeping the teeth and gums clean and healthy. But our domesticated cats rely upon us for their food – which generally consists largely of soft, moist food and some biscuits.Whilst the biscuits certainly help, the soft food provides no exercise at all for the teeth, and tends to allow plaque and then tartar to build up on the tooth surface. In my opinion, after many years experience, cats on a diet of biscuits usually have cleaner and healthier teeth and gums. There are special ‘diet’ biscuits for teeth, which are larger than the usual biscuits, and when used as part of the overall food intake can remove a large amount of the plaque and tartar from the teeth.
    You can imagine what our own teeth would feel and look like if we did not clean them regularly. Some owners are fortunate enough to have cats which will allow them to brush their teeth with one of the toothpastes which are especially made for cats. However, most cats will not co-operate enough for this to be undertaken adequately regularly or effectively. There are pastes and liquids which can be applied to the teeth, or added to food or water. These can be very helpful if your cat likes them.
    It is extremely wise to have your cat’s teeth checked regularly. Those receiving annual vaccinations should have this done as part or their overall health check; but it is still critically important that, at the first sign of a possible problem, you ask your vet to examine your cat’s mouth.I have mentioned before that if it is found that your cat does have a dental disease then it will likely be necessary for your vet to carry out a corrective procedure under a general anaesthetic. I know that many owners are reluctant or worried about this, but over many years of dental work I have been amazed by the difference corrective procedures can make to a cat’s welfare when painful conditions are removed. It is not unusual for owners to report back that their cat seems years younger, and so much happier, after a dental problem has been corrected.

“Look mum, no cavities!”

"Cats can be co-operative when something feels good, which, to a cat, is the way everything is supposed to feel as much of the time as possible"

Roger Caras, photographer and author