With one in eight of cats likely to suffer from gum disease, it’s important that we check the area regularly to ensure that our cat’s teeth are healthy.
What is gum disease in cats?
Gum disease in cats is a broad term which covers all problems associated with the gums, rather than a specific diagnosis. There is usually inflammation of the gums which is known as gingivitis, but there may also be periodontitis (inflammation and infection around the tooth roots), cavities in the teeth, viral infection, ulcers or growths on the gums.
Any of the following conditions may directly cause or contribute to feline gingivitis:
Periodontitis in cats
Periodontitis is associated with tooth disease, with the build-up of plaque on the cat’s teeth. This allows bacteria to become attached to the gum margins and gradually work their way down the tooth root. The end result of this is that the tooth becomes loose and painful. As there is a bacterial infection, the surrounding gum becomes inflamed, sore, and can also bleed.
Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions
Cats are prone to a particular type of tooth damage known as odontoclastic or resorptive lesions. This is different from cavities seen in dogs and humans and does not seem to be associated with particular diets. It generally starts with the enamel eroding at the gum margin, and then a hole forms which goes down to the pulp cavity, which has nerves in it. As the nerves are exposed, this type of tooth damage is very painful. Eventually, the tooth is so damaged that the crown of the tooth breaks off, leaving the root fragment in the jaw.
Feline viruses associated with gingivitis
There are several feline viruses that can show gingivitis as one of the symptoms of infection. Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) are seen nearly five times more often in cats with gum disease than in healthy cats. These are both retroviruses, which means cats that are infected with these viruses are more likely to suffer from infections, cancers and immune suppression.
Gingivitis is just one of these symptoms, but it can act as a flag to consider testing for these viruses. Feline calicivirus is also seen in most cases of gingivitis. Calicivirus is one of a group of viruses that can cause cat flu, but it can also cause gingivitis and lameness as well.
Ulcers can be seen with calicivirus infection, but they can also be associated with severe kidney disease, or where there has been a chemical burn to the mouth after licking or eating something toxic. Like with us, ulcers can be extremely painful.
Growths on their gums
Cats can also get growths on their gums. Very often, these are cancerous, so it is important to get treatment early when it is easier to treat. However, if the mouth isn’t checked regularly, the growth may be widespread before it is noticed, which may mean the prognosis for treatment is worse.
Feline chronic gingivostomatitis
There is also a condition called feline chronic gingivostomatitis, which is severe and causes long-lasting inflammation of the gums and mouth. Although the cause of this is not completely clear, it is believed to be the result of an immune reaction to the teeth or periodontal tissues. In some cases, it can be managed with excellent dental hygiene and medication, but in some cases, it requires surgical removal of all the teeth behind the canines to help control it.
What are the symptoms of gum disease?
Regardless of the cause of gum disease in cats, there are several symptoms associated with gingivitis that may be seen, which can prompt a visit to the vets to have it checked out.
Halitosis (bad breath)
This may be the first thing noticed by an owner and is associated with infection in the mouth. Sometimes with cats that groom a lot, they can smell generally because they are spreading smelly saliva from their mouth over their coat.
When the mouth is painful, cats tend to salivate more. Often it is swallowed back, but sometimes you might see drool, which may also have blood in it.
Your cat may not eat as much as usual, or wants to eat but then backs away or growls at the bowl. Sometimes a cat might start dropping food out of their mouth when they’re trying to chew it. In rare cases, you can hear them grinding the back teeth.
If you can get a good look inside the mouth, you might be able to see if the gums are red along the tooth-line, instead of pale pink. The teeth should be clean and white, without tartar build-up.
If the mouth is painful, then your cat may be irritable or withdrawn.
As many of the conditions above start gradually, it is easy to think your cat’s behaviour is due to old age or general grumpiness. However, after treatment for gum disease, a cat’s mood will improve and feel a lot happier.
How is gum disease in cats diagnosed?
The first stage of diagnosing gum disease in cats is to see a vet. They will examine the mouth as well as the rest of the cat’s body. As there are so many different causes that can result in gingivitis, it is important to look for other signs of disease. The vet will also ask you about your cat, including how well they are eating, abnormal behaviour, whether they are up to date with their boosters and whether they have had any previous illness or injuries.
In some cases, the mouth is so painful that the vet cannot examine the cat properly while they’re awake. However, for a full examination of the mouth, all cats will need to be examined under general anaesthetic, because the vet will need to use a probe to examine the tooth roots for pocketing of the gums or resorptive lesions. It is not possible to accurately do this for a cat that’s still awake, for their own safety.
If there are any signs of ill health then the vet may recommend an initial blood test, to check the kidneys and to ensure the cat is safe to be put under general anaesthetic. Once under general anaesthetic, the vet will perform a dental procedure and remove any obviously damaged or diseased teeth and clean and polish the remaining teeth. Although this is classed as dental treatment, it is also part of the diagnostic process as it is important to rule out dental disease as a cause of the gingivitis.
The mouth can also be thoroughly assessed for the presence of any ulcers or growths, and possibly take X-rays to look at the tooth roots and jaw bone in more detail. If anything shows up on this examination, then further treatment can be offered.
Once the teeth have been treated and any extraction sites have had a chance to heal, the mouth will be assessed again for the presence of gingivitis. In many cases, treating the teeth will resolve the gingivitis, but if it is still present or recurs shortly afterwards, then further investigation may be needed. Often this will be a specialist blood test to look for the different viruses which may be present.
Diagnosis of gum disease in cats is therefore not a simple one-step process, however, and it may involve several stages depending on the underlying causes.
How to prevent gum disease in cats
While some of the causes of gum disease in cats cannot be prevented, such as resorptive lesions or cancer, most gum disease can be prevented or reduced by maintaining excellent oral hygiene.
- Brush your cat’s teeth. Brushing the teeth is best, but as cats are generally not keen on having their mouths handled, this is best started when they are kittens so that they can be easily trained to get used to being handled.
- Topical solutions. Once the gums are sore, it can be difficult for your cat to accept toothbrushing because it might hurt them. In that case, there are topical applications such as Dentisept, which is a long-lasting antiseptic which can reduce the bacterial load in the mouth.
- Vaccinations. There are vaccines for some of the viruses that can cause gum disease. It is important to ensure that a young kitten gets their vaccines at an appropriate age and that their booster vaccinations are kept up-to-date during your pet’s lifetime.
- Regular dental checks. Have your cat’s mouth checked regularly by a vet. This will usually happen each year with the annual vaccination. Many gum diseases are more easily and successfully treated if they are caught early. If your veterinary surgeon advises investigation or treatment, try not to delay it too long.
If you have any questions about your cat’s gums, please do not hesitate to get in touch with your local Animal Trust surgery. One of our vets will be able to examine your cat and advise you of the best way forward.