Between 50% and 90% of cats older than 4 years of age have some form of dental disease, which can result in pain, tooth loss, and infection. Despite their dental disease pain, many cats show few or no signs that indicate their problem, because they are programmed to hide pain. Some dental disease forms are preventable with regular at-home care that reduces oral bacteria and buildup, while others can occur spontaneously, regardless of home care regimen. 

The Just Cats Clinic team believes dental health is an overlooked, yet vital part of your cat’s overall care. In honor of February’s National Pet Dental Health Month, we’re sharing the basics about feline dental disease. 

Cat dental disease types

Several oral and dental conditions occur commonly in cats, each with a different cause but similar treatments. Those types include:

  • Periodontal disease — Periodontal disease starts with a buildup of plaque and bacteria on the teeth. The plaque hardens over time into tartar, which continues to build up and can irritate the gum line. The bacteria then invade the gums, and an inflammatory response results in red, bleeding, sore tissue (i.e., gingivitis). Left untreated, the bacteria continue to multiply and invade deep into the tooth roots and jaw bones, sending the immune system into overdrive and damaging the tissue further. The end result is tooth root abscesses, bone loss, tooth loss, and possible systemic infections that travel from the mouth to the heart, kidneys, or liver.
  • Resorptive lesions — Resorptive lesions can occur in any cat, with or without concurrent periodontal disease. Their cause is unknown, but they are the leading cause of tooth loss in cats, with 30% to 70% affected at some point. When resorption occurs, the body essentially eats the tooth from the inside out, which commonly causes significant pain. Red spots on teeth at the gum line are the hallmark sign. 
  • Stomatitis—Stomatitis is the term for inflammation inside the mouth, which causes red, inflamed gums and oral mucosa, along with painful ulcers. Cats with stomatitis often refuse to eat, because chewing is so painful, and then lose weight. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), feline calicivirus, and immune system disorders are common causes, but the cause is not always identified.

Cat dental disease signs

Unless their pain is severe, most cats with dental disease show few or no signs of pain or discomfort. Cats who do show signs may display the following:

  • Bad breath
  • Awkward chewing
  • Drooling
  • Refusal to eat or preference for soft food
  • Jaw chattering 

Cat dental disease treatment

Specific dental disease treatment depends on the underlying cause, but almost always starts with an anesthetized professional dental cleaning and examination performed by your veterinary team. During the dental procedure, your cat’s teeth are cleaned and polished, intraoral X-rays are taken to identify any tooth resorption or other concerning root problems, and diseased teeth are extracted to remove the associated pain and infection. All cats are screened and evaluated prior to the procedure to ensure they are healthy enough to undergo general anesthesia, and we customize the drug protocol to each individual cat. After the dental cleaning, cats may go home with pain medications or antibiotics, depending on their specific treatments.

Cats with stomatitis generally do not have significant plaque or tartar, but they may have an exaggerated immune response to minimal bacteria that are normally not harmful. Treatment for severe cases involves complete extraction of all teeth. Although this sounds extreme, affected cats are much more comfortable once the source of inflammation and pain is removed.

Cat dental disease prevention

Although resorptive lesions do not seem less likely in cats who receive regular oral care, other dental diseases respond well to products designed to reduce plaque, tartar, and bacteria in the mouth. The best way to prevent dental disease is once-daily toothbrushing, which may seem intimidating at first, but your cat may surprise you. Try this protocol to slowly introduce toothbrushing to your cat, but if you feel brushing would endanger you or be too stressful for your cat, you can try other products. The Veterinary Oral Health Council maintains a list of products that are proven safe and effective, or your veterinarian can recommend a product they feel will work best for your pet.

Dental disease is a common cause of pain in cats, but they often hide their discomfort until disease becomes advanced. An annual or biannual veterinary visit is the best way to detect dental disease early, when treatment is most effective to slow disease progression. Contact us to schedule a visit with the Just Cats Clinic team if your cat is due for their annual examination or you have seen dental disease signs.