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Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

My 7-month-old kitten, Frosty, has gingivitis. Her vet instructed me to brush her teeth daily and come back in 6-12 months to check her gums. I know gingivitis is common in cats, but the vet said it was uncommon in kittens, which worries me. I did have Frosty tested for FeLV (it came back negative) to rule that out as the cause. Her vet said what I feed her won’t make a difference, as long as I stick to a mix of wet and dry food.

I’m considering adopting her littermate, who also has gingivitis. I’m happy to brush both cats’ teeth daily but I can’t really afford expensive dental care if that’s a necessity in the future. Do you think daily brushing will reverse the gingivitis? What is your opinion on the food issue? And do you think I should adopt the other kitten?

~ Afton

Siouxsie: Well, Afton, your letter comes at an opportune time, since it seems I’ve been dealing with a bout of gingivitis lately, too, and it’s been making me quite cranky! Fortunately, Mama took me to the vet and I’m taking medicine which is helping me feel better. And while sore mouths are on our minds, we’re going to give you some information that we hope will help answer your questions.

Thomas: Gingivitis is a periodontal (gum) disease caused by a buildup of plaque, which traps bacteria and causes irritation and inflammation of the gums. Usually the gum tissue on outsides of the teeth are most affected because cats’ tongues and the natural flow of saliva from the inside of the mouth to the outside help to keep the inner surfaces of the teeth clean.

Dahlia: It’s good that your vet tested Frosty for feline leukemia (FeLV) — and, we presume, for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), since these tests are usually done at the same time — because these illnesses greatly increase the risk of developing periodontal disease.

Siouxsie: The upper respiratory illnesses feline calicivirus and bordetella have been implicated in the development of periodontal disease. The calicivirus, in particular, has symptoms that include mouth ulcers and gingivitis.

Thomas: Kittens can outgrow gum disease with extensive care, including daily tooth brushing and excellent nutrition.

Dahlia: Any vet will tell you that feeding your cat the best-quality food you can afford is not only likely to help her recover from illnesses but to prevent her from getting sick in the future. Our mama is a strong believer in paying more for top-quality food rather than grabbing whatever’s on sale at the grocery store (which we — and she — would pay for later).

Siouxsie: Sometimes food allergies can cause the development of gingivitis-type symptoms, too. Cats typically don’t tolerate grains like corn and wheat (common in grocery-store cat foods), and artificial colors and chemical preservatives can also lead to allergic reactions. You might try a grain-free canned food to see if that helps Frosty’s mouth feel better.

Thomas: There are vets who tell their clients to feed their cats dry food only because that will reduce the formation of tartar. We think this is as ridiculous as your dentist telling you that you can keep your teeth clean by eating nothing but potato chips!

Dahlia: So, Afton, we definitely recommend premium-quality food. We also suggest that you make sure to give your cat water that’s filtered through a filter pitcher. The filter pitcher eliminates or reduces chlorine and other chemicals that can irritate the mouth or change the natural acid/alkaline balance of the mouth.

Siouxsie: In addition to your daily brushing, give Frosty some chewable treats like these Wysong Dream Treats or Feline Greenies. These would be a great reward to give Frosty after she’s let you brush her teeth.

Thomas: These chew toys from Petstages can be great for helping Frosty fight tartar buildup on her teeth and have fun, too. We’ve got a couple of these dental toys, and they’re indestructible! They’re great to play with, too.

Dahlia: As for the potential expense involved in treating cats with dental disease, it’s not insignificant. You may be looking at a dental cleaning under anesthesia once or twice a year — the price of which can vary depending on where you live — and possibly having teeth removed if the infection gets really bad.

Siouxsie: To get a realistic idea of the cost of these procedures, we’d recommend that you talk to your vet clinic. All clinics have a list of prices for various procedures, and if you ask the people at the office about the cost of a dental cleaning or a tooth extraction, you’ll have a much better idea what you’re getting into.

Thomas: The good news is that since you’re already taking such good care of Frosty and you’re willing to do whatever home care you need to do in order to keep her mouth healthy, the chances are pretty good that she’ll be fine and may never need complicated and expensive surgery.

Dahlia: You asked us if we think you should adopt Frosty’s littermate. Only you can make that decision, Afton. We think that once you figure out what you may be looking at in terms of cost if a worst-case scenario should come to pass, you’ll be able to make a better-informed choice, at least as far as the gingivitis and its treatment goes.

Siouxsie: For some quick tips on how to get your cat used to having her teeth brushed, check out this article on Catster.com.

Thomas: And here’s a video demonstrating how to brush your cat’s teeth:

Dahlia: Good luck, Afton, and many happy brushings!