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Looking inside a cat’s mouth can sometimes solve medical mysteries. Just ask Dr. Patricia Joyce, an emergency clinician at NYC Veterinary Specialists in New York City. “Often a somewhat older cat will come in, and their owners are concerned because it has stopped eating,” she says. “At first, your mind jumps to 13 different metabolic diseases the cat could have, but when you look in the cat’s mouth, you find a few really horrible and painful-looking teeth. Once they’re removed, the cat starts eating again.”
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed problem in cats, with 70 percent of cats experiencing some form of periodontal disease by the age of 2. Poor dental health can lead to very painful -- or even life-threatening -- situations. As a result, the AVMA designates every February as Pet Dental Health Month to raise awareness of this important issue.
Your Cat’s Teeth Need Your Help
In the wild, cats are hunters that eat birds, rodents and other animals. Chewing their prey served to keep their teeth strong and clean. This lifestyle also resulted in higher mortality, so in many cases, the cats didn’t live long enough to develop much tooth decay. For domesticated cats, it’s up to us to keep their teeth clean.
“Dental disease is one of the most preventable conditions in veterinary medicine,” says Dr. Katy Nelson, a veterinarian who is also a member of the Iams Pet Wellness Council. “I’d say that three-fourths of my patients over 3 to 4 years old have at least mild to moderate dental disease.”
When teeth aren’t taken care of regularly, little problems turn into big ones that can only be treated by extraction of one or more teeth, a process that requires anesthesia. “Surgically pulling the teeth is not the big deal here,” says Joyce. “It’s being under anesthesia that’s dangerous and worrisome. And the more teeth you need to extract, the longer the anesthesia. And the longer the anesthesia, the more dangerous it becomes.”
Gum disease has also been linked to cardiac disease in both cats and people. The correlation is not yet very well understood by scientists, but it stresses the fact that good dental care is about more than just healthy teeth.
Start a Dental-care Regimen for Your Cat
Regularly brush your cat’s teeth with special veterinary toothpaste, as cats are likely to swallow it and the fluoride in toothpaste for people could harm them. The AVMA’s online video network, AVMAtv.com, offers an informative video on how to brush your pet’s teeth.
Regular cleanings -- ideally once a year, but at least every two years, according to Joyce and Nelson -- are equally important. There are also dental-chew treats, special toothbrushes, and dental-health toys that can help. Nelson says the Veterinary Oral Health Council website, VOHC.org, is a reputable site that tests products and offers its seal of approval (or not).
Food choice is another way to boost a cat’s dental health. Nelson says some of the available “dental diet” cat foods can help keep teeth clean. “Certain compounds prevent plaque and tartar buildup every time they eat,” she says. It’s important to note that some of these foods are high in compounds that can be harmful to very young cats (up to 6 months) or cats with known kidney problems, so consult your veterinarian first.
Above all, both doctors stress the importance of brushing. Cats can be skittish about having their mouths handled, so be patient and persistent. If you have a young cat, start the brushing process as early as possible. “From a health perspective, it’s never too early to start, but there’s also a behavioral reason to start early,” says Joyce. “These early experiences could shape how your cat responds the rest of its life. If you can get them acclimated, they’ll be easier to treat, and you’ll find any problems much sooner.”
Elijah Merrill is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Daily Cat. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and Discover.
Cats reach full skeletal development when they are this old: