03 Jun How to Care for a Cat Losing Its Teeth
Unlike their canine companions who spend a great deal of time with their mouths open, playing, panting, barking, cats spend almost no time with their mouths open in their day-to-day lives. This can lead cat owners to miss signs of oral trauma, dental disease, or even missing teeth. Our feline friends have 30 teeth that must be assessed intentionally, as accidentally getting a glimpse of your cat’s teeth will not happen too often.
For the sake of this blog, let’s make two assumptions:
- You brush your cat’s teeth frequently and ARE getting opportunities to see the teeth at least three times per week.
- You allow your veterinarian to assess the teeth at least twice per year.
So now, we have eyes on our cat’s teeth routinely. Regardless of who notices it first, what happens if a tooth is clearly missing or your cat has advanced stages of dental disease where they require one or more teeth extracted? Let’s talk about cats with missing or lost teeth.
What happens if my cat is missing a tooth?
Simply put, a missing tooth should trigger your primary vet to plan an anesthetized exam where all the teeth are cleaned (commonly called prophy, professional cleaning or COHAT), X-rays are taken to study the roots and bone structure, and additional scoring of the teeth is done. Often periodontal pocket depth is measured around each tooth in millimeters, mobility or ‘looseness’ of the tooth is measured, and other notes are taken. At this point, you may be referred to a veterinary dentist.
A missing tooth should trigger the veterinarian and owner to plan an anesthetized exam. I repeat myself here only because of how important this step is. However, in many cases, this is not the next step in the process when it should always be. Why?
Why do cats lose their teeth?
1. Advanced Gum Disease
Cats primarily lose their teeth from periodontal disease. Over time, a sticky substance in the mouth (we all have it) called plaque coats your cats teeth and colonizes them with bacteria. This plaque and bacteria also get under the gumline and cause inflammation and pain, called gingivitis.
Gingivitis is simply the word used to describe the earliest stage of periodontal disease, also known as advanced gum disease. Left unchecked, gingivitis progresses all the way to severe periodontal disease, causing the supportive tissue and bone around the tooth to recede. It simply goes away. The exposed tooth root, with nothing to hold onto, becomes mobile or loose, and the disease can get severe enough for the tooth to fall out.
Voila, tooth loss. And unfortunately for our cat, losing the tooth did not solve the problem. The socket of the tooth is left filled with infection, chunks of tartar, and a sort of mixture of cells TRYING to heal the area called granulation tissue. Your veterinary dentist will clean that out and close the wound carefully with suture! But, they must first have the chance.
2. Tooth Resorption
Cats lose their teeth from tooth resorption, which can also been called feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions, neck lesions or cervical line lesions. In humans, it is called invasive cervical resorption.
Tooth resorption is a destructive process of the hard parts of the tooth—the enamel and the dentin. It is very painful and can cause your cat to refuse to eat, drool excessively, chatter their mouth without explanation, and become grumpy or reclusive. They may also stop grooming themselves as well as they used to if the pain is severe enough.
As the tooth resorption process advances, it often makes a large hole in the tooth—so large in fact, that what remains becomes weak enough to break off. Think of a large pyramid made from wet sand. Now, start shoveling away at the base of the pyramid. As expected, the rest of the pyramid, at some point, will simply collapse. That is tooth resorption.
A cat that has experienced this level of resorption may have the appearance of missing or lost teeth. But these cats are almost always still in pain, as there are jagged root fragments protruding through the gumline that cannot be easily seen.
Your veterinary dentist will extract the roots and smooth the fragments and the bone, relieving your cat’s pain for the first time in a long time.
3. Oral Trauma
Cats lose their teeth from trauma and accidents. Falls from height are one of the most common ways in which a household cat can lose a tooth accidentally. But as a cat lover reading this blog, you know there are infinite ways that a cat, being athletic or silly, can have an accident.
4. Impacted Teeth
Cats can also have the appearance of lost teeth when they actually have an impacted tooth. Impacted teeth are adult teeth that did not erupt into the mouth during the kittenhood teething window.
Kittens lose their baby teeth and erupt their adult teeth into the mouth between ages 4 and 9 months. If a tooth forms but stays trapped below the gumline or the bone below, it must be extracted (taken out) to prevent an aggressive lesion called a dentigerous cyst.
Your veterinary dentist will discover impacted teeth with X-rays. Often in these scenarios, your veterinary dentist will see the missing tooth is truly missing. This means the body never made the tooth to begin with, similar to a flower bud not forming on a stem. This is a GOOD OUTCOME as the domestic cat does not have any real problem functioning without teeth, and no treatment would be required in this case!
How should you care for a cat that has missing teeth?
Now that we understand the background of tooth loss in cats, we can answer the question in the title! How do we care for a cat that is losing its teeth? The most important thing we can do is assess the teeth routinely. This is because many of our feline patients that have periodontal disease or tooth resorption will have it affect more than one tooth over the span of their lives.
A cat that is diagnosed with severe periodontal disease at age 5 and goes on to benefit from having some of its teeth extracted can have other teeth develop severe periodontal disease at age 7 or 9 or 11 (you get the idea).
Feline tooth resorption is similar. We must repeatedly check for pain and disease in the mouth. The goal is not to keep painful teeth or roots harboring infection just for the sake of having teeth. They are far better off without them. I have treated and seen thousands of cats and watched them benefit from extractions personally, and some of my patients with NO TEETH are their happiest version of themselves.
How do cats with few or no teeth eat?
The question I am asked most often when I recommend extraction of a tooth or multiple teeth is “Doctor, how will they eat?”.
The answer: Cats that have had tooth extractions (done correctly) and cats with missing teeth continue to thrive while eating both canned and dry foods, playing with their toys, having an exceptional quality of life, and grooming themselves very well. They will do great!
An important note about cats with no teeth.
Cats that no longer have ANY teeth must still see the veterinary dentist twice per year. We continue to assess the soft tissues of the mouth like the gums and tongue and palate and the bones of the jaws for problems like temporomandibular disorder (TMD) and cancers of the mouth, head and neck.
Veterinary Dentist in Nebraska
Nebraska Dentistry and Oral Surgery for Animals was formed in 2021 and is the only board-certified veterinary dentistry referral center in Nebraska. If you notice your feline companion is missing teeth or possibly struggling with dental disease, give us a call today. Our veterinary dentist, Erich Rachwitz, DVM, and the rest of our team will treat your cat like a part of the family.
Images used under creative commons license – commercial use (6/3/2022). Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash