Bad breath in cats is a common cat owner complaint. Although cat bad breath seems relatively harmless, it is usually a symptom of more severe feline dental disease occurring in your cat's mouth. The most common dental diseases affecting cats include periodontal disease, tooth resorption and stomatitis.
What is Feline Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease in cats is one of the most common and serious cat health problems—affecting approximately 70% of cats by the time they are 3 years old. Periodontal disease is an infection caused by bacteria found in dental plaque. Without regular cleaning, plaque builds up and minerals in the saliva harden it into tartar that is very firmly attached to the teeth. Although owners may see tartar above the gum line, this is not what causes cat periodontal disease. It is when tartar starts digging into and under the gums that bacteria become trapped and start a vicious cycle of infection and damage to the supporting tissues around the tooth.
Plaque is a soft film of bacteria and food debris that accumulates every day and sticks to the surface of a cat’s teeth. The mechanical forces of brushing easily remove plaque. If plaque is removed daily, a cat’s teeth and gums will stay healthy.
If plaque remains stuck on the surfaces of the teeth, minerals found in a cat’s saliva will harden this plaque into dental calculus—called tartar—which is firmly attached to the teeth.
When tartar starts to dig into and below the gum tissue, the gums become red, irritated and inflamed, resulting in a condition called gingivitis. Once tartar has dug into the gum line and created gingivitis, plaque bacteria are constantly being introduced below the gum line that results in varying degrees of gum infection.
Plaque bacteria below the gum line secrete toxic substances that cause further tissue damage. These bacteria, as well as the inflammation and tissue damage they cause, often stimulate a cat’s immune system. The immune system brings in white blood cells and other inflammatory chemicals to try to destroy the bacterial invaders. Unfortunately many of the supporting soft and bony tissues of the tooth are damaged in this process—a condition called periodontitis.
Tooth root abscess
Once periodontal disease is established and there is active gingivitis and periodontitis, bacteria can gain deep access to the roots of the teeth. The bacteria are capable of slowly destroying the root of the tooth and its attachment to the jaw that deprives the root and tooth of its vital blood supply. This results in death of the affected tissue and again the immune system calls a tremendous number of white blood cells to the area that results in an accumulation of white blood cells—called pus or an abscess. Unfortunately the immune system has a very difficult time ridding itself of deep bone infection—called osteomyelitis—and usually surgical intervention by a veterinarian is required. Tooth root abscesses most commonly affect the large premolar teeth and a cat will often present with a painful soft swelling directly under the eye.
Loss of teeth
In these advanced forms of periodontal disease where the deep attachments of the teeth are lost, teeth will fall out or require removal because they are loose and causing difficulty eating and/or pain.
Organ damage from feline periodontal disease
In addition to local damage in the mouth, periodontal disease may also result in widespread organ damage. Organ damage from periodontal disease occurs when bacteria from the infected tooth roots and gums gain access to the blood stream (a condition called bacteremia).
What is Tooth Resorption?
This condition is caused by a gradual destruction of a tooth or teeth. The destruction progresses from the outside of a tooth at the gum line to the center of the tooth that exposes nerve endings—resulting in significant pain. Affected teeth often appear as though the gum tissue is growing over the tooth or that there is a hole in the tooth. Removal of affected teeth is the only treatment, however, it can prove difficult as these teeth are fragile and often splinter during the process of removal.
What is Feline Stomatitis?
Stomatitis is severe inflammation and ulceration of the soft tissues within a cat’s mouth. It often affects gums, cheek tissue and tissues at the back of the mouth. The condition is caused by an over-active immune system reacting to the bacteria found within dental plaque. Although some cats respond to medical treatment and meticulous oral hygiene, most cats require removal of most or all of the teeth to experience relief from this painful condition.
What are the signs your cat may have dental disease?
- Bad breath
- Tooth discoloration or visible tartar
- Difficulty eating
- Pawing at the teeth or mouth
- Loose or missing teeth
- Red, swollen or bleeding gums
- Weight loss
It's More than just bad breath
Risk Factors for dental disease in cats
The most common risk factor for dental disease is a lack of adequate teeth cleaning by cat owners. Daily tooth brushing is as important as regular professional cleanings performed by veterinarians. In fact, unless cat owners perform regular teeth cleaning at home, periodontal disease and other conditions may progress regardless of the care provided by veterinarians.
Kittens with retained deciduous teeth (also known as primary teeth, baby teeth, milk teeth, or kitten teeth) may be at increased risk for the development of periodontal disease. Cats who chew on hard objects or synthetic chew toys may also be prone to tooth damage that may result in periodontal disease. Some chronic medical conditions such as Diabetes may increase a cat’s risk for periodontal disease. If your adult or senior cat is affected by a chronic condition ask your vet about the best way to maintain his dental health.
How can you prevent dental disease
in your cat?
The key to management of dental disease in cats is prevention. As long as the surfaces of the teeth are cleaned frequently and plaque is effectively removed daily, the gums will stay healthy. Prevention requires both at-home brushing as well as regular professional veterinary dental cleanings.
For best results, tooth brushing should start when your cat is a kitten. Young kittens will easily adapt to teeth cleaning at home. As cats age and develop tooth and gum disease, there may be pain associated with brushing and they may be less willing to allow brushing. If your cat is completely unwilling to allow brushing, there are dental wipes that can help control plaque when rubbed twice daily against the teeth and gums.
In addition to daily tooth brushing, your cat will require annual dental cleanings by their veterinarian. Professional cat teeth cleanings should begin at 1 year of age to prevent periodontal disease from occurring.