A cat holding a white toothbrush

Periodontal disease in cats: Symptoms, treatment & prevention


The information in this article has been checked for medical accuracy by Dr. Joannna Woodnutt. However, the information in this article 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 to go overlooked for 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 complications in the areas surrounding the teeth.

Why plaque is the enemy

Plaque formation can occur when tiny food particles get stuck between the teeth. When these particles are not removed, they will provide an ideal layer for bacteria to grow on. That creamy film on your cat’s teeth is plaque- it’s formed of thousands and millions of bacteria. Removing this film is simple enough- but over time it is exposed to calcium, and the interaction forms tartar (also known as calculus). Tartar is a harder layer that’s a lot more difficult to remove.

The immune system responds

Not only are bacteria 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 joint 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:

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

Stage 2 & 3:

At this point, we are still officially 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).

Stage 4:

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

As these pockets between the tooth and the surrounding gums get larger, the process accelerates and this causes the gums to recess even further. 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.

In periodontal disease stage 4, it is crucial that the cat’s teeth are treated as soon as possible. If left unchecked, stage 4 can eventually lead to major infections and severe feelings of malaise. and even critical organ failure.


Symptoms of periodontal disease in cats

Periodontal disease in cats can easily go undetected for months. It is often only discovered once the infection and accompanying inflammation become so painful that the cat is no longer able to hide all the signs of discomfort. Even then, most people would 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
  • Stinky breath
  • 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 anesthetic may be necessary to remove all tartar. Although ‘anesthesia-free dental cleanings’ are advertised, vets advise against this. As we’ve seen, any gaps between the gum and teeth need to be cleaned and closed off to prevent reinfection- and this simply can’t be done in a conscious cat.

Once the 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 the entire root is removed. There is also a small risk that the jaw bone breaks whilst the teeth are being removed.

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!

What brush and toothpaste should I use?

One of the most efficient ways of maintaining good oral hygiene is by brushing with a special cat brush. Always use toothpaste specifically made for pets, as these do not contain the irritating ingredients that are used in human toothpaste. Cats generally prefer flavored kinds of toothpaste. Fish flavor appears to be a real favorite, according to Joanna Woodnutt.

Other useful products

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) awards 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

What does gingivitis look like in cats?

Gingivitis presents as a dark red inflammation on the contact line between a tooth and the gum that surrounds it. When the gingivitis is caused by plaque and tartar, you’ll see evidence of this on the teeth- they are often discolored, with a yellow-blackish tint.

However, cats can also have gingivitis when there is no sign of tartar, so the gums are the most important place to look.

How does diet affect gingivitis?

Certain foods may create more build-up of food particles. However, it’s not as simple as ‘dry food stops cat getting dental problems’, as this has been shown to be incorrect. Speak with your veterinarian about what you can do in terms of diet to keep your cat’s teeth healthy.

How do you treat periodontal disease in cats?

The same way humans get treated: by seeing a dentist for a thorough cleaning. It is no different for your cat, as the vet will have to do the exact same cleaning procedures. In severe cases of feline periodontal disease, one or multiple teeth might have to be extracted.

Is this disease lethal?

If left untreated, periodontal disease can eventually result in death. If periodontal disease is not treated properly it will result in prolonged suffering and pain. In severe cases, the bacteria from an infected tooth or gum may be able to enter the bloodstream and cause more infections and organ damage throughout the body. In these cases, it is vital that your cat is put on the right antibiotics.

How long does periodontal disease take to heal?

That usually depends on how far the infection has progressed. Periodontitis is an irreversible process after a point. For cases of gingivitis and very early periodontitis, a good brushing after meals should start to reduce the symptoms in two to three weeks. However, once the disease has started to take hold it’s likely your cat will need repeated dental cleanings, extractions, and home care.

Does wet food cause gingivitis?

No, wet food does not directly cause gingivitis and periodontal disease. But since cats are meant to use their teeth to grind down solid food, putting your cat on a diet of exclusively wet food will hinder the natural process of eroding plaque. However, a dry-food diet won’t stop your cat from getting dental diseases. In reality, it’s a lot more complex than that. See our nutrition page for more information.

What should you feed a cat with gum disease?

That depends on the stage and whether there is periodontitis present as well. There are some special diet foods on the market that effectively help control the growth of bacteria and the formation of plaque, so these are often recommended- but if your cat has severe problems and their teeth need to be removed, your vet may recommend a softer diet to help them with eating.

How can I treat my cat’s gum disease at home?

Brushing is the most effective way to improve your cat’s oral hygiene. But not all cats will easily accept it! Special diets, diet additives, water additives, treats, and other options are available- your vet will be able to advise, or you can look for ideas on the VOHC website.

How to keep my cats teeth clean without brushing?

Plaque wipes are a decent alternative for cats that are not so fond of the tooth brush. You may also look into buying a water additive to prevent plaque formation.

Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!

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