“Please don’t tell me I have to brush my cat’s teeth, because I’d rather keep my fingers…”

Lucien's teethMy last article talked about a few of the dental problems most commonly seen in cats, and how easily they can be missed by both owners and vets. Remember, a cat with dental disease will probably act just like a healthy cat, but that doesn’t mean they’re not in pain! I’ll continue now by mentioning some of the preventative measures and treatments that can help keep your cat’s mouth healthy and pain-free.

What can I do to help prevent dental disease in cats?

Of the diseases mentioned previously, periodontal disease (gum disease) is by far the most common but fortunately the easiest to help prevent. Although genetics plays some role in whether or not a particular cat is going to have bad teeth, there are several things you can do to help keep the pain and inflammation to a minimum:

Brush the teeth – OK, this is admittedly not going to work for everybody. Or even most people. Or really even more than just a few people. But it’s worth giving it a try because if you are lucky enough to have one of the most chilled out cats on the planet, tooth brushing is the gold standard in preventative dental health care. By removing the bacteria before they are able to cause disease, the whole disease process is stopped in its tracks. Just use common sense and don’t get bit – if your cat doesn’t even like to be picked up or stroked, he probably won’t take too kindly to you shoving a toothbrush in his mouth.

Dental rinses or gels – These products work by killing off some of the bacteria in the mouth before they have a chance to cause disease. For cats (who let’s face it, probably won’t let you get anywhere near their mouths), one of the most sensible options is an antiseptic liquid (often containing chlorhexidine) that you put in their drinking water which can have the added benefit of freshening your cat’s breath. In most cases, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is so although products like this can have some beneficial effect, they are not likely to solve all of your problems.

Special dental food – Some vets still say that plain old dry kibble helps keep your cat’s teeth clean. And many food manufacturers make similar claims to that effect. Although there is likely to be some truth to this, it is probably not as effective as we like to think. Most dry food is small and easy to swallow whole, so only a small percentage of it actually gets chewed. And I’ve seen plenty of cats who have seen nothing but dry food their whole lives with horrible teeth. If you want to help prevent dental disease with your choice of food, do your research and choose one that has been scientifically proven to decrease plaque formation. These foods tend to be more expensive, larger in size so they have to be chewed thoroughly before swallowing, and made in a special way such that they achieve maximum contact with the tooth surface. Ask your vet for their preferred dental health diet, which is often only available by prescription.

Regular dental cleanings at the vet – Unfortunately, even if you could train your cat to open her mouth and sit still on command, this would probably still require general anaesthesia. Vets use the same kinds of dental instruments on cats that dentists use on people (ultrasonic scalers, polishers, and drills) and the procedure itself varies from mild discomfort (with a simple scale and polish) to severe pain (with a surgical tooth extraction) and the use of local anaesthetics is not as reliable in cats because they can’t tell us what they feel. Also, dental cleanings require a lot of water and it is essential that an endotracheal tube (soft rubber tube inserted into the trachea or windpipe after they are asleep to aid breathing) is placed to prevent water from being breathed into the lungs. Although a general anaesthetic may sound like a risk that is greater than the benefit of clean teeth, most people both overestimate the risk and underestimate the benefit. When you consider that severe periodontal disease can have potentially fatal consequences, a dental cleaning can actually help save your cat’s life. Many people are (understandably) also concerned with the cost of having their cat’s teeth cleaned. I can assure you that if vets had figured out an easier, faster or less expensive way of cleaning animals’ teeth, we would all be doing it. And by having routine dental cleanings throughout an animal’s life, you can help prevent major vets’ bills down the road from complicated surgical tooth extractions or related systemic illness. As they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!

How can I tell if my cat has dental disease?

Signs of severe dental disease or pain in cats include bad breath, wobbly teeth, excessive salivation or drooling, teeth chattering or strange gnawing motions. Other symptoms can include lethargy, decreased appetite, depression or hiding/not wanting to be touched, although these can be seen with almost any illness! Another important yet subtle sign is whether or not your cat actually chews their food before swallowing it. Even some cats with no teeth at all will happily eat dry food by swallowing it whole, so instead of just assuming that everything is ok, try to notice how much crunching they do with each bite. If you’re particularly observant, you may even notice your cat chewing more on one side of the mouth (the healthier side) to avoid touching a painful tooth.

You may not ever notice them in pain, but more often than not owners remark after the painful teeth are removed that their cat is acting like a kitten again. This is further proof that they show such subtle signs of pain that they are often missed by owners and even vets, and although it is nice to be able to help them feel better, how much nicer would it be to prevent these problems from occurring in the first place! If you have noticed any of the symptoms listed above or are otherwise worried about your cat’s teeth, please speak to your vet. Because until your cat learns how to phone us herself, she’s relying on you to make sure that she doesn’t have to suffer with painful dental disease in silence.

  • Julia says:

    Having worked in dentistry for 40+ years , and NEVER having known ANYONE to die from tarter OR plaque I cannot understand HOW or WHY it costs so much to have my cats teeth scaled ?
    Antibiotics are only prescribed for humans if there are atrial problems present, is it therefore sensible to pump our moggies full of the stuff prior to a procedure ?
    MYSTIFIED and feeling well and truly DONE !

  • Amy says:

    Dear Julia,

    I certainly understand your frustration, as dental procedures in both animals and humans can be some of the most expensive bills we come across on a regular basis. In veterinary medicine, the high cost is often down to the general anaesthetic that accompanies the procedure, not the procedure itself. It also depends on what needs to be done – a simple scale and polish may be relatively inexpensive but the surgical removal of a tooth can cost a lot of both time and money as feline teeth are quite delicate especially when they are diseased. Often times there are multiple teeth that need to be removed at the same time, depending on how far along the periodontal disease is at the time of the procedure. Preventative care is therefore critical for both the animal’s health and the owner’s wallet, as mild periodontal disease is often reversible and far less painful and expensive to treat than the later stages of the disease.

    Antibiotic use is up to the vet performing the procedure and based on their assessment of the chance of local or systemic infection following the exposure of bacteria to the blood stream. It may not be accurate to compare the mouth of the average cat coming in for a dental with the average human going in for a cleaning, as feline dental disease is often left to a degree that would not be tolerated by many humans and therefore the risk of infection may be higher.

    Tartar and plaque (mild dental disease) do not kill cats, but the consequences if left untreated most definitely can. These include oronasal fistulas, pathologic fractures, ocular problems and osteomyelitis along with renal, hepatic, pulmonary, and cardiac diseases. The mouth is very much connected to the rest of the body and dental disease, like any other disease, can have far reaching effects on other organs. But it is not the risk of death that causes veterinary surgeons to advise dental cleanings, or responsible owners to provide them – it is the pain and discomfort associated with the disease and our desire to prevent our pets from having to suffer in silence.

    As with any medical condition, if you feel mystified by your cat’s veterinary care I highly recommend you speak with your vet so that the procedure and treatments and costs can be explained in greater detail. The answer is likely a simple misunderstanding however always remember that if you are not happy with the way that either you or your cat are treated, it is your right to seek alternative care.


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