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Tooth and gum disease in cats

Black cat on white background

Overview

  • Dental (tooth and gum) disease is a very common problem in cats, especially as they get older.
  • Dental problems are often very painful and left without treatment, can cause problems such as kidney disease and heart disease.
  • Most cats continue to eat even when they are in pain, so it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of a problem.
  • As well as checking your cat at home, they should have their mouth checked by your vet at least once a year (at their vaccination).
  • Tooth brushing, tooth gels and special diets can help keep your cat’s mouth healthy.
  • Book an appointment with your vet if you notice any problems with your cat’s mouth.

General information

The UK is a nation of cat lovers, but none of us like our feline friends to have bad breath! Unfortunately, dental disease is a common problem in pet cats, especially as they get older. This is mostly due to a lack of tooth brushing but can also be caused by:

  • Age – dental disease is much more common in older cats due to wear and tear throughout life.
  • Diet – an inappropriate diet can increase the chance of dental disease.
  • Breed – purebred cats such as Persian, Maine Coon, Burmese and Siamese are more likely to suffer from dental disease.
  • Retained baby teeth – if these baby teeth don’t fall out when they are supposed to (from around 3months), they can trap food and bacteria. Your vet might recommend removing retained baby teeth under anaesthetic if they are causing a problem.
Photo showing retained baby tooth in cat's mouth

If baby teeth don't fall out, they can trap food and bacteria.

Symptoms of dental disease in cats

Photo of tartar in a cat's mouth

Tartar is a sign that there is something wrong with your cat's teeth and gums.

When to contact your vet

Book an appointment with your vet if you suspect your cat has dental disease. Your vet will examine inside your cat’s mouth, which can be tricky to do at home! Contact your vet for an urgent appointment if your cat is unable to close his/her mouth, or is in too much pain to eat.

Plaque and tartar

Plaque is a build-up of saliva, food and bacteria on the teeth, it eventually turns into a hard, brown substance called tartar. Tartar causes gingivitis (painful, inflamed gums), tooth damage and is full of bacteria that can enter the blood and cause problems such as kidney disease and heart disease.

Illustration showing progression of gum disease

The progression of gum disease from plaque to tartar.

Feline resorptive lesions

Feline resorptive lesions (FORLs) are patches of tooth decay that develop along the gum line. FORLs are common and affect more than a third of pet cats at some point throughout their life. FORLs are painful and often cause teeth to break. Teeth with FORLs usually need removal.

Gingivitis

Gingivitis (inflamed gums), causes, red, painful, sensitive gums that bleed easily. Gingivitis is commonly caused by plaque and tartar build up but can also be caused by conditions such as Cat flu, FIV and FeLV. In severe cases, gingivitis can spread to the whole mouth, we call this gingivostomatitis.

 

Gingivostomatitis

Gingivostomatitis is severe a severe form of gingivitis that develops when the immune system overreacts to plaque, tartar and conditions such as Cat flu, FIV and FeLV.

Photo showing gingivitis in a cat

Gingivitis: notice the red line above the teeth.

Broken Teeth

Broken teeth are often very painful, especially if the inside of the tooth (that contains nerves) is exposed. Once a tooth is damaged, infections are much more likely to develop and it’s often necessary to remove it.

 

Tooth root abscesses

A tooth root abscess is a pocket of pus around a tooth root that forms when bacteria get underneath the gum. They are often very painful and cause a swelling on one side of the face just under the eye. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics and in many cases, the infected tooth will need to be removed.

Treatment

Treatment for dental disease depends on the specific problem, but may include:

  • Anti-inflammatories - to make your cat’s mouth more comfortable.
  • Antibiotics - are sometimes (but not always) necessary to fight infection.
  • Dental surgery - unlike a human, a cat won’t sit still and open their mouths for examination. The only way to safely clean or remove teeth is under an anaesthetic. If your cat needs teeth removed, don’t be alarmed – cats cope incredibly well with a few or no teeth. Better to have no teeth and no pain, than lots of unhealthy, painful teeth.
  • Cat mouthwash - which can be added to your cat’s drinking water to help keep their mouth clean. Never use human mouthwash!

Cost

Dental disease can cost several hundred pounds (this can vary a lot depending on the problem). Always speak to your vet if you can’t afford the treatment they have recommended because there may be another option.

We strongly recommend insuring your cat as soon as you get them so that you are covered for future problems. Always check if your insurance policy covers dental disease.

If you are struggling with veterinary fees, PDSA offers free or reduced cost treatment to eligible clients.

Outlook and prevention

  • Regular tooth brushing - we understand that brushing your cat’s teeth might be tricky, however, regular tooth brushing is by far the best way to prevent dental disease. The aim of brushing is to remove plaque before it turns into solid tartar. Speak to your vet or vet nurse if you aren’t able to brush your cat’s teeth, they will be able to give you some tips.
  • Diet - feed your cat a good quality diet that includes some biscuits that need chewing, not just soft or sugary human food.
  • Check-ups - regular dental check-ups with your vet will help prevent dental problems before they become serious. A good time for a check is at their yearly booster vaccination.  
Published: June 2020

PetWise Pet Health Hub – brought to you thanks to support from players of People’s Postcode Lottery 

Written by vets and vet nurses. This advice is for UK pets only.

Illustrations by Samantha Elmhurst