Written by: Judy Karnia, DVM
Have you ever actually looked at your cat’s teeth? When they are yawning, you might glimpse their teeth but probably not get a great look. Believe it or not, dental disease is one of the most common diseases in cats. Sure, obesity and kidney disease are fairly common, but 70% of cats by age two have some form of dental disease. Even worse, there may be hidden dental diseases that is causing your cat pain you are unaware of.
How Does Dental Disease Start in Cats?
Like most disease processes, dental disease is progressive. It starts with plaque formation. Plaque is a biofilm, which is an accumulation of bacteria on a surface. After a brushing or dental cleaning, plaque forms within 24 hours! If you don’t get that plaque off the teeth right away, three days later tartar begins to form. If that tartar is left on the teeth, gingivitis starts to develop within three weeks. Gingivitis is a common type of periodontal disease (infection of the gums) where there is inflammation of the gums. Bleeding of the gums with brushing or chewing can be the first sign of gingivitis. Without treatment, gingivitis quickly progresses to visible redness of the gums. This quick progression of dental disease is good to know because if your cat has a dental cleaning and you aren’t doing anything for the teeth at home, a month later your cat could already have gingivitis!
Your veterinarian can help with dental health.
Dental cleanings under general anesthesia are important for your cat for multiple reasons. We strongly advise clients to steer away from anesthesia-free dental cleanings as this method can cause more harm than good.
- During a dental cleaning, we are able to take dental radiographs which allow us to visualize the portion of the tooth below the gumline (the root). This is important because one-half to two-thirds of the tooth is below the gum! Without dental radiographs, we are not able to assess the health of the root. If the root is losing its attachments to the surrounding bone, developing an abscess, dead, or being resorbed into the surrounding bone, the tooth will need to be treated via extraction or amputation of the crown (part of the tooth above the gum) depending on the disease present.
- There is a small pocket between the gum and the tooth that can accumulate tartar and plaque. This subgingival plaque must be cleaned off the tooth, and this can only be done under general anesthesia. If periodontal disease has progressed, this pocket can grow in size, indicating that the tooth may need to be extracted.
- Your cat doesn’t understand why we are cleaning her teeth and the importance of it. Non-anesthetic dental cleanings can be incredibly stressful for your cat, not to mention the fact that dental radiographs and subgingival plaque cleanings cannot be performed. Anesthesia-free dentistry is considered a welfare issue by the World Small Animal Veterinary Association and is not recommended.
- After extracting any necessary teeth, cleaning off all tartar and plaque, and noting any abnormalities that need to be treated, your cat’s teeth are then polished thoroughly to help smooth the tooth surface and slow the progression of plaque buildup.
Dental cleanings under anesthesia are a necessary part of your cat’s veterinary treatment. Without adequate dental home care, many owners can expect their cats to need dental cleanings every year or two. Even if your cat only has mild tartar buildup present or no tartar but visible gingivitis, dental cleanings under anesthesia are usually necessary to help get the gums and teeth back into good health before the disease progresses to a later stage where the roots can become affected and need treatment. Taking care of your cat’s teeth at home through brushing, chews, treats, and rinses is the first step in slowing the progression of dental disease. However, once gingivitis develops, a dental cleaning under anesthesia is necessary to get your cat’s mouth back in good health. Talk to your veterinarian about what is the best course for your feline family. By taking care of your cat’s dental health, you can help keep your kitty healthy and happy!