Cats accumulate plaque on their teeth just like we do, and if not removed, it hardens to form tartar, which irritates the gums causing gingivitis and can ultimately lead to tooth loss. Bacteria build-up in your cat's mouth can lead to further complications such as heart and kidney issues.
Fortunately, the most common forms of dental disease in cats are preventable or treatable.
Gingivitis is when the gums around the teeth become red, swollen and painful. The build-up of plaque (the film that contains bacteria) is generally the cause of gingivitis. Gingivitis may also be causes by infectious or systemic diseases, such as feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline calicivirus, severe kidney disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease. When one of these systemic diseases is present, the cat may also have inflammation or sores in other parts of the pink mucous lining of the mouth, a condition known as stomatitis. When gingivitis is not controlled, it can lead to periodontitis, which may lead to loose teeth and tooth loss.
Tooth resorption is when the structure of the tooth breaks down from the inside. Tooth resorption is the most common cause of tooth loss in cats and cause of resorption is not known and it may or may not be associated with gingivitis. Tooth resorption can be very painful, and in some cases can be managed and in others, the tooth will need to be removed.
How to Know When There is a Problem
Your cat's breath is a good indicator of its mouth health. Start smelling your cat's breath now so you get a baseline of what healthy breath smells like for your cat - because just like people, everyone's breath smells a little different. If your cat's breath starts smelling bad, you should get a dental exam as soon as possible, as this likely indicates bacteria is brewing and possibly advanced dental disease. You should also look into your cat's mouth regularly and check for cracked or broken teeth, redness in the gums, or visible tarter on the teeth.
Behavioral changes can also indicate dental issues. If your cat stops eating, suddenly becomes finicky about food, is drooling, or turning his head to the side when chewing, he could be experiencing pain in his mouth as he eats and associating that with the flavor/texture of the food. Dental pain can also be the source of intercat aggression and other unwanted behaviors.
What You Can Do About It
Brushing - Start brushing your cat's teeth when they are young. Even when you do, cats often resist teeth brushing. There are small finger-sized brushes made specifically for cats' mouths. Luckily there are other products on the market now that are easier to administer.
Oral Hygiene Gels - Talk to your vet about oral hygiene gels that contain enzymes which inhibit bacteria that cause plaque formation. You can apply these gels directly to the teeth or mix with food or tuna juice.
Water Additives - There are also new water additive products on the market - I have not tried any of these and can't attest to their long-term effectiveness.
Dental Chews - There are several dental chews available on the market - just be sure to include those calories into the daily intake of your cat's diet. I don't recommend dry food diets to prevent and remove plaque because they also cause dehydration, which can lead to serious medical issues.
Raw Chicken Bones - You can give your cat raw chicken bones to chew on to remove plaque. The raw bone doesn't splinter (cooked ones do, so don't give those to your cat) and your cat will enjoy gnawing the meat and
If you see any signs of dental issues, take your cat to the vet right away.
Dental work on your cat can be quite expensive. Prevention is the best way to avoid these diseases and costs, but should your cat have dental issues, pet insurance plans can help with veterinary expenses. This Old House conducted a review of pet insurance plans to help cat owners better understand coverage and cost of different plans.