Gum Disease in Cats

Periodontal disease is one of the most common problems seen in veterinary practice. It occurs in two forms: The first is gingivitis, a reversible inflammation of the gums. The second is periodontitis, an inflammation of the deeper structures supporting the teeth. Both begin when plaque and calculus are deposited on the teeth near the gum line. This occurs in about 85 percent of all cats over 2 years old, and it can be found in some cats even before they are 1 year old.


The edges of healthy gums fit tightly around the teeth. In a cat with gingivitis, rough dental calculus builds up in an irregular fashion along the gum line, producing points at which the gum is forced away from the teeth. This creates small pockets that trap food and bacteria. In time, the gums become inflamed and then infected.

Plaque is a soft, colorless material that is not easily seen with the naked eye. It consists of food particles and other organic and inorganic material, plus millions of living and growing bacteria. It is yellow-brown and soft when first deposited.

The plaque quickly hardens into calculus (also called tartar), a mixture of calcium phosphate and carbonate with organic material. These calcium salts are soluble in acid but precipitate in the slightly alkaline saliva of the cat. Calculus is yellow or brown and produces the characteristic tartar stains. Calculus forms on irregular surfaces on the teeth, which creates an ideal environment for the formation of plaque. It begins to accumulate within one week of removal.

This buildup of calculus on the teeth is the primary cause of gingivitis. Gum infections may also occur with several diseases, including feline panleukopenia, feline viral respiratory disease complex, kidney and liver failure, nutritional disorders, and immune disorders.

The first sign is that the gums appear red, painful, and swollen, and may bleed when rubbed. Next, the edges of the gums recede from the sides of the teeth, allowing small pockets and crevices to develop. These pockets trap food and bacteria, which produces infection at the gum line and sets the stage for periodontitis and tooth decay. Other signs are loss of appetite, ungroomed appearance, drooling, and bad breath.

Treatment: Once signs of gingivitis are visible, a significant degree of dental tartar, calculus, and gum-pocket infection will be present. The teeth should be professionally cleaned by a veterinarian, after which the cat should be placed on a home dental care program. Brushing the teeth daily, or at least two or three times a week, will be required to prevent the recurrence of gingivitis. There are special diets formulated to reduce plaque and tarter and to prevent gingivitis.