Halitosis is an offensive odor coming from the oral cavity.
What causes halitosis?
Halitosis is caused by:
- bacteria associated with plaque
- tartar (also called calculus)
- decomposing food particles retained within periodontal pockets
- persistent bleeding due to coagulation abnormalities
- tissue necrosis (death of tissue)
Contrary to common belief, neither normal lung air nor stomach aroma contribute to halitosis.
The most common cause of halitosis in cats is periodontal disease caused from plaque and tartar build-up. Plaque-containing bacteria attaches over the freshly cleaned and polished tooth as soon as the cat starts to salivate. Within days, the plaque becomes mineralized, producing rough tartar which accumulates more plaque and causes inflammation of the gums (gingivitis). As plaque ages and gingivitis progresses into periodontitis (loss to tooth support), the bacterial flora changes from good bacteria to destructive bacteria.
"The most common cause of halitosis in cats is periodontal disease caused from plaque and tartar build-up."
While this is occurring, the periodontal ligament (connective tissues that attach the teeth to the jaw bone) becomes infected causing destruction of tooth support. The primary cause of bad breath in cats is the destructive bacteria causing decay that generates smelly sulfur compounds.
Volatile sulfur compounds may also play a role in periodontal disease affecting the integrity of the tissue barrier, allowing endotoxins (a part of bacteria) to produce periodontal destruction, endotoxemia (endotoxins in the blood), and bacteremia (bacteria in the blood).
How is halitosis treated?
Treatment of halitosis in cats involves eliminating the cause(s). First, the teeth need to be thoroughly cleaned and polished under general anesthesia (see handout "Dental Cleaning in Cats" for more information). Cleaning removes plaque and tartar (calculus) above and below the gum line (with the help of hand instruments and scaler tips designed to be used under the gum line).
After teeth cleaning, a tooth-by-tooth examination is conducted. Intraoral dental X-rays are inspected to complete the oral assessment. Often those teeth affected by advanced periodontal disease or tooth resorption need to be extracted.
"Often those teeth affected by advanced periodontal disease or tooth resorption need to be extracted."
When periodontal pockets are small or when bleeding is found on probing, local anti-microbial administration may help to reduce halitosis by decreasing bleeding and diminishing pocket depths.
How can halitosis be prevented?
Fortunately, there are products available that decrease the accumulation of plaque once the teeth are clean. The Veterinary Oral Health Council only accepts dental products that are safe and proven to reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar based on scientific studies; accepted products are listed at VOHC.org, or ask your veterinarian for recommendations.
Oral care products containing zinc can inhibit the formation of odor through their natural attraction to sulfur; zinc and hydrogen sulfide combine to form the insoluble compound zinc sulfide. Zinc also interferes with microbial growth and calcification of microbial deposits that can cause halitosis.
"Daily plaque control is an essential part of controlling and preventing halitosis from recurring."
After the causes of halitosis have been identified and eliminated, daily plaque control is an essential part of controlling and preventing halitosis from recurring.
Wiping the outside of the teeth and gums with a Q-tip twice daily is one of the most effective ways to remove and slow the accumulation of plaque. Dipping the Q-tip in tuna water is recommended to help introduce this cleaning with your cat.
Dental examinations at least twice a year are recommended to help treat and prevent halitosis.