What To Know About Dental Disease in Cats

Aimee Labbate
  • Aimee Labbate

  • RCVS: 700039


Dental (tooth and gum) disease is common in cats as they get older, with up to 85% of cats over three years having some form of dental disease. It can cause significant pain and discomfort and if left untreated it can also potentially lead to other problems with the kidneys and heart. Purebred cats e.g. Siamese, Burmese, Maine Coons seem especially prone to dental disease.

What causes dental disease in cats?

The first stage of dental disease is typically the build-up of plaque on the teeth – this is a film on the teeth containing saliva, bacteria and food. While it is easy to remove via brushing (which is why we brush our teeth twice a day), if it is not removed quickly enough (within 3-5 days) it turns into a brown, hard substance called tartar or calculus. This is much more difficult to remove and can cause your cat’s gums to become inflamed, resulting in a painful condition called gingivitis. The gums start to look red and swollen at the margin where they meet the teeth and can be prone to bleeding. Your cat’s breath will also start to smell as the plaque and tartar build up.

If gingivitis is left untreated it can cause a more serious form of gum disease – periodontal disease. This is where the connection between the jaw and the tooth is gradually broken down, resulting in a pocket forming around the tooth and eventually the tooth will become wobbly and fall out. You may notice gum (gingival) recession where the level of the gum moves down in relation to the tooth. The periodontal pocket around the tooth provides an entry point for bacteria to get down to the root area, potentially causing a tooth root abscess. Abscesses are painful and cause facial swelling. Bacteria can also enter via a broken tooth if the pulp is exposed, so your vet may recommend that a tooth is extracted if it is broken.

While dental disease becomes more common as cats get older, some cats develop severe dental disease at a relatively young age. This may be due to certain viruses (e.g. cat flu, FeLV, FIV) that can cause a very severe form of gingivitis that can be very painful. Sometimes this inflammation also affects other areas of the mouth and is then called gingivostomatitis. This condition can be difficult to manage and may require various types of medication to try and reduce the inflammation, and multiple teeth may need to be extracted.

It is important to note that cats sometimes get a juvenile gingivitis around 5 months of age when the adult teeth are erupting. This will normally settle down in 4-6 weeks but please speak to your vet if you are concerned.

Cats can also develop a specific type of dental disease called feline resorptive lesions (FRLs) – these are common in both younger and older cats and appear to have a genetic basis. An FRL is a hole that forms in the tooth itself, and they are commonly found around the gumline, but can be difficult to spot. The hole means that there is exposure of the nerves in the centre of the tooth and hence they are very painful. This hole is not formed by tooth decay and so fillings do not work – the affected tooth needs to be removed.

What are the symptoms of dental disease in cats?

The symptoms tend to come on gradually and are not always obvious, especially because it can be very difficult to check your cat’s teeth. Cats will usually carry on eating until their dental disease is extremely advanced. Often, subtle behavioural changes will occur first and these are commonly put down to the cat getting older and ‘grumpier’. 

Symptoms of dental disease include:

  • Bad breath
  • Tartar and sore gums
  • Difficulty eating – eating slowly, chewing on one side only, dropping food from the mouth
  • Preference for soft food
  • Loss of appetite
  • Pawing or rubbing at the mouth
  • Wobbly teeth
  • Bleeding from the mouth (you may notice blood on chews or toys)
  • Drooling
  • Swollen face (normally under the eye on affected side)
  • Weight loss

Remember that dental disease can be very painful for your cat, so if you have any concerns about their dental health then please speak to your vet.

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How is dental disease in cats diagnosed?

Your vet will examine your cat’s mouth and will diagnose dental disease based on the appearance of their teeth and gums. They can discuss with you the severity of the changes present and therefore the best way to treat them and hopefully prevent worsening of the dental disease, making your cat more comfortable.

How is dental disease in cats treated?

If there is a build-up of tartar on the teeth then your vet is likely to recommend that they are cleaned under general anaesthetic. We use special ultrasonic descaling equipment to remove this hard substance that is stuck to your cat’s teeth. The cat needs to be asleep to keep them still and so that we can protect the airway, given the large amount of water that we need to use in the mouth. Once the teeth are clean, they are then polished to smooth the surface.

When your cat is asleep the vet will also assess all the teeth to see if any need to be removed. If an FRL is identified or if there is advanced periodontal disease or broken teeth, then the vet is likely to suggest that the affected teeth are extracted. Dental x-rays can often be taken if needed.

Your vet may prescribe pain relief and antibiotics if they feel your cat is in need of these.

How can I help to prevent dental disease in cats?

As with most things, prevention is better than cure when it comes to dental disease. There are various ways to help reduce the build-up of plaque and tartar on your cat’s teeth. These include:

  • Daily tooth brushing
    • Just like with us, the best way to keep your cat’s teeth clean is through daily tooth brushing to remove plaque before it has the chance to calcify into tartar, although we recognise that this may be difficult especially with some cats!
    • Use a special toothbrush and toothpaste (do not use human toothpaste as this can contain ingredients that are dangerous for your cat). Finger brushes may be best avoided with cats, due to the risk of being bitten!
    • You can buy toothbrushes and toothpaste from our shop by following this link.
  • Dental chews and toys
    • Encouraging your dog to chew on dental treats and toys can help to reduce the plaque on their teeth, just be careful to make sure they are a suitable size for your cat and ideally vet approved. Avoid hard chews, bones and stones, as these may break your cat’s teeth.
    • We have various ones available here in our shop. You can be safe in the knowledge that all of our products have been selected by vets.
  • Dental diet
    • Feeding a dry rather than wet can help to keep the teeth clean.
    • Certain dry diets have also been specifically designed to help clean your cat’s teeth as they crunch on the biscuits. They can be fed as a complete diet.
    • Some are available in our shop by following this link.
  • Regular check ups
    • Your cat should ideally have regular vet check-ups– this will help to pick up dental problems earlier, before they are causing significant discomfort and when they are likely to be easier to deal with.

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