Do my cat's teeth need to be cleaned?
Bad teeth bad breath. Due to an accumulation of tartar on the teeth over the years bad teeth are very common in older cats. Tartar will cause the gums to become inflamed (gingivitis) and to recede. This allows infection to attack the roots of the teeth (periodontitis), causing them to loosen and eventually drop out. Since this is painful for the cat, having the tartar removed oved before the gums become too inflamed will save a lot of discomfort later on. Naturally, the tartar will begin to accumulate again once the teeth have been cleaned a diet that exercises the teeth may help to slow down the rate at which it builds up again. A small amount of dry cat food will exercise the teeth. Or, your cat may like to chew on some gristle, such as the edge of a piece of steak.
Dental disease in your cat
Dental disease is very common in cats. Surveys show that after the age of three years, about seven out of ten cats have tooth disorders of some kind. If left unattended these may cause irreversible damage to the cat's teeth, gums and jaw bones. However, less severe disease can be treated or, better still, prevented by stopping the build up of plaque which is the underlying cause of most dental problems. What are the signs that my cat has tooth disease?
Plaque is a yellowish white deposit made up of bacteria and debris which forms around the surface of the teeth. In time it hardens to become yellowish brown tartar (sometimes called calculus) at the base of the tooth which gradually spreads until it may cover the whole of its surface. The outer surface of the cheek teeth are the most commonly affected. As well as the visible signs of tartar build up, there may be other indications of disease affecting the teeth and gums. Foul breath is very common and the pain resulting from advanced dental disease may cause difficulties in eating. An affected cat will often dribble excessive amounts of saliva and sometimes this is flecked with blood. The cat may also show visible signs of pain and discomfort such as head shaking and pawing at its mouth.
How is dental disease damaging to my cat's health?
The tartar which forms out of sight below the gum line is the main cause of problems. The bacteria it contains will attack the surrounding gum tissue causing painful inflammation ('gingivitis') and the infection can track down to the tooth roots. Pus may build up in the roots and form a painful abscess. In time this inflammation will wear away tissue from the gum, bones and teeth and as the disease becomes more advanced the teeth will loosen and fall out. However, the damage is not confined to your cat's mouth. Bacteria and the poisons they produce can get into the blood stream and cause damage throughout the body in organs such as the kidneys, heart and liver.
How can the disease be treated?
If your cat has advanced disease and is in obvious pain, your vet may need to take x-rays of your cat's head to see whether there are any deep abscesses. Any teeth that are already loose will have to be removed because the disease is already too far gone to save them. The first stage of treatment for the remaining teeth will usually be antibiotics to get rid of the bacteria infecting the gums. Then your cat will be given a general anaesthetic so that your vet can remove the tartar, usually with an ultrasonic scaling machine. Finally, your cats teeth will be polished to leave a smooth surface which will slow down the build up of plaque in the future. However, it is inevitable that plaque will re-appear. To keep your cat's teeth in good condition it is likely that they will need regular scaling and polishing, in some cases at intervals of between six and twelve months.
Will a change in diet help control dental disease?
In the wild your cat's teeth would be much cleaner because its diet would contain much harder materials than are found in commercially tinned or packaged foods. It would be eating the bones, fur, feathers etc of mice or small birds which would wear away the deposits of tartar. Replacing soft foods with dry or fibrous materials will slow the build up of plaque. The extra chewing involved will help control infection because it stimulates the production of saliva which has natural antibiotic properties.
What else can I do to keep my cat's teeth clean?
Brushing your cats teeth is just as important as brushing your own in preventing dental disease. Ideally your cat should get used to having its teeth cleaned from an early age. Wrapping a piece of soft gauze around your finger and gently rubbing the cat's teeth should get it used to the idea. You can then move on to using a toothbrush specially designed for cats or a small ordinary toothbrush with soft bristles. Toothbrushes which fit over the end of your finger are available for cats. Your vet can supply you with suitably flavoured toothpaste which cats will enjoy. There are also some mouth washes and antibacterial gels that can help reduce plaque deposits and prevent infection. Do not attempt to use human toothpaste which will froth up in the mouth, your cat will not like the taste and it could do it serious harm.
What if my cat doesn't like having its teeth brushed?
At first your cat may resist but with gentleness, patience and persistence most cats can be trained to accept having their teeth cleaned. A regular brushing every day or at least three times a week will significantly reduce the risk of your cat suffering serious problems or needing frequent general anaesthetics to treat advanced dental disease.
Preventative healthcare for your cat is very important. Regular brushing of your cats teeth from a young age can prevent the need for veterinary dental attention.