Cat’s teeth are generally a subject we don’t think about much. As long as the cat’s teeth aren’t imbedded in your arm, most people are content to assume all is well. It isn’t often that your cat gives you a toothy smile so you can take a look at her teeth. Sometimes you can smell bad breath on a cat to help clue you in that there might be a problem, but often there are no obvious signs that your cat has mouth pain from diseased teeth. Cat’s teeth are mainly designed for puncturing and slashing small rodents and they don’t do much chewing. So even with a painful tooth, they can usually get dry kibble down their throat.
But cats do develop dental problems, often at just a few years of age. When you take your cat in for his yearly wellness exam, your veterinarian should be examining all the teeth for problems. By age 2 or 3 years, cats can have noticeable tartar on their teeth. This will appear as a brownish yellow color, most often on the upper premolars.
Gingivitis, or redness and inflammation of the gumline, follows. Gingivitis eventually gives way to gum recession and bone loss, which leads to loose and lost teeth.
There is another common tooth disease in cats that occurs even without tartar buildup. This is a resorptive lesion and is sort of like a cavity into the side of the tooth. First there is just some enamel loss, but then the hole opens into the root canal. At this point the lesion is very painful as the nerve is involved. It may look like the gum is growing up the side of the tooth or just like a very red area. If touched with a fingernail or probe, the cat’s lower jaw will often “chatter,” even under anesthesia, because of the pain. The lesion continues through to the other side of the tooth and eventually the crown of the tooth breaks off. The root, under the gum line, eventually is resorbed into the bone.
Studies have shown over 50% of adult cats develop tooth resorption. One of the most common teeth affected is the first upper and lower premolars. It is worthwhile to look at your cat’s teeth on a regular basis to look for these resorptive lesions. Because they are painful, it can make you cat less active and a little more cranky–signs that are often attributed to “growing older.”
You can see the inflamed area at the bottom of the tooth.
Sometimes the area over the lesion isn’t bright red, but just looks like gum growing onto the tooth.
If you see a resorptive lesion, your cat needs to have that tooth extracted, rather than waiting for it to break off on its own. Would you want to have mouth pain for months?
Not all resorptive lesions can be detected visually, which is why dental radiographs are so important. Dental x-rays show us what is going on under the gum line. They are also very helpful in determining how best to treat a tooth with a resorptive lesion. Sometimes the root has already started to be resorbed by the bone; these teeth just need a “crown amputation” rather than having the roots extracted. This is a much easier procedure for both the cat and the veterinarian.
Without an x-ray, I would have tried to extract a non-existent root, causing more pain and trauma to the kitty than he needed (or deserved!)
It is still unclear as to why resorptive lesions occur. Some might be due to inflammation against the bacteria in the mouth, so brushing your cat’s teeth could be helpful. Hopefully further research will give us better ways to prevent these painful lesions, but until we know more, brushing offers the best protection.
Here is a good video to get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=w4MExTRD3L0
Good luck and good breath!