Dental Problems in Cats
Dental problems in domestic cats are due, in part, to diet. Cats were designed to hunt and catch small prey, which they devoured more or less whole. The abrasive action of hair and feathers and bones from prey animals probably helped to keep their teeth clean. Current diets may predispose cats to tartar and plaque formation, as well as the development of feline oral resorptive lesions or cavities.
A cat's teeth should be inspected regularly. Many dental problems go undetected until they cause major symptoms. Cats resist examination, particularly when suffering from a painful mouth. A good program of home dental care will prevent many problems that would otherwise lead to a poor state of health and nutrition.
Retained Baby Teeth
Normally, the roots of baby teeth are reabsorbed as adult teeth take their place. When this fails to happen, you will see what appears to be a double set of teeth. The permanent teeth are then pushed out of line, leading to malocclusion, or a bad bite (see below). Kittens at 2 to 3 months of age should be watched carefully to see that their adult teeth are coming in normally. Whenever a baby tooth stays in place while an adult tooth is coming in, the baby tooth should be pulled.
Malocclusion (Incorrect Bite)
Most bite problems in young cats are hereditary, resulting from genetic factors controlling the growth of the upper and lower jaws. Some incorrect bites are caused by retention of baby teeth that push emerging adult teeth out of alignment. In older cats, an incorrect bite may be the result of trauma, infection, or cancer of the mouth.
A cat's bite is determined by how the upper and lower incisor teeth meet when the mouth is closed. In the even or level bite, the incisor teeth meet edge to edge. In the scissors bite, the upper incisors just overlap but still touch the lower incisors. An overshot bite is one in which the upper jaw is longer than the lower jaw, so the teeth overlap without touching. The undershot bite is the reverse, with the lower jaw projecting beyond the upper jaw. A wry mouth is the worst of the malocclusion problems. One side of the jaw grows faster than the other, twisting the mouth.
Incorrect bites interfere with the ability to grasp, hold, and chew food. Furthermore, teeth that do not align may injure the soft parts of the mouth.
Incorrect bites are much less common in cats than they are in dogs because cats' heads are quite similar in shape, despite differences in breeds. Short-nosed breeds, such as the Persian, are most susceptible to bite problems.
Treatment: The overshot bite may correct itself if the gap is no greater than the head of a match. Retained baby teeth displacing permanent adult teeth should be extracted by 4 to 5 months of age, at which time the jaw is still growing and there is opportunity for the bite to correct itself.
To examine the cat's bite, raise the upper lip while drawing down the lower lip. In this correct even or level bite, the incisors meet edge to edge.
Feline Oral Resorptive Lesions
Feline oral resorptive lesions (FORLs) can be found in anywhere from 28 to 67 percent of all adult cats. These are lesions on the teeth themselves, and range from barely penetrating the enamel at the neck of a tooth right above the gum line, to full-blown loss of the entire crown with gum tissues growing over the remaining root tip. The molars and premolars are most commonly affected, but these lesions can appear on any tooth and on any surface of a tooth.
Once the outer layer of enamel is gone, the teeth may become quite painful to the touch. The actual ringlike lesions can be seen, if you can examine the cat's mouth. Teeth may break off at the damaged sites, and cats sometimes show “jaw chattering” if the area is touched, due to pain. Many cats will not eat well because of the discomfort.
Many potential causes have been offered for this problem, ranging from existing periodontitis to viral exposures to renal or kidney problems. Any cat can suffer from this problem, although Siamese and Abyssinians seem predisposed. Shearing forces from eating dry cat food or highly acidic diets have also been suggested.
Your cat will need a full dental examination and treatment under general anesthesia. Oral X-rays will be taken to evaluate all the teeth.
Treatment: Some veterinarians have replaced the damaged enamel with glass ionomers, but this is not done routinely and is not usually successful. In most cases, it is best to simply remove the affected teeth. Pain medications and antibiotics may be needed as part of treatment.
This article is excerpted from “ Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.
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