Gum Disease in Cats

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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.


Periodontitis is an infection of the teeth and gums with destruction or damage to the support structures of the tooth. It is the progression of untreated simple gingivitis. It is considered irreversible but, at least in some cases, treatable. Rarely, loose teeth will develop strong roots again with treatment. Periodontitis can lead to an abscess of the root of the tooth or teeth.

One of the first signs of periodontitis is an offensive mouth odor. It may have been present for some time-perhaps even accepted as normal. Another sign is a change in the cat's eating habits. Since it hurts to chew, the cat may sit by her food dish but decline to eat. Weight loss and an ungroomed appearance are common. Teeth may be loose or even have fallen out.

If you look closely at a cat with periodontitis, you will see tartar deposits on the premolars, molars, and canines. Pressure against the gums may cause pus to exude from pockets alongside the teeth. This can be very painful to the cat, so do not try it at home.

Treatment: The mouth must be thoroughly cleaned and restored to a near normal condition. This involves removing dental tartar and calculus, draining pus pockets, extracting any damaged teeth, and polishing the teeth. This must be done by a veterinarian, because your cat will require general anesthesia for a thorough cleaning. While under anesthesia, the veterinarian will use a dental probe to see how deep the damage is to the gums. X-rays will reveal whether the teeth themselves are damaged. Antibiotic gels may be placed into deep pockets of infection.

Afterward, the cat should be placed on an antibiotic for at least 7 to 10 days. At this time, it is important to begin a good home dental program. Continuing regular home care is essential to treat periodontitis and to prevent further degeneration of the teeth.

This article is excerpted from “ Cat Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook” with permission from Wiley Publishing, Inc.

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Reviewed on 12/3/2009 11:30:05 AM

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