This Can Mean Hidden Pain for Kitty - Please Don't Ignore

Written by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

cat dental care

Story at-a-glance -

  • To many cat parents, the inside of their pet’s mouth is a mysterious place they don’t know much about
  • Most don’t know that their cat’s teeth are actually similar to theirs in one important way; they also may not know what all those tiny things are designed to do
  • Other cat teeth factoids: they don’t get cavities, but they can develop other serious problems that involve the whole mouth
  • Cats hide dental pain quite well, which is why is important for both you and your veterinarian to keep a close watch on the condition of your kitty’s mouth
  • Brushing your cat’s teeth is the best way to preserve his oral health, and with time and patience, almost any kitty can learn to tolerate tooth brushing

Chances are, if you have a feline family member, you don’t know much about the inside of her mouth or those tiny, sharp teeth. Of course, there are some highly motivated people out there who did all the right things during kittenhood to desensitize their pets to having their mouths touched.

But I’d venture to guess the majority of pet parents are living with cats who vigorously object to having anything in their mouths they didn’t put there, so for most people, kitty teeth are a bit of a mystery. Fortunately, PetMD has put some of the puzzle pieces together for us.1

8 Fascinating Facts About Your Cat’s Teeth

1. There are a few similarities between your cat’s teeth and yours — Both humans and cats are diphyodonts, which are animals with two successive sets of teeth — the deciduous or “baby” teeth, and the permanent set that erupt from the gums as the baby teeth loosen and fall out.

However, the timing is different for kitties, who are born toothless and start to get their baby teeth at about 2 weeks of age. At around 4 months, the baby teeth start falling out to make room for the permanent set. Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 permanent teeth; humans have 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent teeth; and dogs have 28 baby and 42 permanent teeth.

2. Your cat’s teeth are those of a true carnivore — As obligate carnivores who must eat animal meat to survive, cats’ teeth are made for the job. They are sharp and designed for seizing prey and tearing flesh. Kitties have no flat teeth shaped for grinding plant food like humans do.

In addition, there’s a groove on the outside of the canine teeth or fangs that is sometimes called the “bleeding groove” or “blood groove,” which is designed to allow blood to flow past the tooth as the cat bites down on prey.

3. The tiniest teeth in your kitty’s mouth serve a different purpose — The incisors, which are the teeny teeth in between the canines in the front of your cat’s mouth, don’t play much of a role in hunting, but they’re excellent grooming tools. If you’ve seen your cat during grooming sessions tug at something caught in his fur, he’s probably using his incisors to work the debris free. Kitties also often use their incisors for scratching and to remove loose pieces of nail from their claws.

4. Look ma, no cavities! — Your cat doesn’t get cavities, unlike you (or your dog), thanks to the shape of her tiny choppers. Because their teeth don’t have horizontal surfaces, cavity-causing sugar-eating bacteria have no pits or divots in which to set up shop.

5. Now for the bad news ... — Cats can and do develop periodontal (gum) disease, oral inflammation, oral cancer, two very painful conditions: stomatitis and tooth resorption, and other types of oral problems.

6. Your cat can be in significant dental pain and you may not know itKitties are hardwired to hide pain, no matter where it occurs in their bodies. That’s why it’s very important that you and your veterinarian proactively monitor the condition of your cat’s mouth. Signs of a potential problem can include drooling, red gums, a change in eating habits and really stinky breath that isn’t associated with diet.

7. Tooth extractions aren’t the end of the world for indoor kitties — For a variety of reasons, many cat parents and most veterinarians have lots of experience with kitties who are missing some or all of their teeth.

While this isn’t an ideal situation, fortunately, most cats make a fast adjustment to having fewer teeth and continue to eat well (and many develop an increased appetite once their painful mouth condition is resolved). They go on to live long, happy, healthy lives. To your cat, being pain-free is much more important than having a mouth full of teeth.

8. To protect your cat’s teeth and oral health, he needs regular dental veterinary visits and tooth brushing — It’s important to ask your veterinarian to perform an oral exam on your cat during routine veterinary visits. If your vet thinks kitty needs a more thorough exam, x-rays and/or prophylaxis (teeth cleaning) under anesthesia, I encourage you not to put it off. Too many cats suffer needlessly with mouth problems that can be easily resolved or prevented in the first place.

And speaking of prevention, just like brushing your own teeth, brushing your cat’s teeth prevents buildup of the bacteria, plaque and tartar that cause dental problems and gum disease.

How to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth

It goes without saying that most cats aren't using to having an instrument like a toothbrush in their mouths, which is why they tend to reject the idea out of hand. That's why I recommend incorporating facial and gum massages into your daily interaction with your kitty. If you can start when she’s very young, even better.

Touch your kitten everywhere — stroke the top of her head, her forehead, her cheeks and around her mouth. Get her used to the sensation so she understands she has nothing to fear or be cranky about. Desensitizing your cat's face through daily contact is the first step.

Next, start moving just one finger around inside kitty’s mouth. I recommend starting with a finger, then gradually moving to a piece of gauze, then to a finger toothbrush and finally to a real cat toothbrush. You can't start out with the toothbrush, because it will be uncomfortable and will very likely freak her out.

Put a tiny dab of enzymatic tooth gel (preferably one that contains mostly natural ingredients and is salmon-flavored) on your finger, gently pull kitty’s lip back and quickly rub the gel over her back molars on one side. Those back molars are where most plaque and tartar accumulate, so spend a couple months just rubbing the gel back there.

Once that process is going smoothly you can move forward in her mouth to the premolars, canines and incisors. The goal is to get your cat used to having your finger in her mouth, along with the taste and sensation of the enzymatic gel applied to her teeth.

Once kitty is desensitized to having your finger in her mouth and has grown relatively comfortable with the routine, you can move to the next step. Wrap a piece of gauze around your finger (gauze is slightly more abrasive than your skin), put a bit of tooth gel on it and massage those back molars on both sides.

Do this nightly after dinner to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. Once she’s comfortable with the gauze, you can move to a finger toothbrush (which is slightly more abrasive than gauze), and then on to a cat toothbrush, which is the best tool to remove buildup. In the video below, I demonstrate how to brush a cat’s teeth with the help of Tyler, a patient of mine who was brand new to tooth brushing!

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