Feline Dental Disease: A Common Problem With An Unknown Cause

Although cats don’t always display symptoms of early dental disease, it is one of the most widespread feline health issues. Veterinarians at the Cornell Veterinary School estimate that more than 85 percent of cats have periodontal disease, and that only one out of 10 cats escape dental problems throughout the course of their lives. Feline dental disease is an all-encompassing term for the conditions that include gingivitis, tooth resorption, stomatitis and the very rare gingivostomatitis.

Similar to human gingivitis and periodontal disease, this condition begins when tartar accumulates at the base of the teeth and inflames the gums. The process is accelerated in cats, and more tartar builds up under the gums where it causes pain and problems. Most cats will develop bad breath as the only symptom at this stage, and most owners will never notice a problem.

However, as the disease progresses it can lead to tooth resorption, a condition in which the tooth begins to erode and dissolve from the outside. Unlike the cavities we get, these erosions occur on the outside of the tooth where it comes out of the gums. If not treated, resorption will eventually destroy the entire tooth. It’s almost impossible to predict how fast it will progress, as a cat can have a fast-progressing case on one tooth and a slow case on a different tooth.

Stomatitis is a similar inflammation of the adjacent mouth tissues, and gingivostomatitis happens when the inflammation in the gums spreads to the rest of the mouth. The hallmark of stomatitis is that the swelling appears too severe for the amount of tartar buildup. It also causes excessive drooling, pain and extreme difficulty in eating. The damage from this disease can’t be reversed and requires dental surgery and sometime removal of the teeth to relieve the cat’s pain.

Although veterinarians know that all these conditions arise from tartar buildup, they have not been able to identify the reason why cat’s teeth build up tartar to such an extreme degree. One theory is that since cats have been domesticated, they no longer chew on bones of their prey on a daily basis. In other words, their teeth don’t work very hard any more. However, there is still no explanation for why some cats are more susceptible to it than others, or why some cats remain in the gingivitis stage while others suffer devastating damage to their teeth and mouths. Some theorize that it may be an auto-immune response to the tartar, or that underlying viral diseases can weaken their ability to regulate the inflammation.

Gingivitis can sometimes be stopped if it’s discovered and treated early enough by simply cleaning the cat’s teeth. Even though it can’t be prevented, routine procedures like scaling, surgery and removing the painful tooth can give your cat a normal, pain-free life.  An oral exam and x-rays will quickly reveal if your cat has dental disease, so be sure to make a dental exam part of your cat’s regular veterinary visit.

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