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Feline dental care

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Caring for your cat's teeth is crucial to your pet's overall health. Feline dental health can sometimes be overlooked, as dental problems in cats tend to be less obvious – though no less serious – than in dogs. Here are some things about feline dental issues that you may not know:

  • Periodontal disease is the most common disease process in cats (and dogs), affecting seventy percent by age three.
  • Sixty percent of cats older than the age of six have a condition known as feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions, which leads to tooth loss.
  • Cats may develop serious systemic illness – affecting the kidneys, liver, and heart – if dental problems are left untreated.
  • You can – and should – brush your cat’s teeth.

The importance of proper feline dental care was underscored recently by veterinarian Brook Niemiec, DVM, an internationally recognized authority in veterinary dentistry, in his presentation at the annual convention of the American Animal Hospital Association. As Niemiec reminded his audience of veterinarians: “Cats are not small dogs.” Feline dental problems differ in many important respects from those of dogs, and because of, well, the way cats are, they may not always “tell” you that they’re hurting.

Healthy teeth, healthy gums, healthy cat

The bacteria normally present in a cat’s mouth gradually forms a substance called plaque, which adheres to the teeth. If not regularly removed from the teeth, plaque will calcify – or harden – into a substance called calculus. The calculus you may see on your cat’s teeth (if you look for it) is not the villain. It’s the calculus below the gum line that is the real source of periodontal disease. If not removed, it will result in an inflammatory process called gingivitis, which is the earliest stage of periodontal disease.

At this stage, when the condition is most easily treatable, the cat will probably not show any symptoms of illness. So, if you don’t make a point of looking for it, you won’t know it’s there and the disease will progress to the next stage, which is true periodontitis: inflammation of the deeper supporting structures of the teeth, which may progress all the way to the bone if not treated. Even at this stage, however, an affected cat will usually continue to eat normally and may not appear to be in distress. If not aggressively treated by a veterinarian, periodontitis will inevitably result in tooth loss.

The process of inflammation, which is a natural response to infection, also makes it possible for bacteria in the mouth to enter the bloodstream. These bacteria are filtered out by the kidneys and liver, where pockets of infection, called abscesses, may form. In addition, the heart valves may become infected by the bacteria, in a condition called endocarditis.

So, the message is: care for the teeth to care for the whole cat.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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