Ask the Vet: Kitty Dental Problems



QVetI recently rescued a cat named Cheeky who my vet thinks is about two or three years old. She has generally clean teeth, but on a couple of her big ones she has brown spots coming down from the top, near her gum line. Is this a sign of something we need to address? She does not seem to be in any pain or have trouble eating. How often do cats need to get their teeth cleaned for maintenance? Are there things I should be doing to help keep her teeth clean?

From your description, it sounds as if Cheeky has developed dental plaque or tartar on her canine teeth. Plaque occurs when bacteria in the mouth combine with saliva and leave a soft, slimy film on the tooth surface. If plaque isn’t removed, it picks up mineral deposits and becomes a hard substance known as tartar, which traps bacteria under the gum line. The result is a chronic infection associated with the teeth that not only leads to halitosis (bad breath), but also gingivitis (inflamed gums), gum recession, tooth decay and loss, and oral pain. Cheeky’s mouth definitely needs to be addressed to prevent the development of periodontal disease.

I’m happy to hear that Cheeky does not seem to be in pain or have trouble eating. Our goal is always to keep our furry family members as healthy and as happy as possible. However, cats are incredibly stoic creatures and may hide their discomfort until it is too difficult to compensate. Felines may display other signs of mouth discomfort besides having trouble eating, which include drooling, chattering of teeth, excessive pawing at the mouth, rubbing their mouths on furniture, and chronic nasal discharge and sneezing due to tooth root infection.

The first step toward resolution of oral disease in Cheeky’s mouth is an exam with your veterinarian. At this exam, the entire mouth will be evaluated, noting any abnormalities of the teeth and gums. One very important abnormality that your veterinarian will be screening for is FORLs, or feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions. These are genetically triggered defects in the enamel, exposing pulp and nerve endings, along with root resorption. FORLs are very painful lesions and can sometimes only be detected by a dental x-ray or radiograph. Treatment involves removal of the crown and/or extraction of the root if possible.

When it comes to dental cleaning, every cat is different in regards to how frequently the teeth should be cleaned for maintenance. This depends on genetics, diet, and how much home dental care is being performed. Your veterinarian should be able to give you information and demos on brushing teeth effectively, enzymatic dental treats, dental sprays that dissolve plaque, specially formulated dental diets and other supportive measures. By age 3, nearly 85 percent of pets will have some level of periodontal disease; therefore, it is important that dental care be a priority in every companion animal’s daily routine.

ABOUT the Vet: Dr. Natalie Marks obtained her bachelor’s degree with high honors in animal science from the University of Illinois, and a master’s in veterinary medicine and doctorate of veterinary medicine with high honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. She has been a veterinarian at Blum Animal Hospital since 2006 and a co-owner since 2012. Dr. Marks has served on the Chicago Veterinary Medical Association’s executive board and is an active volunteer with the American Veterinary Medical Association and American Animal Hospital Association.

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