Cat Periodontal Disease: Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention


The information in this article has been checked for medical accuracy by an experienced veterinarian (Dr. Joannna Woodnutt) but it is certainly not meant to be used as a substitute for diagnosis or advice from your local vet.


The mouth is home to millions of bacteria. Some are harmless, others can spell trouble if left unchecked. While most people make an effort to take care of their own oral health and schedule a checkup appointment with the dentist every so often, oral diseases in cats tend go overlooked for many months or even years. Today we are talking about one of the major diseases that can result from poor oral health: periodontal disease.

What is periodontal disease in cats?

Cat periodontal disease, also known as periodontitis among vets or ‘cat gum disease’, is a condition where bacteria are able to penetrate and multiply in gum tissues of the mouth, resulting in multiple compications in the areas surrounding the teeth.

Plaque formation can occur when food particles, even microscopic ones. get stuck between the teeth. When these particles are not removed, this will provide the ideal base for bacteria to grow. That creamy film on your cat’s teeth is plaque- it’s formed of thousands and millions of bacteria. At this point, removing this film is simple enough- but when it’s exposed to calcium it forms ‘tartar’ or ‘calculus’. A hard layer that’s a lot more difficult to remove.

Not only the bacteria are a problem- the immune system can cause problems too. In an effort to control the bacterial growth, kill the invaders and clean up the remains, the immune system sends signals and the gum tissue starts getting inflamed. We see this as gingivitis- sore, red gums around the join to the teeth.

Progression from gingivitis to periodontal disease

Feline gum disease progresses through four distinct stages. Once it has been established that your cat indeed needs to be treated for periodontal disease, the kind of treatment and its’ severity will depend on how far the disease has progressed.

Stage 1 to 4:

Stage 1 is where plaque is building up on the separating line between teeth and the gums. If this plaque is not removed for extended periods, it will eventually turn into tartar.

At this point we are still officialy speaking of gingivitis. If left untreated, there will eventually be a slow progression through stages 2 and 3 where the tissue starts to recede further and become inflamed. As it recedes further the part of the tooth that is normally protected beneath the lining of the gums will slowly start to get exposed.

The gap between tooth and gum that is formed during this process will provide an excellent opportunity for even more food particles to get trapped and plaque to accumulate, resulting in even more bacterial growth. We can now officially speak of cat periodontal disease, since the tissue surrounding the tooth (which is called the periodontium) is highly inflamed. (see image below).

The plaque on this cat’s teeth has turned into yellow tartar

As these pockets between tooth and gum get larger, the process accelerates and this causes the gums to recess even further- until finally, the roots of the teeth come to lay bare (stage 4). At this point the loss of teeth and jawbone may not be preventable.

Once stage 4 is reached, it is crucial that the teeth are treated as soon as possible. If left unchecked, stage 4 cat periodontal disease can eventually lead to major infections and organ failure throughout the body with severe feelings of malaise.


Symptoms of periodontal disease in cats

Cat periodontal disease can easily go undetected for months. It is commonly discovered once the infection and accompanying inflammation become painful enough that the cat is no longer able to hide all signs of discomfort. Even then, most people will still need their cat checked by a specialist to find out what is going on.

Common symptoms of advanced gingivitis include:

  • Leaky nose
  • Swelling of the mouth
  • Loss of appetite
  • Recessed and red swollen gums
  • Grinding of the teeth
  • Yellow/black discoloring of the teeth
  • Easily agitated
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Bleeding gums
A cat with yellow teeth and inflammated gums
This cat’s gums are inflamed: notice the dark red, swollen areas around the base of the teeth.

Treatment

Once the vet has established that your cat has advanced gingivitis or periodontal disease, treatment can begin. Early stages of gingivitis can be effectively treated by increasing the frequency and quality of oral care. This should involve brushing your cat’s teeth every day, both on the teeth and along the lining of the gums. If needed there are also some good products available to reduce plaque formation.

In more advanced stages of periodontal disease, a thorough cat dental cleaning under general anaesthetic may be necessary to remove all tartar. Although ‘anaesthesia-free dental cleanings’ are advertised, vets advise against this. As we’ve seen, any gaps between the gum and teeth needs to be cleaned and closed off to prevent reinfection- and this simply can’t be done in a conscious cat.

Once periodontal disease becomes more advanced, cats may need to have their teeth removed altogether. Removing the teeth of cats can be difficult- they snap easily and the vet needs to make sure that all of the root is removed. There is also a small risk that the jaw bone breaks whilst the teeth are being removed, if dental disease is very advanced.

Generally speaking, the sooner tooth and gum-decay is detected, the easier it is to treat and with a lower chance of having to extract teeth and other complications.


Preventing cat periodontal disease

A cat holding a toothbrush
Frequent brushing is one of the best ways to get rid of plaque. This kitty seems to be pretty self-sufficient!

Periodontitis can easily be prevented by maintaining oral hygiene. However, in a recent survey it was discovered that around 70% of pet owners never brush their pets’ teeth. We highly recommend you do an inspection of your cat’s mouth once a month and brush away any plaque deposits to prevent gum disease.

The best technique is to teach your cat to let you pull her cheeks back to check the teeth – make sure to make it fun and reward them with a treat!

One of the most efficient ways of maintaining good oral hygiene is by brushing with a special cat brush. Always use a toothpaste specifically made for pets, as these do not contain the irritating ingredients that are used in human toothpaste. Cats generally prefer the flavoured toothpastes- fish flavour appears to be a real favourite!

Several other products are also available to assist in keeping your cat’s teeth in tiptop shape. Dental treats, plaque wipes and special diet food can all be recommended by your veterinarian to aid in preventing gingivitis. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) award a ‘seal of approval’ to products that have scientific evidence of efficacy. They list the suitable cat products here {http://www.vohc.org/VOHCAcceptedProductsTable_Cats.pdf }


Frequently asked questions

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