When it comes to hygiene, cats are a fastidious bunch, spending as much as a third of their waking hours on grooming―an instinctive activity that is in equal parts self-medication, stress relief, and socialization. But there is one area on a cat’s body that cannot be reached by even the most thorough of tongue baths: its mouth.
Responsibility for a feline’s oral health falls squarely on the shoulders of its owners, but the reality is that dental care is not always a priority for even the most affectionate of pet parents. “Many cat owners have no idea that dental check-ups and cleanings should be scheduled regularly,” says Dr. Esteban Aldrin Bisa of JurisVet Pet Emergency Clinic.
This casual albeit unintended disregard for oral health can lead to a host of conditions that cause much discomfort for cats: some due to structural defects, others originating from bacterial infection and tartar formation, but all wholly preventable. International Cat Care, a global charity advocating for improved feline welfare, estimates that “as many as 85% of cats aged three years and older have some sort of dental disease.”
Dr. Bisa, who also served as Animal Scene’s resource person for canine dental health, identifies overcrowding and the retention of milk teeth among the common cases that he has treated in his practice. “The overcrowding of teeth is common in flat faced cats. They have the same number of teeth as other breeds, but have a smaller space to fit all these teeth in.” Such breeds include short-nosed varieties like Persians or British Shorthairs, which have jawbones that are too small to accommodate an adult cat’s full set of 30 teeth.
A kitten’s milk teeth number 26 and―ideally―are pushed out when its adult teeth start to grow when the kitten reaches its sixth month. But this is not always the case, and the continued presence of milk teeth leads to adult teeth growing at an abnormal angle. Both overcrowding and milk teeth retention contribute to tooth misalignment―in humans, this condition is easily remedied by orthodontics, but necessitates extraction in felines. There are few difficulties associated with tooth extraction, but Dr. Bisa is cautious when subjecting very old cats to this procedure, because of anesthetic risk.
Correcting tooth misalignment is not merely a matter of aesthetics, but a preventive measure against periodontal disease. When correctly aligned, a cat’s teeth get a natural cleaning, thanks to the abrasive actions of chewing. Misaligned teeth tend to accumulate plaque, a film of bacteria that hardens into tartar and causes the inflammation of gums, or gingivitis, the third most common condition treated in Dr. Bisa’s clinic.
As with humans and canines, establishing an oral care routine at home minimizes plaque formation and the onset of periodontal disease in felines. “It is best that pets are trained as early as possible for them to accept this regular procedure,” notes Dr Bisa. “There are also commercially available dental diets and chew toys that aid in oral hygiene.”
The Veterinary Oral Health Council of the United States awards its Seal of Acceptance to diet and dental supplements that successfully meet its protocol for plaque or tartar retardation; a complete list can be accessed on its website.
Chew toys―or rather, the action it stimulates―helps in the removal of soft tartar and in massaging gums; some are laced with catnip to make it more appealing. PetMD.com also suggests substituting raw beef bones as a treat.
Cat owners can also take a cue from their pets and observe for any signs of discomfort, such as swollen gums, excessive drooling, difficulty chewing or even a lack of interest in grooming. When these red flags turn up, make sure to set an appointment at your friendly local vet to get your cat back on track to its purrfectly content existence.
Toothbrush Training 101
1) Get your cat used to the motions of having its teeth brushed. Gently massage its gums with your fingers or with a cotton swab.
2) Upon getting used to the routine, a cat must be acclimated to the taste of its toothpaste. Dab a small amount on your finger or cotton swab and proceed as before. If your cat does not positively respond to the taste, search for other formulations until you find one that suits.
3) Introduce the brushing implement. Cat toothbrushes are smaller in size than human toothbrushes and have softer bristles. There is also a wearable variant, which can be placed on the pet owner’s finger for easy maneuverability.
4) The length of training depends on your cat’s temperament, but it generally takes daily sessions from one to two months for a cat to get used to an oral care routine.
Note: The American Veterinary Dental College advises against using toothpaste formulated for humans, since these contain abrasives and high foaming agents that are harmful when ingested by cats. It strongly suggests the use of chlorhexidine oral rinses or gels, which have been proven to be the most effective anti-plaque antiseptic for pets.
(Adapted from “Ten Steps to Dental Health” by The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals,” https://www.aspca.org/pet-care/cat-care/ten-steps-dental-health)
What is Tooth Resporption?
Tooth resorption is one of the leading causes of teeth loss in cats. It occurs in cats of all ages, but its frequency and effects increase exponentially as the cat grows older.
Its underlying cause is currently unknown, but its identifying symptom is the presence of lesions that cause the enamel of teeth to erode and be reabsorbed. It usually affects the back molar and pre-molar teeth in a symmetrical fashion. The resorptive process cannot be disrupted, and any affected teeth must be extracted. See your vet immediately if you observe the following symptoms in your cat: head shaking, excessive drooling and discomfort, red inflamed tissue along the gum line, and teeth that “chatter” when touched.
(Adapted from “Veterinary Guides 14: Teeth and Oral Health,” a primer developed by Cats Protection, the UK’s leading feline welfare charity http://www.cats.org.uk/documents/cat-care-leaflets-2013-vg14teethandoralhealth)
JurisVet Pet Emergency ClinicGen. Luna St., Brgy. Sabang, Lipa City, Batangas
Smart: 0998.982.5203 / Globe: 0927.561.6998 / Emergency Numbers (24hrs): (043) 706.0365 / 0905.318.1656
This appeared in Animal Scene’s June 2015 issue.