Dental hygiene in cats is a fairly foreign concept to most people. It wasn’t until about 10 years ago when dental care in felines was recognized as a very important part of overall feline health.
Just like in people, your cat’s dental health can greatly impact his or her overall health.
So what exactly does dental care in cats entail?
In this article, I am going to tell you everything you need to know about how to care for your cat’s (hopefully) pearly whites.
What is dental disease in cats?
Dental disease in cats (and dogs) can have lots of components but is most commonly due to periodontal disease. Periodontal disease essentially means that the gums and structures underneath the gum line are inflamed and/or infected.
There are various stages of periodontal disease ranging from 1-4. Stage 1 dental disease is essentially just gingivitis or inflammation of the gums. This is the only stage of dental disease that can be reversed.
If not treated, stage 1 dental disease can progress to infection, tooth root abscesses, bone loss of the jaw bones, fractured teeth or jaw, and various systemic diseases.
Why is dental care in cats so important?
In cats with dental disease, the inflammation of the gums traps bacteria. These bacteria multiply in the mouth and cause severe infections, which cause further damage to the teeth and the oral supporting structures (gums, bone, periodontal ligament, jaw, etc.
Additionally, with severe dental disease, the bacteria can invade the bloodstream and travel to other organs in the body, such as the heart, liver, kidneys, or spleen.
Depending on where these bacteria end up, the effects can be detrimental to your cat's health; this can lead to heart failure, kidney failure, or liver failure secondary to severe infection. Once the bacteria gets to these organs, it is VERY hard to treat with the typical antibiotic therapy, and additional, more aggressive therapies are typically needed.
The good news is that this can all be prevented with proper dental care. This includes regular veterinary evaluations, home intervention in the early stages of dental disease, and veterinary dental care in more advanced stages of dental disease.
How can I care for my cat's teeth at home?
Home dental care is most effective in cats with little to no evidence of dental disease (stage 0-1). Your cat's specific dental disease grade can be determined at your cat's next veterinary check-up.
Home dental care can mean a lot of different things and is largely dependent upon what works best for both you and your cat's lifestyle and preferences. For some cats, this means brushing your cat's teeth a few times a week or even once a day.
You can use a regular human toothbrush (with soft bristles), but sometimes these are too big for little cat mouths. If you choose to brush your cat's teeth, I would recommend a specific cat toothbrush- they make finger brushes, as well as standard toothbrushes with handles.
There is also cat specific toothpaste that has enzymes to support dental health (and tastes like poultry or fish). If tooth brushing absolutely isn't going to work for you and your cat, then dental wipes may be a better alternative. The wipes have the same enzymes that are present in the tubes of toothpaste to support dental health but aren't quite as cumbersome and scary to your cat.
Some cats simply just aren't going to tolerate having their teeth brushed with a toothbrush, finger brush, or wipe- and that's perfectly okay! You can still provide dental care at home for your cat without this technique. There are also many dental treats and foods on the market. These dental food/treat options contain enzymes to support dental health and cut down on tartar and plaque formation.
There are also enzymatic water additives available. These are effective; however, most cats do not like the taste of them, and they cannot be added to your cat's water if they have a water fountain.
While all of these home dental care options are very effective for preventative care and treating stage 1 dental disease, more advanced stages require more aggressive intervention.
Dental care at the veterinarian
Dental disease stages 2-4 typically require a dental procedure at your local veterinarian. This process is comparable to human dental cleaning. However, cats aren't quite as compliant as humans, and they require general anesthesia to undergo this procedure.
Your veterinarian will recommend pre-anesthetic bloodwork to ensure your cat is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia.
During the procedure, your veterinarian will thoroughly clean your cat's teeth both below and above the gum line and polish the teeth to get all of the tartar and bacteria out of the mouth and prevent future.
Your veterinarian also performs a complete oral examination, probing the gumline for abnormalities and screening for masses, loose teeth, abscessed teeth, etc.
Full mouth dental x-rays are also typically taken to see if the teeth are healthy enough under the gum or if they need to be surgically extracted to remove infection/disease.
After a veterinary dental procedure, you can continue preventative dental care at home to continue to support your cat's oral health.
How often does my cat need a veterinary dental procedure?
A: This is dependent upon each individual cat. Some cats have a genetic predisposition to more severe dental disease and may need a dental procedure every 6-12 months; Some cats only need one every 3-4 years.
Keeping up with dental care at home is very important in attempting to prevent or prolong the time between dental procedures.
Will my cat be okay if he/she needs extractions?
Absolutely! Your veterinarian will only recommend teeth are extracted if they are causing harm to your pet by being in the mouth. Diseased teeth can be very painful and lead to systemic diseases and infection.
Even if the mouth is thoroughly cleaned, the diseased teeth need to be removed to prevent the rapid recurrence of severe dental disease. Most of the time, your cat will feel so much better once those painful, diseased teeth are removed.
Some cat owners report that their senior cats start acting like kittens again after the procedure. Amazingly, cats can still eat hard food even if all of their teeth are removed (but oftentimes, soft food is recommended as an alternative)!
Your cat’s oral health is very important and influential to your cat’s overall health. There are many ways you can care for your cat’s oral health at home, however, sometimes if advanced enough, your cat may need a veterinary dental procedure.
There are many options for at home dental care- it may take some trial and error to work out which option works best for you and your kitty.
Article by Dr. Kimberly Couch 👩⚕️