Ginger, an 8 year old cat who was suffering from toothache.

Ginger lives the life of a typical modern Irish cat. He lives in a suburban house, and is fed on tinned food, supplemented by his own hunting expeditions. He has free access to the outdoors and enjoys going out and about. He’s sometimes gone for most of the day, and when he comes home, he’s prone to bringing back mice and, less commonly, small birds.

Robert first noticed Ginger behaving strangely at meal times a couple of weeks ago. The cat normally has an excellent appetite; whenever food is put out in his bowl, he rushes towards it, lapping it up hungrily.  Now he paused as he approached his dinner. He’d stop, looking at the food bowl suspiciously, then move forward towards it hesitantly. He’d then take a few mouthfuls slowly, chewing cautiously. After a few moments, he’d shake his head violently from side to side, turn around, and bolt out of the room as if he was being chased by a dog. He’d then leave his food for a few hours, before coming back again. This strange behaviour meant that it was taking him all day to eat food that he’d normally scoff in five minutes. There was obviously something bothering him, which is why Robert brought him to see me.

Ginger’s behaviour was typical of a cat with dental pain, and I expected to find an obvious abnormality when I opened his mouth to have an initial look. I was surprised to find that, in fact, his mouth seemed healthy: there were no broken teeth, and no evidence of periodontal disease or gingivitis.

The second stage of a dental examination involves closely checking each tooth individually. I used a blunt-tipped fine metal probe to gently poke around the base of every tooth in his mouth. Ginger didn’t mind as I did this until I reached his right lower molar. As I pushed the probe below the gum margin of this tooth, he pulled away and hissed angrily at me. When I removed the probe, a trickle of blood oozed from the area. I’d found the cause of the problem.

Ginger was suffering from a classic example of a type of dental decay that’s unique to cats: a condition commonly known as a “neck lesion”, because the decay happens at the neck of the tooth, at the junction of the crown (above the gum margin) and the root (below the gum margin). Cats don’t get dental decay anywhere else on their teeth: it’s always at this location, just out of sight beneath the gum edge. This means that it’s usually invisible to owners: the only way that it can be found is by pushing a probe beneath the gum, as I’d done. If a cat starts to show odd behaviour at feeding time, it’s always worth asking a vet to check its teeth to look for this common cause of toothache.

Nobody knows the precise cause of this problem: mummified cats from Ancient Egypt had evidence of neck lesions on their teeth, so it’s not as simple as blaming modern cat food. Optimal dental health, from giving some biscuit formulated food, and perhaps even brushing a cat’s teeth, can help to prevent the problem, but few people would be prepared to go to such lengths with their independent minded moggies.

Affected teeth are not painful all the time, but they’re exquisitely touch-sensitive, so that when food comes into contact with the tooth, it causes sharp pain. There’s only one cure: extraction of the decayed tooth.

Ginger’s tooth was extracted under general anaesthesia. The day after the procedure, he rushed forward to his food at meal time, munching it contentedly while looking at Robert as if to say “Mmmmmm, that’s better”.

Tips

  • Cats can suffer from dental pain, just like people
  • The source of the problem is not always immediately obvious
  • Dental extractions, rather than fillings, are the best way to deal with decayed cat teeth

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