How to Tell if Your Cat Has Toothache

Close up of black and white cat yawning showing inside of mouth

What is Dental Disease in Cats and How Can You Spot It?

At some point in your lives, you may have experienced the horrors of toothache, and if you have, you’ll know how excruciating it can be, so the first thing you do is rush to your dentist who will hopefully put you out of your dental misery.

But how would you know if your cat was suffering the same agonies?

February in the UK is Pet Dental Health Month and a great time raise awareness of dental disease in cats.

Sadly, it is thought that as many as 85% of cats aged three years and older have some sort of dental disease (according to leading UK Cat Charity International Cat Care). But what exactly is dental disease?

It occurs when food, saliva and bacteria build up on the teeth creating plaque. If left untreated, plaque will harden forming dental tartar. If you cat has tartar, you’ll be able to see it as a hard cream/yellow/brown deposit on the surface of your cat’s teeth. Not only does tartar damage teeth, it’s full of nasty bacteria that can enter your cat’s blood stream and cause problems such as kidney and heart disease.

Plaque also causes gingivitis which when the gums become inflamed. It appears as a red line running along the base of each tooth where it meets the gum. Gingivitis can be incredibly painful.

Photo of the inside of a cat's mouth indicating gingivitis and tartar.

But why is dental disease so common in cats? There are many factors at play but here are some common reasons:

Age. As with people, dental disease in cats becomes more common as they age. This is a result of a build-up of plaque throughout their lives as well as general wear and tear of their teeth.

Photo of elderly cat sitting outside with head bowed

Breed. Some breeds including Persians, Burmese and Siamese have very small jawbones and this results in an overcrowding and misalignment of their teeth. When teeth are misaligned, they are not cleaned by the natural abrasion that takes place when cats chew their food. This means that their teeth are more likely to accumulate plaque and tartar than those which are in the correct position. As the owner of a cat that’s both elderly and Siamese I have had my fair share of trips to the vet to control the cat-astrophe that is Billy’s mouth! He’s now almost toothless but can still eat a bit of kibble and of course, fresh chicken!

Siamese cat on bed looking straight at the camera

Diet. It is argued that feeding your cat a soft/wet diet doesn’t protect the teeth against the build-up of plaque. This is because it has no abrasive surface to aid plaque removal when your cat chews. Wet food can also accumulate on or around the teeth and encourage bacteria and plaque to form. Dry foods are abrasive enough to help remove plaque during chewing, however, it is possible that feeding your cat solid chunks of food could be more important than whether the food itself is wet or

So now you know what is it and what can cause it, how do you identify if your cat is suffering from dental disease?

Unfortunately, cats are masters of disguise when it comes to showing any kind of pain. So here are some signs for you look out for which might give you a clue as to any problems lurking inside your cat’s mouth:

  • Discoloured salivation
  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Pawing at its mouth
  • Swollen face
  • Difficulty eating, dropped food or eating on one side
  • A sudden preference for soft food
  • Eating less. It’s worth bearing in mind however, that even if in pain, a cat may n continue to eat for its own survival
  • Weight loss
  • You might also notice your cat being more aggressive, avoiding touch, having ‘moody’ days or hiding more
Cat on a green rug looking anxious and  hiding underneath a table

Treating Dental Disease in Cats

Long haired tabby and white cat having it's teeth cleaned by it's owner

You can play an active part in the slowing down or reduction of dental disease by regularly brushing your cat’s teeth, if he will tolerate it. This will help removing plaque before it turns into solid tartar. If you find this difficult, it may be worth having a chat with your local veterinary nurse who may be able to give you some tips.

Look at your cat’s diet and try to ensure it includes good quality biscuits that need chewing. If you’re tempted to give your cat the occasional bit of human food, try to avoid anything sugary. There are of course, special diets readily available that are specifically designed to reduce the build-up of plaque and are especially helpful if you can’t brush your cat’s teeth.

Photo showing a set of dental tools

Your cat should have his teeth checked over at least once a year. For those cats that are pre-disposed to dental problems as well as for elderly cats, they should be examined once every 3-6 months. However, even if your cat is examined regularly, dental disease can develop and quickly progress and it’s a sad fact that cats may not show any obvious signs until the disease is in advanced stages at which point tooth extraction may be the only option.

Extractions, scaling and polishing are performed by your vet under general anaesthetic which of course carries its own risks, especially in older cats. In some severe cases the root of the tooth may also need to be removed.

As responsible owners, it is up to us all ensure our cats live lives as free from pain as possible, and to remember that pain can’t always be seen.

Clare Hemington

Clare has worked in the field of cat behaviour for sixteen years. She is an accredited Cat Behaviourist and respected member of the COAPE Association of Pet Behaviourists and Trainers. Clare believes that understanding cat behaviour is key to their overall welfare. Through consultation and education her aim is to share information with owners that enables them to give their cat a life that is as happy as it possibly can be. Clare is also founder and owner of Honeysuckle cat toys. Toys made from Tatarian honeysuckle wood which provide wonderful natural enrichment for cats.

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