Cats and Dental Disease

Alison Laurie-Chalmers, Senior Consultant, Crown Vets Inverness.

Cats are prone to a particular kind of dental disease. Like dogs, they can also have dental plaque build-up and gum and dental disease secondary to this.  However, Cats are also prone to painful dental lesions called Feline Odontoclastic Resorption Lesions/ FORL lesions or “neck lesions” of their teeth. Tooth resorption or FORL lesions are unfortunately a very common problem in cats, with some research indicating that over 30% cats will suffer from this dental problem at some point in their lifetime.

Tooth resorption starts in the root of the tooth, beneath the gum-line. Gradually over time the tooth root is dissolved, and replaced by the surrounding jaw bone. This resorption continues inside the tooth into the visible tooth crown, which then weakens the tooth. The hard enamel covering of the tooth whilst being strong is very thin in the cat and can easily be chipped off of this weakened tooth. This damage to the enamel then exposes the sensitive nerves inside the tooth, which is actually very painful for the affected cat.

Very often cats will give you no indication that they are suffering any discomfort and they can apparently eat normally, even with FORL dental disease apparent. However, we do know that the FORL condition is painful, and sometimes cats can be very subtle in their response to any dental discomfort. For instance, some cats will eat their food extremely quickly, so they do not have to spend much time chewing their food, as they know that this causes them pain. This can be mistaken as a good appetite.

Sometimes cats will preferentially chew on one side of their mouths, which may not be spotted at home, but can be spotted in the consult room, because the side they prefer to chew food on generally has less plaque build-up. Sometimes cats will prefer dry over wet food, as the wet food may ‘stick’ to the sore tooth. Or, they may prefer wet food to dry food, as they do not have to crunch or chew this. Occasionally, affected cats will stop eating altogether and they may show some obvious signs of pain in their mouths; such as being subdued, dribbling, pawing at their mouth or "chattering" their teeth.

FORL lesions can generally be spotted during a Dental check-up with your Vet. However, they are not always clearly visible during an examination and not all cats are compliant in the consult room! It is sometimes only possible to spot these teeth under a safe anaesthetic. Certain teeth are affected more commonly than others, and where the tooth has become weakened, the gum may bleed easily or grow over the affected area and there may be secondary gum infection around the affected tooth.

If these problems or symptoms are spotted, it is important to follow your Vets advice and make arrangements for a Dental examination under a safely monitored anaesthetic. Dental X-rays will also be taken at this time to look for further evidence of affected teeth and tooth resorption.

The recommended treatment of FORL lesions is extraction of the affected, damaged teeth. In some cases, where on Dental X-rays the tooth root has nearly disappeared and has been replaced by bone, it may be possible to remove and burr down the visible crown of the tooth only, with the root continuing to be quietly reabsorbed.

If your cat suffers from tooth resorption, then other teeth could be affected at any time in the future. So regular dental checks are very important to catch the problem early on, before it becomes painful.

If you note any signs of discomfort or unusual eating habits with your cat, then do arrange for an appointment for a Dental Check-up.