The growth pattern and structure of our teeth are very similar to those of cats. Soon after birth, a full set of temporary or deciduous teeth are produced in the same way as children have milk teeth. Owners often describe them as ‘sharp needles’, and their shape differs from the permanent teeth which grow through to replace them between the ages of four and six months. Your cat’s permanent teeth have to last the lifetime of your pet. In the wild, loss of these teeth would result in sub-optimal nutrition or even starvation. Most people brush their teeth twice daily, and dentists would encourage ‘flossing’ as well. If we don’t do this then tartar, plaque and eventually mouth disease occur. Our breath smells, our mouth tastes dreadful, and pain occurs. Cats are no different. In the wild state, they would hunt and chew on fur and bone – nature’s toothbrush. Modern tinned food is soft and even dry foods just crumble on the ‘table’ of the tooth and have little benefit at the gum margins where the disease occurs. This leaves food deposits in the crevices between teeth and gums acting as a nutrient for bacteria to thrive in, for plaque and then tartar to develop and finally for tooth decay. Tartar is a mixture of food, cellular debris, mineral salts and bacteria which is deposited on and around teeth, which with time causes gum recession, tooth root exposure, gingivitis tooth loosening and eventual loss. It is possible to halt this process by adopting the following preventative measures.
Diet is an important area where you could help your cat. Hard crunchy foods tend to be better for the teeth than soft ones although there is nothing wrong with feeding a proportion of a soft tinned or flat pack food. Food that we have seen excellent results in is a dried food with an over-sized kibble with a flat upper and lower surface. This makes the kibble ‘sit’ between the teeth in a set plane which can only be crunched from one direction. Each kibble has a fibre lattice laid inside it. As the cat bites, the teeth go through the fibre which acts like a toothbrush. Cats on at least 50% of this product appear to have significantly cleaner teeth than those who are not. Nutritionally it is geared to middle-aged and older cats.
Go and see your veterinarian and discuss what level of treatment is available. The first stage is to remove tartar and plaque using an ultrasonic scaler, and the teeth must be polished afterwards. This improves dental health by minutely cleaning the surface and slowing re-deposition of tartar. Teeth with dental caries and neck lesions are often best removed in cats. If tooth roots are very exposed, these teeth may need to be removed as well.
There are many different forms of mouth disease. Infection of the gums (gingivitis) may warrant a course of antibiotics, which your veterinarian may prescribe. However, mouth disease may represent more severe disease problems. If caught early by your veterinarian, rectifying procedures can be put in place. Cats, in particular, are prone to viral infections such as Calici Virus and Feline Immunodeficiency Virus. Cats with kidney disease or diabetes may have foul smelling infected mouths. Occasionally we may see cats with tumours and cancer of the mouth. Early diagnosis is essential. A critical area to be aware of is referred disease from primary mouth disease. Cats with gingivitis are a reservoir of infection which allows bacteria to ‘float’ around the blood system where they can affect important organs served by this blood supply. This can result in kidney disease.
The message we hope we can pass to all pet owners is that if in doubt about mouth health, visit your vet. If your cat has tartar and plaque get the teeth cleaned and then make sure that a simple regimen of dental care and hygiene is put into place. Better still, don’t let your pet’s mouth get into a condition where veterinary dental treatment is necessary.