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February is National Pet Dental Health Month. Learn why cat dental care is so important and see pictures of a cat dental procedure.

This before-and-after photo of Bella’s mouth shows just why cat dental care is so important. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

February is National Pet Dental Health Month, so this is a great time for a post about the importance of dental care in keeping our feline friends healthy. In a great example of serendipity, Bella just happened to have a dental last week, and the folks at my vet hospital, Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center, kindly took tons of photos so I can share them with you. While I do so, though, I’m going to tell you why cat dental care is not something you should neglect and what happens when your cat has a dental.

Scaling and polishing the teeth are part of cat dental care.

A technician scales and polishes Bella’s teeth. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

Your cat most likely has dental disease. No, really.

For a long time, most people, and even most vets didn’t think about cat dental care. It was just a natural thing if your cat lost or broke a tooth–no big deal, right? Well, not so much. By the time cats are four years old, between 50 and 90 percent have some form of dental disease. But your cat isn’t able to tell you, “Hey, I have a toothache,” so it’s up to us as pet guardians to get regular preventive care in the form of dental exams and cleanings to prevent dental disease from developing.

Cat dental care is done by a team: a vet tech scales and polishes the teeth and takes radiographs, and the vet removes the teeth and does any final cleaning.

Cat dental care takes a team approach. While the vet works on Bella’s teeth, a technician monitors Bella’s vital signs and anesthesia depth. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

Dental disease hurts!

Cats feel pain just the same as we do, so trust me, if their teeth are nasty, they really hurt, too! If you’ve ever had dental pain–whether it was from an abscessed tooth, losing a filling, breaking a tooth, or whatever–you know that it’s some of the worst pain you can experience. If you don’t want your feline friend to suffer, cat dental care is crucial.

Dental disease can kill your cat

Just as with humans, bacteria from a cat’s diseased mouth can infiltrate the bloodstream and cause damage to the kidneys, liver, heart, and other organs. Dental disease also has relationships to other diseases such as diabetes and kidney failure; for example, an ongoing infection in your cat’s mouth could make his diabetes harder to regulate.

What exactly is cat dental disease?

There are two common forms of dental disease cats can suffer from: periodontal disease and feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORLs). Periodontal disease affects an estimated 85 percent of cats over the age of 6. With this condition, layers of plaque accumulate and harden on the tooth surface in the form of tartar. Bacterial poisons and enzymes produced by the plaque prompt an inflammatory response in the gums, resulting in the redness and swelling of tissues.

Cat dental care includes removing teeth affected by FORLs.

The arrow is pointing to Bella’s lower left first premolar, which has a feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion (FORL). The lesion was covered by gum tissue, which the vet removed, because it grew over the lesion in order to protect the tooth. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions are sometimes referred to as “kitty cavities,” but these lesions don’t happen the same way tooth decay happens in humans. Instead of going from the outside in, as our cavities do, FORLs actually begin in the dentin, the bony tissue just below the tooth enamel. Plaque and tartar do play a role in the formation of FORLs in that the toxins produced by plaque and tartar can lead to an immune-system response that destroys the tooth from the inside out. FORLs can cause teeth to break, and they can actually progress to the point where they’re affecting the pulp chamber of the tooth.

What are the symptoms of dental disease in cats?

For the most part, you probably won’t know if your cat has dental disease just by looking. That’s why it’s so important to take your cat to the vet regularly for a physical exam, which includes a look at your kitty’s teeth. Also, cats are instinctively driven to hide their pain, so you aren’t going to know your cat’s mouth hurts until their mouth is so sore that they can’t even chew their food properly.

Symptoms of dental disease include bad breath (no, it’s not normal for your cat’s breath to stink, unless they’ve just eaten something smelly), drooling, slow eating, reluctance to eat, dropping food, or turning the head to one side while eating.

A veterinary technician scales and polishes a black cat's teeth.

Step 1 of your cat’s dental is a cleaning, scaling and polishing by a technician. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

What happens during a cat dental?

Any cat undergoing a dental cleaning is anesthetized. It’s hard enough for a vet just to get a look in a cat’s mouth during an exam, and it’s impossible to effectively clean the teeth and do any dental work such as extractions while a cat is conscious (which is one of several reasons why I think “anesthesia-free dental cleanings” are BS and a waste of money). After your cat is anesthetized, her teeth are scaled and polished by a technician, while another tech monitors your cat’s vital signs. Once the teeth are scaled and polished, your vet will take X-rays of all your cat’s teeth. This is the only way your vet will know what’s going on under your cat’s gums, where most FORLs form.

Your vet will then review your cat’s radiographs and determine if any teeth need to be extracted. If so, they will remove any diseased chompers. The whole procedure typically takes around an hour.

An x-ray showing two teeth with healthy roots and one tooth with a resorbing root.

In this x-ray, you can see that the two teeth on the right have healthy roots that are clearly visible. The tooth on the left not only has a lesion at the gum line, but its roots have mostly resorbed back into the jawbone. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

But what about the anesthesia risks?

It’s true, anesthesia has risks, up to and including death. But if your cat is generally healthy, the risk is minimal and certainly not enough to justify avoiding getting your cat dental care when she needs it. The risk of anesthesia is also less than the risk of harm that dental disease can do to your cat’s body.

If your cat has an illness such as a heart murmur or an endocrine disease like diabetes, your regular vet may refer you to a veterinary dental specialist. Veterinary dentists have a lot of experience with more complicated cases and special procedures up to and including root canals. (Yes, you can get your cat a root canal, but why would you?)

Bella made it through her dental just fine.

Bella came through her dental just fine. She was a little stoned in this photo, but by the time I picked her up, she was pretty sober. She did have four teeth extracted, despite the fact that she’s been getting regular physicals and dental exams for years. It just goes to prove that you can’t know what’s really going on in a cat’s mouth without x-rays a good look while the cat is unconscious. Photo courtesy of Cats Exclusive Veterinary Center

In conclusion…

Your cat needs her teeth checked out and cleaned regularly. Cat dental care isn’t something to avoid or ignore because it really can have a profound influence on your cat’s general health. And her disposition, too: a cat in a lot of pain is definitely more cranky than one who isn’t.

Many vet clinics will offer discounts on dental cleanings during National Pet Dental Health Month, so this is a great time to get in touch with your vet and schedule your cat’s dental!