Dental Pain in Cats

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Catherine Barnette, DVM

Why do pets experience dental pain?

According to the Cornell University Feline Health Center, between 50% and 90% of cats have signs of dental disease by the time they reach 4 years of age. While you may think of dental disease as being primarily a cosmetic issue, the truth is that dental disease can also be painful for pets. Inflammation of the gums (gingivitis) can be uncomfortable on its own, while some pets may have more serious issues such as fractured teeth, tooth root abscesses, and oral tumors.

What are the signs of dental pain in cats?

Dental pain in cats may take on a wide variety of appearances, depending on the degree of pain and the cat’s personality.

In some cases, an affected cat may not show any outward signs of pain. Dental pain may only be noticeable on a veterinary exam when the veterinarian or veterinary technician uses a dental probe to apply pressure around the root of the tooth.

In othercases, however, you may observe signs of oral pain at home. These signs may include:

  • decreased interest in eating dry food
  • decreased interest in hard treats
  • chewing more slowly than usual
  • dropping food from the mouth while chewing
  • excessive drooling
  • pawing at the mouth
  • new or worsening resistance to having the face/mouth touched

If your cat is showing any of these signs, she may be experiencing dental pain. In addition to these signs, which clearly reflect pain, other signs of dental disease may also suggest the likelihood of dental pain. These signs may include bad breath, visibly loose teeth, or swelling of the muzzle.

What is the best treatment for cats with dental pain?

The only effective treatment for dental pain is to address the cat’s underlying dental disease. While pain medication may help decrease pain levels for a short time, the pain will continue to recur until the underlying issue is addressed.

"The only effective treatment for dental pain is to
address the cat’s underlying dental disease."

Your veterinarian will likely recommend a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT), which is performed under general anesthesia. First, your veterinarian will perform a pre-anesthetic exam and lab tests (usually a complete blood cell count [CBC] and serum biochemistry), to assess your cat’s overall health prior to anesthesia. Your cat will then be fully anesthetized to permit a complete oral evaluation and dental cleaning. The tartar will be scaled off your cat’s teeth, allowing the entire tooth to be seen properly. X-rays may also be performed, to allow evaluation of the tooth roots and issues that may occur under the gumline. Your veterinarian will also perform a thorough oral exam, carefully evaluating each of your cat’s teeth and the gum tissues.

Once your cat’s teeth have been thoroughly cleaned and evaluated, your veterinarian will come up with a treatment plan for any dental issues that have been discovered. This may include extractions of diseased teeth or advanced dental procedures such as a root canal. These procedures may be performed on the same day as the cleaning but, in advanced cases, your veterinarian may spread the dental procedures over multiple visits to minimize anesthesia time and stress to your cat. Additionally, your veterinarian may prescribe oral medications (antibiotics or pain medication) for your cat.

Can dental pain be prevented?

The best way to prevent dental pain is to ensure that your cat receives regular dental care. There are two components to dental care: home care and veterinary care.

"The best way to prevent dental pain is to ensure
that your cat receives regular dental care."

The optimal home dental care is to brush your cat’s teeth daily. The goal of brushing is to remove plaque (the fuzzy accumulation of food particles and bacteria that develops on teeth). Once plaque sits on the teeth for approximately 24 hours, it begins to harden into tartar, so it is important to brush your cat’s teeth daily. If your cat will not tolerate daily brushing, your veterinarian may be able to offer tips to make brushing more tolerable. Alternatively, your veterinarian can recommend oral rinses and/or medicated chews that may help promote your cat’s oral health. There are also several prescription cat foods on the market (such as Hill’s T/D® or Royal Canin Dental®) that help keep the teeth clean as your cat chews.

Regular veterinary dental care is also important to your cat’s oral health. In general, most cats should have a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment once yearly. Young cats may be able to go a couple of years before their first dental cleaning, depending on their genetic predisposition for dental disease and the effectiveness of your home care, while some older cats may need dental care as often as every six months.

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