Dental Care and Tooth Eruption

Introduction: Dental hygiene is an area often overlooked in many animals today. Just like humans, cats have problems with bad breath, tartar buildup, gingivitis, tooth decay, and cavities. Many of these are very serious problems and may result in life threatening disease. Prevention of dental disease is an important key to the healthy pet.

Dental Terms:

  1. Plaque - Dental plaque is defined as the soft, thin film of food debris, saliva, and dead cells deposited on the teeth. Plaque provides the perfect environment for various bacteria to grow. Daily brushing of a petís teeth at home can help remove the constant buildup of plaque.

  2. Calculus - Dental calculus (also known as dental tartar) is the hard, stonelike material, creamy yellow to black in color, which results from mineralization of dental plaque. Calculus cannot be removed by brushing; it must be removed with special equipment used in veterinary clinics (and dentist offices), usually with the cat under general anesthesia.


    This cat has calculus or tartar that must be removed using hand tools and motorized equipment, while the cat is under anesthesia.


  3. Gingivitis - Gingivitis is a condition where the gums surrounding the teeth are swollen, red, tender, and/or bleeding. Gingivitis can result from many factors, but is usually caused by plaque and tartar buildup on the surface of the tooth. Bacteria begin to invade dental plaque as soon as it develops. When bacteria are present for about 1 week, the gums may begin to become inflamed.

  4. Periodontitis - Periodontitis is a slowly progressive process which causes tooth loss by destruction of the structures that support the tooth. Chronic bacterial infections and gingivitis lead to periodontitis. Structures destroyed in the process of periodontitis include the gums (gingival tissue), connective tissue, and bone.

  5. Caries - Defined as an infection in the calcified portions of the tooth, caries (cavities) are much more common in people than in cats. The lower occurrence of true bacterial caries in cats seems to be due to the cone shape of the teeth and the higher pH (lower acidity) of cat saliva as compared to that of people. The term "feline caries" usually refers to cervical line lesions.

  6. Cervical Line Lesions - Probably the most common disease of the feline tooth, cervical line lesions result from loss of tooth structure at the junction of tooth crown and root. It is believed that tiny cells known as odontoclasts are responsible for the destruction of tooth structure, usually in response to inflammation from oral viruses and/or poor dental hygiene.

Prevention: All of the above problems are best avoided when basic preventative efforts are implemented.

  1. Diet - In general, dry cat foods are more effective in removing plaque and some calculus than soft food types. Some special diets have been formulated specifically to aid in plaque and calculus removal and are helpful in maintaining proper oral hygiene. Special "chews" for cats, some treats and toys can also help remove plaque, although the plaque and calculus removal achieved by any of these methods is incomplete.

  2. Tooth brushing - Daily brushing of the teeth is invaluable in removing plaque and preventing calculus buildup. The ideal toothbrush for a cat should have soft bristles with rounded tip ends to minimize abrasion of the teeth and injury to the gums. It is helpful to introduce a pet to toothbrushing slowly. The lips are gently pulled back to expose the teeth. The catís jaws should not be opened as this tends to increase apprehension and fear. At first, a finger can be used in place of a brush. Once a toothbrush is used, it should be inserted against the teeth at a 45-degree angle toward the gums. The brush is moved in small circular motions while overlapping several teeth. The inside surfaces of the teeth are more difficult to access; however, the motion of the tongue inside the mouth reduces plaque on those surfaces.

    This demonstrates how to brush a catís teeth.


  3. Toothpastes and oral rinses - Special toothpastes formulated for cats can be extremely effective in maintaining a healthy mouth, especially when combined with proper brushing. Many types of oral rinses can also be helpful. A chemical known as chlorhexidine is currently considered the most effective. Several products containing chlorhexidine are available for cats. Fluoride is also used in the treatment of certain dental diseases of the cat, especially cervical line lesions. Because side effects may occur with long-term fluoride ingestion, this treatment should be closely regulated by a veterinarian.

  4. Veterinary care - An annual checkup by a veterinarian can help determine if more aggressive measures need to be taken. Some animals require a regular dental cleaning, performed under anesthesia. This involves using hand tools and motorized equipment that removes calculus from the tooth surface. The veterinarian may also polish or remove teeth. Antibiotics may be used to help fight bacterial infections of the mouth.
    Motorized dental equipment used to remove calculus and polish teeth.

Treatment: As previously mentioned, many cats require regular cleaning of their teeth. Gingivitis alone may be managed in some cases with conservative therapy if the plaque and bacteria can be removed. Conservative therapy consists of proper oral hygiene to remove plaque and bacteria (daily brushing), antibiotics, and mouth washes. Periodontitis, however, should always be treated aggressively. Complete scaling and polishing of teeth under general anesthesia, possibly combined with oral surgical methods of exposing and removing any pockets of infection next to the roots of the teeth, may be necessary to properly treat periodontitis.

Tooth Eruption: All cats have two sets of teeth. Baby or deciduous teeth usually begin to appear 3 weeks after birth and by about 6 weeks of age all the baby or deciduous teeth are present. Within 3-6 months these deciduous teeth fall out and the permanent teeth erupt.