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Cat Dentistry/Dental - How to Prevent, Spot, and Treat Cat Dental Issues

How does dental health impact the overall health of my cat?

Dental disease is a factor in a cat's general health. The mouth affects the whole body. We all know how our gums and tongues and lips bleed when we bite them, and dental disease in a cat is an infection in the mouth. And that infection easily gets into the bloodstream. It can affect the heart, the kidneys, and the liver. By keeping a cat's mouth healthy, we know that we can add two to three years to the pet's life. And then there's always the discomfort. Dental disease hurts. Anybody who's ever had a bad tooth knows there's nothing fun about that. So, cats are uncomfortable and sometimes just outright painful with bad dental health, which is why it's essential to keep the mouth healthy.

Dr. Chip Cooney
Animal Hospital of Statesville

What are some signs and symptoms that a person might see to know that their cat has dental issues?

The number one symptom of dental issues is breath. Bad breath in a pet is not normal. Particularly in a cat, it tends to be dental disease, oral disease. So, that's the number one thing we see: we'll open up the cat's mouth to take a quick look, and we can smell the odor coming, or the owner even complains about it. We can also see cats who drool because their mouth hurts, appetite decreases, and sometimes food will drop out of their mouth as they try to eat from a bowl. Or if you look closely, you can see them shift the food from one side of the mouth to the other, away from a painful area in the mouth. Those are the main things that we see. We have had instances where people think their cats are on a hunger strike, but no, it's because their mouth hurts.

What are things that you look for when you examine a cat's mouth?

We look for plaque and tartar buildup on the crowns of the teeth just like you and I would get, but we're more closely checking out the gums. We've all heard of gingivitis, which is inflammation of the gums due to disease underneath the gum line, which is where our concern is in pets. But we'll also see a syndrome called stomatitis complex in cats, which is a severe allergic reaction of the mouth to the teeth, and it can cause a ton of pain and some severe dental issues. We also sometimes see loose or broken teeth. Cats also get a syndrome called tooth resorption, where they get a cavity just below the gum line that causes the teeth to be resorbed by the body. In sum, we look for all kinds of things, and there's always the possibility of a tumor, mass, or growth in the cat's mouth as well.

How do you go about diagnosing dental problems in cats besides the obvious examination?

Yeah, the biggest thing is getting the cat to let us take a good look, and believe it or not, most cats are very amenable to us being able to check in the mouth. We're able to give them a pretty good checkup and get an idea, but when it comes down to it, a dental x-ray is without a doubt the best way to determine exactly what's going on. In fact, it's the only way to truly tell exactly what's going on in a cat's mouth.

What are some possible conditions that are caused by poor dental health?

Well, it depends on how severe the disease is. I mean, I've seen eight-year-old dogs in kidney failure due to dental disease. And those dogs didn't have much time left with us, and the same thing can occur with a cat. So, heart disease is also extremely severe. It's much better to deal with the problem before it reaches the point of it affecting other organ systems because once other organ systems are affected, that becomes a much more terminal situation, as opposed to dealing with the mouth. If you catch it soon enough, then you have to treat the organ dysfunction first before you can even truly address the mouth, which is the root cause. But we have to get the kidneys or liver functioning well enough to handle the dental disease.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

Cat Dentistry/Dental - FAQs

Dr. Chip Cooney
Animal Hospital of Statesville

How often should my cat's teeth be examined?

At a minimum, your cat's teeth should be examined once a year. We examine a cat's mouth and check the teeth every time the cat comes to see us. That's twice-yearly for our wellness plan patients. And every time your pet is in here for any type of illness, whether it's an ear or skin infection, we always check the teeth.

What are you looking for as a veterinarian when you look in a cat's mouth?

We're smelling to check for odor, checking the gums, looking for broken teeth, masses, growths, and Gingivitis, which is the inflammation of the gums. There are all kinds of things that can occur in the cat's mouth.

So if you see issues in a cat's mouth, do you address those issues at that time?

We're rarely able to deal with them now. If we see a piece of something stuck between the teeth, such as a piece of string, we may be able to deal with that at that time. But to do a complete oral examination on the cat, they need sedation, which we almost surely will not be able to do at that particular time. And we'll schedule that for some time in the future.

What does a healthy mouth look like in a cat?

We see some healthy mouths in young cats. We'll see a nice, white, happy crown, the white part of the tooth with no tartar and no calculus. And more importantly, we see gums that are a happy, healthy pink—not that red, angry, inflamed tissue called Gingivitis. We usually see these very healthy mouths in cats that are two years or less.

What kind of dental and oral problems can cats have?

Cats can have broken teeth because they chewed on something they shouldn't have or took some type of trauma blow. They can have severe Gingivitis, as we had talked about. Tooth resorption is something that's unfortunately very common in cats. And it is a cavity-like syndrome that occurs underneath the gum line where the teeth slowly resorb, and it's an excruciating process in cats. We see stomatitis, which is an inflammation of the gums. Once again, we see masses, growths, tumors, and foreign bodies.

Why would my cat need anesthesia for a tooth cleaning?

It's a reasonable question because you and I can open up and say, "Ahhh," and let the dentist clean our teeth. Cats can't do that. We have to have the mouth open to get a dental x-ray plate in the mouth to shoot the x-rays. We have to be able to clean under the gum line. The cat has to be sedated to truly do a good dental cleaning.

Are there ever any circumstances when a cat can get their teeth cleaned without anesthesia?

Well, honestly, no. You might hear people doing anesthetic-free dental cleanings, but there's no such thing. They can break off the tartar, but that's not dealing with the problems under the gum line. Those instruments cause erosions in the enamel, making it easier for debris to build back up in the future.

How do I know if my cat will react to anesthesia?

Anesthetic reactions are exceedingly rare. We take anesthesia exceptionally seriously here. The veterinarian first checks any pet going under anesthesia or having an anesthetic procedure. We'll do a heart and blood screening to make sure your pet is healthy. And then we'll address any issues if they're not. We use processes and procedures with highly trained technicians. And your pet is monitored to the highest degree when they're under anesthesia. We're monitoring EKG, oxygenation, carbon dioxide, and pulse oximetry, and respiration. And somebody is assigned to do nothing but that. They stand there with a clipboard, as your pet is having anesthesia, monitoring these parameters. And if anything is off, we'll know and can address it literally within seconds. I'm very confident our anesthetic protocols here and the staff we have do a great job.

Will my cat have to be intubated for a cat dental?

Yes, your cat has to be intubated. When we clean the teeth, we use an ultrasonic cleaner. It produces a lot of water in the mouth, and we don't want aspiration into the lungs. Not to mention by intubating, we're getting oxygen in the gas anesthesia directly to the lungs. It's the only way to safely do a dental cleaning on a cat. There are injectable anesthetic drugs that you can use in a cat, but not for dentistry. The cat needs the tube to keep the airway safe during the procedure.

A dental cleaning for cats is very involved. You can check out our website for FAQs and answers about the procedure. Also, you can see our dental cleaning video. It's a two-part basic dental cleaning video. It's filled with dogs, but dogs have bigger mouths and teeth. So they're a little easier to see than a cat. But the technique and the procedure are virtually the same. Take a look at that video if you get a chance, and that will help answer your questions; even more, the crown is essential. We can determine the crown's health by seeing the crown, but what we can't determine is what's going on underneath the gum line. You and I go to the dentist, and yearly, we get dental x-rays done. And we can tell the dentist this tooth hurts right here, but they still x-ray all our teeth because you genuinely can't assess the tooth's health without an x-ray to see what's going on underneath the gum line. And we talked about kitty resorptive lesions earlier. And honestly, those are extremely difficult to assess without an x-ray. They stay hidden because the gum grows up and covers the tissue or covers the diseased tooth. And we need x-rays to be able to truly see what's going on in there.

Why might my cat need an extraction? What are some issues?

Extractions occur if a tooth is unhealthy. There is not much worse than having to extract a cat's tooth. It's one of my least favorite things to do. The teeth are so tiny, so it's complicated. It's not fun for the cat or the owner. But if we're going to get this cat's mouth healthy, it has to be done in many cases. So if we have these resorptive tooth lesions, you get this diseased and painful tooth out of the way for this cat. If we have periodontal disease, it's causing some root exposure. This tooth is only going to be a continual problem and source of pain for this cat. And honestly, it's going to lead to infection that spreads throughout the rest of the body. So, if a tooth is diseased beyond us being able to save it, it's better to extract this tooth and give the cat a healthy mouth again.

There's also a syndrome called stomatitis complex in kitties. And it is a strange immune-mediated response to minor tartar and calculus buildup on the crown of the tooth. Because of severe inflammation and severe pain, we'll see these cats drooling. We'll smell a powerful odor from the mouth. And these cats many times come in having lost weight. The only actual treatment is extraction of those teeth. And everybody says, "Oh my gosh, I can't do that to this cat. How are they going to eat?" Well, they eat better, is what they do. After getting the pain and inflammation out, these cats feel great. I know of two cats in this clinic who have no teeth. We've extracted all the teeth because of this syndrome. But these two cats will not even eat canned food. They only eat dry food. They'll starve themselves as opposed to eating the canned food. Cats deal with it fabulously and feel so much better.

Are all issues addressed during the dental cleaning, or do I need to come back and have more done after the procedures?

Preferably, we deal with it all at the same time. If your cat is under anesthesia, we'd like to have one anesthetic episode with this pet, and I want to take care of everything we can at that point. Now, that being said, we periodically find more things than we had determined we might, so we always have your cell number so that we can give you a call and talk about what we found. And hopefully, we can deal with everything then. But occasionally, these procedures can last two and even three hours. It's a very rare occasion where we will have to recover the cat and have them come back in two or three weeks to finish the procedure. The vast majority of the time, we deal with it then.

Why do you schedule a follow-up appointment after a dental cleaning?

First off, if the teeth are cleaned up nicely, then we're going to probably teach you to try to do some home care on your cat. If we have any type of oral surgery that's occurred, there will be sutures in the mouth, and we want to ensure those healed normally. We ask that those pets eat softened food for two weeks until they heal. And then we can turn them back on to hard food. We like to look at things just to make sure everything is healed the way it should.

How long does a dental cleaning in a cat take?

If it goes well for basic cleaning, polishing, and fluoride treatment, it may be as little as 30 to 45 minutes. We've had procedures go three hours in cats as well, depending on what we're dealing with here, so it's hard to give a cut and dry answer. It varies dramatically.

If there are severe odors, such as in stomatitis complex cats, there's infection. And we want to try to get the infection under control before the dental. We continue antibiotics after the dental to get the infection out of the bone. If we're doing extractions or any type of underneath-the-gum work, your pet needs pain medication. If anybody's ever had gum disease and gum treatment at your dentist, it hurts. So we're going to treat your cat with pain management to make sure that they're not in discomfort.

How often would you recommend me brushing my cat's teeth?

So the veterinary answer is that you should brush your cat's teeth every day. The human response is we would love it if you would try to brush your cat's teeth. I think I've had two cats, maybe three in here whose owners honestly brushed their cats' teeth. It's pretty rare, and it's a pretty rare cat who will allow that. Cats tend to be a little persnickety and harder to deal with, but they make seafood flavor toothpaste. So if you're interested, we can work with you on that.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (704) 872-3625, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

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