Jasper has always been a healthy cat. I see him every April for his booster vaccination, and I always enjoy his distinctive Siamese personality. This year, as I checked him all over prior to his shot, there was one part of his body that was not quite right: his mouth. Jasper has been having mild dental problems since he was a two year old cat, and his owners have been doing their best to keep his teeth healthy. This year, for the first time, it was clear that he finally needs some serious attention from his dentist. He has a series of cavities along the sides of his back teeth, and as I examined these with a probe, he flinched. If he could talk, I know that he would tell me that these areas are often painful when he eats.
Dental problems are a normal part of aging for animals. Young dogs and cats nearly always have healthy mouths, with white, perfectly aligned teeth, and pink healthy gums. Over the years, the wear-and-tear of daily eating begins to have a marked effect. Dark brown tartar accumulates at the base of the teeth. The gums recede and bacterial infection moves in. Halitosis and painful teeth are very common.
Ken and his wife have done their best to keep Jasper’s teeth healthy. They have paid particular attention to his oral hygiene ever since he first had a bout of gingivitis at two years of age. Way back then, I had explained the different options of pet dental care to them. Ideally, a pet’s teeth should be brushed several times a week.
There is a myth that animal teeth are ‘self-cleaning’, but this is not true. Studies show that animals only use certain parts of their teeth to chew – and so most of the teeth remain untouched. It has been estimated that using bones, chews and dry biscuits does help a bit, but this only gives around ten per cent of the positive effect of brushing an animal’s teeth. Ken did look at the possibility of tooth-brushing for his cat, but Jasper is one of those creatures who would just not accept the routine. He would flee the room if someone approached him with a toothbrush, and even if he could be held still, there is no way that he would allow his teeth to be brushed properly.
The Wheatleys decided to take the second approach to cat dental care. They started to feed Jasper a special diet that is designed to keep cats’ teeth clean. The diet – sold through vets – is made up of dry biscuits with a difference. Some type of fibrous binding agent is included in the formulation, so that the biscuits don’t crumble straight away when they are chewed. Instead, they break up slowly, almost like a hybrid between normal biscuits and chewing gum. As the cat chews the food, their teeth are pushed through the centre of the biscuit several times before it is broken up for swallowing. The action of the special biscuits on the teeth is a bit like dental chewing gum in people. Studies have shown that when cats are fed the special diet, their teeth stay healthier for longer.
The special diet has worked well for Jasper. After his initial bout of gingivitis at two years of age, his mouth settled down, and his teeth have been in excellent condition up until this year. Many cats with his problem would have needed dental attention by three or four years of age. He is now eight years old, and it is the first time that he has had painful teeth. The problem that Jasper has now is common in older cats, and one that cannot be completely prevented by tooth brushing or special diets. He has small cavities around the roots of his back teeth, a problem that is known as “tooth resorption”. This is a problem that is caused partly by the shearing forces that are placed on teeth during normal chewing. When humans develop the same problem, they report severe tooth sensitivity when eating, and so it is seems certain that cats like Jasper will suffer from the same discomfort.
In humans, tooth resorption can be treated with elaborate techniques involving tooth reconstruction. In cats, a simple answer is much more effective and appropriate: extraction of affected teeth. Once the teeth are extracted, the pain resolves completely. Cats have completely normal lives, often eating dried food as before, even when they have many teeth missing. When a cat has painful teeth extracted, owners often report that they seem to be in much better form than before, spending more time playing with their owners.
Cat dentistry cannot be undertaken with simple local anaesthesia, as in humans. There is no way that any self-respecting cat would sit still, mouth open, while a vet approached them with a syringeful of local anaesthetic. Instead, a full general anaesthetic is needed, and Jasper has been booked in for this procedure later in the week.
I expect that I will need to extract around half a dozen painful teeth, and Jasper may need regular pain relief to keep him comfortable for the following couple of days. The good news is that once he has made a full recovery, he will have a pain-free, healthy mouth. Cats don’t smile, but if they did, Jasper would be able to flash a broad, gleaming-white, Hollywood grin.
- Cats need dental care, just like humans
- Preventative care, such as special diets, can be very helpful
- If a cat has painful teeth, extraction is often the best answer