Is my cat healthy? Part one: dental health
Welcome to the first part of our series, Is my cat healthy?
We're starting with the mouth – what to look out for in your cat’s dental health; how to check for dental problems in cats; and why it's important for your cat to say ‘Aaah’ every once in a while.
Studies show that up to 90% of cats older than four years of age suffer from some form of dental disease(1). Home care and monitoring play a vital role in both prevention and treatment of the most common types of dental disease. That’s where you come in, and we're here to help.
My cat won’t let me check its mouth
First and foremost, not all cats will be keen to have their mouth checked. In that case, you’ll have to rely on routine vet checks for full mouth examinations. However, even with these cats, there are signs you can look out for which suggest a problem. These include smelly breath, drooling, rubbing the face, pawing at the mouth or reluctance to eat. If your cat shows any of these behaviours, be sure to go for a check up at the vet sooner rather than later.
How do I check my cat’s mouth?
For cats that are a little more cooperative, practice and patience are key. Most cats can learn to have their mouths examined at home, as long as you’re consistent and take your time. To examine the mouth properly, you need to be able to fully open the mouth, so that you can see the tongue, palate, gums and teeth. The easiest way to do this is by gently tilting your cat's head upwards and then putting slight pressure on the bottom teeth to open the jaw. For a clear explanation of this, check out our blog on How To Pill A Cat.
What am I looking for?
The saying goes, ‘Don't look a gift horse in the mouth,’ and that's probably because the mouth offers a lot of information about general health and potential problems. And we mean, a lot.
We're going to split the mouth examination into the tongue and palate, the gums, and the teeth.
The Tongue and Palate
The main things you want to look out for here are ulcers. These are small, eroded areas: usually red and sometimes quite painful. Ulcers can be a sign of kidney disease or viral infections, and shouldn't be ignored. If you see an ulcer in your cat's mouth, it's a good idea to take them for a check up at the vet. The next step will most likely be blood tests to see if anything is going on systemically to cause the ulcer.
The medical term for the gums is the gingiva, and gingivitis refers to inflammation of the gums. Gingivitis is unfortunately quite a common problem, and because there’s a genetic component, some cats can be more predisposed to it.
Poor oral hygiene is one of the main contributing factors. Plaque, a film containing bacteria, can settle on the gumline, and eventually harden to form calculus. Calculus, unlike plaque, cannot be removed by regular brushing. The bacteria contained in calculus and plaque can trigger the immune system which results in gingivitis. Cats with crowded teeth tend to accumulate calculus more easily and so this predisposes them to gingivitis.
Gingivitis looks like red and swollen areas where the gumline meets the teeth. It’s a painful condition, so cats suffering from it are often very reluctant to have their mouths touched. This is unfortunate because teeth brushing in these cats can be very helpful in slowing the progression of gum disease. Cats with severe gingivitis usually require more frequent dentals and sometimes even removal of affected teeth to try and control pain and inflammation of the gums.
Gingivitis can also be associated with systemic diseases such as feline viruses, kidney disease and diabetes, so your vet may want to run some tests to check for these. Gingivitis can progress to a condition known as periodontitis, which is when the gums start to recede away from the teeth, exposing the tooth roots.
The colour of the gums is also a good indicator of your cat's health. Get to know the usual colour of your cat's gums, as there is a slight variation between individuals. Normal gums are pink and moist. If your cat's gums are pale or tinged with blue or yellow, this is a sign that immediate veterinary attention is needed. Similarly, if the gums feel tacky or dry, that can be an indication of a problem such as dehydration.
The most commonly seen problem in cat teeth is tooth resorption: a process where the structure of the tooth breaks down. Right now, the reason is unknown, but it’s seen as a defect in the tooth at the gumline, which can grow and eventually result in loss of the tooth. It’s a very painful condition and often affected teeth will need to be removed.
Other problems of the teeth include broken or cracked teeth; or calculus buildup, which can’t be removed by simply brushing.
What do I need to do to protect my cat from dental disease?
Regular brushing is the best way you can protect your cat from dental disease. Luckily for you, we’ve also put together a blog on how to brush your cat’s teeth, full of handy tips and advice.
If you suspect that your cat has developed dental disease, it's best to take them for a check up at the vet. They’ll examine your cat with particular attention to the mouth, and may perform X-rays and blood tests. If needed, they’ll advise a dental. This involves giving your cat an anaesthetic so that the teeth can be properly scaled and cleaned. Sometimes, in severe cases, teeth may need to be extracted. Cats that have had teeth removed tend to do much better than you might think. They’re able to eat normally, particularly if it’s softer foods like KatKin rather than dry food, and they’re often much more comfortable because the pain has been relieved.
Dental disease in cats can cause severe pain and discomfort, seriously impacting your cat’s quality of life. In severe cases, it can cause cats to stop eating, which obviously has its own consequences. Fortunately, checking your cat's mouth regularly can help you to prevent and manage the progression of disease.
We hope this helps, and don’t forget that you can revisit this blog whenever you’re checking your cat’s mouth, to help you remember what you’re looking for. If you’ve got any queries or worries, get in touch with your vet, but our in-house vets are always here for you too at firstname.lastname@example.org – or in our Ask A Vet Anything sessions on our Instagram @katkin.club. And of course, check back soon for the next instalment of Is my cat healthy?
Cornell University. (2017). Feline dental disease. Cornell Feline Health Center. Retrieved October 30, 2021, from: https://www.vet.cornell.edu/departments-centers-and-institutes/cornell-feline-health-center/health-information/feline-health-topics/feline-dental-disease