Mark your calendars, folks: February is National Veterinary Dental Month! In honor of this occasion this month, we will explore the feline mouth. To start, cats have 26 teeth as kittens and 30 teeth as adults (compared to 32 in humans and 42 in dogs). Of these, cats mainly use their 12 largest teeth to catch and eat pray. None of the teeth in cats (including their molars) have grinding surfaces. Their teeth were designed to tear through meat, but not chew it well. This is why cats do not typically chew their food much and tend to swallow dry kibble whole. In contrast, dogs are also carnivores, but they do have grinding surfaces on their molar teeth and can spend more time chewing their food.

The general age of a young cat can be found by looking at its teeth. Deciduous teeth (also known as “baby teeth”) become visible at 3 to 4 weeks old. Adult teeth start to erupt (become visible in the mouth) between 3.5 and 5.5 months of age. The last adult teeth to erupt are the canines, at around 5.5 to 6.5 months old. Once all the adult teeth have erupted, a cat’s age is much harder to guess and can be affected by genetics. Just as with humans, the enamel in cats can have varying degrees of “toughness” and protective ability. I have seen cats as young as 8 to 9 months-old with significant accumulations of plaque and cats at 5 to 6 years-old with minimal plaque and tartar.

Unlike humans, most all animal species (including cats) are not able to properly care for their teeth. Cats also have the added disadvantage of not chewing well. So, what can we do to slow down plaque and tartar accumulation? There are two ways: brushing your cat’s teeth OR feeding your cat prescription dental diets and treats daily. Any diet or treats fed to your feline friend should contain the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal on the package. This means that the product has been independently tested and proven to help reduce plaque formation. Brushing is still the gold standard for home care and must be performed daily since plaque re-accumulates daily. And yes, with time and patience, it is possible to brush a cat’s teeth! Cornell University has a good step-by-step video available on YouTube titled “Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth”.

Dental disease begins when bacteria colonize the mouth, and a plaque biofilm is formed. This film must be mechanically removed (via brushing, etc.) daily, or it will progress into tartar. Tartar is the mineralization and calcification of the biofilm over time. Tartar can only be removed through a professional dental cleaning under anesthesia. As the bacterial population accumulates, this leads to inflammation and results in periodontal disease. There are four stages of periodontal disease, with Stage 1 being the most minimal and Stage 4 including loose, infected teeth. Stage 1 is the only stage which is considered reversible through the use of professional and home dental healthcare. Stages 2 through 4 generally require surgical extraction of affected teeth along with antibiotic therapy. Even though periodontal disease is painful, few cats show outward symptoms of the disease–even at Stage 4. The first noticeable problem is when a cat develops halitosis (bad breath) due to overwhelming bacteria in their mouth. For this reason, all cats should have an annual dental exam and thorough cleaning under anesthesia. After all, we must brush our teeth twice daily and still need to have our teeth professionally cleaned twice yearly! Additionally, anesthesia is the only way for a cat to have a thorough oral exam and examination of each tooth for signs of dental disease; cats become uncooperative and excessively stressed otherwise.

We will continue next month with the 2 most common, non-preventable diseases of the feline mouth: resorptive lesions and stomatitis. Stay tuned! =^_^=