About Your Cat's TeethFrom the instruments of gentle "love nibbles" to weapons used to inflict nasty wounds in cat fights, we're all aware that our cats have teeth, and that those teeth are used for many things. But how much do we really know about those feline choppers? Are we doing all we can to keep our cats' teeth and gums healthy? Let's see!
A Kitten's First TeethKittens are born without teeth, and get their first set within 2-4 weeks after birth. The incisors (across the front) come in at about 2 weeks of age. Next are the canines (the long teeth, or "fangs") between 3-4 weeks old, followed by the premolars (just behind the canines, also called "bicuspids") at around 4-6 weeks. Kittens never develop molars as part of their baby teeth.
By 8 weeks (2 months) of age, the baby teeth are all grown in. In total, there are 26 of these kitten teeth, and as we all know, they are sharp as needles! Fortunately, they're not around for long.
Permanent Feline TeethAt 3-4 months of age, kittens start losing their baby teeth and begin sprouting their adult set. First come the incisors up front (6 upper, 6 lower) from about 3.5 to 5.5 months. Before they're all in, the premolars (6 upper, 4 lower) will start growing in along the sides from 4-6 months of age. Next come the big canines (2 upper, 2 lower) at 5.5-6.5 months. While those are still developing fully, the permanent molars (farthest back on the jaw, 2 upper, 2 lower) will grow in starting around 5-6 months old. This is how your vet can tell your kitten's approximate age by looking at the teeth!
A total of 30 permanent teeth will come in, 16 in the upper jaw and 14 in the lower. Cats who are teething like to chew on things, probably for the same reason as human babies: it feels good to them and helps their teeth cut through the gums. Mine have been partial to paper: fast-food napkins, newspaper inserts, junk mail, toilet paper, bills...whatever's handy! They'll even pull tissues out of the box and shred them around the room. Thankfully, this is only a temporary stage. By the time your kitten is 7 months old, all the permanent teeth should have grown in.
Some cats will not lose all their baby teeth when the permanent teeth grow in. If this happens to yours and it's presenting a problem for your kitten, you can take him to the veterinarian to see if the baby tooth should be removed.
I've also experimented with using pacifers for human babies to give my teething cats something to satisfy that chewing urge. The only issue here is finding pacifers small enough for kittens; they do exist. They're not used by cats exactly like they're used by humans because the nipple portion of them is much larger than a cat's nipple. But The Golden Boys enjoyed carrying them around when they were teething and would chew on them a little. I like to think that they helped.
Because cats are obligate carnivores, their teeth are ideally constructed for tearing meat from the carcasses of prey animals. This means they're all sharp. Cats do not chew their food, they use their teeth to tear it, swallowing bigger chunks. The teeth are used like knives to "cut up" the meat so they can swallow it.
But as we've discussed above, cats use their teeth for far more than eating.
Feline teeth are used to catch and kill their prey. The incisors are ideally suited for grabbing a rat or other prey animal on the run and carrying it to where the cat will eat it. They grip and kill it with their canines. There's a small depression on the back of the neck that the cat can feel through its canine teeth, so they can tell where to bite to kill their prey quickly.
At the other end of the spectrum, a mother cat will gently carry her babies by the scruff of their necks with her teeth. This is why you can "scruff" a cat who is anxious to calm him; it's a comfortable feeling similar to being hugged by one's mother.
Cats also use their teeth to give gentle "love bites" when stimulated by a long petting session with their human. When they're young, make sure you train them to do this gently. I've accomplished this by overreacting when one of them would bite me a little too hard. They don't want to hurt you in these loving sessions, so will learn that you find that unpleasant and back off.
But if you're playing rough with your cat and overstimulate kitty, you'll get more than a gentle bite. Learn the warning signs of dilated eyes, swishing tail and a defensive posture, or you'll be enduring both teeth and claws! Cats most definitely use their teeth for defense and when fighting with other cats.
A cat's teeth are essential in combination with its sandpaper-like tongue to comb their fur, grab fleas in it, remove mats, and purge the coat of any other dirt or debris that has become entangled in it. Cats groom like this several times a day, which is why they seldom need for us to bathe them.
Aren't your cat's teeth wonderful?
The Role of Diet in Feline Dental HealthA obligate carnivores, cats in the wild are typically removing meat from the whole carcasses of prey animals. This naturally cleans their teeth, from tearing the tough muscles, joints, and ligaments to scraping every last bit off the larger bones while crunching up and eating the smaller ones.
Those who feed their cats a whole-prey raw diet report that their teeth remain sparkling clean, prompting the cats' veterinarians to inquire as to what type of oral hygiene program they're using. Feeding your cats this way does take some adjustment, however, and not everybody is up to it.
Next step down from that is a raw diet consisting of meat ground specifically for feeding to pets or a prepared raw diet. We'll be discussing these in more detail next month in a post on Feeding Your Cat for Optimal Health; watch for it.
If feeding your cats a whole-prey or raw diet is not something you can stomach, you can clean kitty's teeth by occasionally feeding a raw chicken neck or wings. Make sure it's raw, as cooked bones can cause your cat harm. Try to find canned foods that have whole pieces of meat in them, not the ground-up paté style. Breaking up those into bite-sized pieces with their teeth helps to clean them.
Even some veterinarians (who should know better) will tell you that your cat needs to eat some dry food to "clean the teeth." Don't believe it! Dry food is the worst kind of food you can feed your cat, regardless of the brand, the "grain free" designation, or the price tag. It won't clean your cat's teeth any better than a chunky form of canned food. And if you're feeding whole-prey raw or mixing in those chicken necks, you definitely don't need it.
Common Feline Dental ProblemsJust as in humans, cats are subject to developing gingivitis, or gum disease, if their teeth are not kept clean. Ever smell that "fishy breath" that cats can get? It's a symptom of gum disease. Get your cat to the vet for a dental cleaning, which requires anesthesia, and to make sure it's not something worse...and there are several worse things it could be.
As plaque builds up on your cat's teeth without proper cleaning, your kitty can develop periodontal disease, where pockets form between the teeth and gums. Food then gets into these pockets and causes decay that, over time, leads to bone loss.
Some cats even need braces! They're not so much for looks as they are to correct severe deformities of the cat's mouth area. Some Persian cats have severely protruding upper fangs that need correction. Other cats may have theirs sticking out at odd angles, giving them an uneven bite that makes it hard for them to eat. Even drinking water is difficult for cats with these problems. So feline orthodontia is more medically necessary than in humans.
Did you know that cats can get cavities? It's true! They're different from ours, however, in that they tend to start at the gumline and usually result in loss of the tooth. Veterinarians call these ondoclastic resorptive lesions or "FORLs" and they're quite painful for the cat. They most often strike the premolars (bicuspids) on the lower jaw. Cats who have this may salivate more, show bleeding in the gums, or even have difficulty eating. Your vet can tell if your cat has a FORL because the cat will react severely to a dental probe in that area. The tooth will need to be removed, along with any adjacent tissue that has been affected.
Cats can also get endodontic disease. When the root canal of a cat's tooth is exposed to bacteria, often due to a broken tooth, it typically results in a tooth root abscess. The infection can spread to tissues around the tooth, as well. It most often happens to the canine teeth and the fourth upper premolar. The tooth may be broken due to an accident, a fight, or biting down hard on something harder than the cat's teeth. A cat may avoid that side of the mouth when chewing, drop food chewed on that side, or paw at the area. There may be swelling in the cheek just under the eye. Get your kitty to the vet before this abscess bursts and spreads infection everywhere!
A similar condition that affects the cat's entire mouth is stomatitis. This is possibly caused by an autoimmune problem. Dental plaque triggers an overreaction by the cat's immune system, causing kitty's mouth tissues to become inflamed. Cats who get this usually salivate a lot and lose weight due to an inability to eat. The condition can extend all the way into the cat's throat area. Kitty's gumline will be red and swollen, even if you can't see any plaque on his teeth. Again, this is a condition that mainly affects the molars and premolars. The treatment for it involves removing all of the cat's teeth.
When left untreated, feline oral disease will harbor infection that can be spread through the cat's bloodstream to the major organs: heart, liver, kidneys, and lungs. Serious health issues can develop and cost you thousands of dollars in care...or even cost your cat its life! Isn't it worth investing a little time and money in properly caring for your cat's teeth instead?
Additional Risk Factors for Feline Oral DiseaseCertain breeds of cats have a higher incidence of feline periodontal disease. These include Siamese and Oriental Shorthair cats.
Older cats are also more susceptible to dental problems. If a proper oral health program is not in place, cats as young as 3 years can start to show signs of tooth and gum disease - that's the equivalent to a human of 28-32 years old! But imagine the condition of your teeth if you never brushed them for that long.
If your cat has the FIV, FeLV (feline leukemia), or FIP, he will be more disposed to developing dental disease. This makes sense, as the cat's immune system is already compromised.
If your cats fall into any of these groups, keep a close eye on their teeth and get them checked regularly by your veterinarian.
Watch Out for Cat Bites!We all get bitten by our cats from time to time; whether it's during a bath, trying to give a pill, or if one of them gets a fright and freaks out. Claw damage is bad enough, but if your cat bites you, don't take it lightly.
Your cat's teeth have a lot of bacteria on them. And those canines are long and sharp, so they'll carry that bacteria deep under your skin. They're made for piercing flesh and killing prey, remember? If they can cut through a rat's vertebrae and spinal cord, they can do some serious damage to you, as well.
If the wound appears to be healing, it could still be harboring these germs underneath the skin, where they'll be carried throughout your body in your bloodstream. Soon you could develop an abscess that could burst and cause all kinds of problems. People have ended up in the hospital over a "minor" cat bite because they didn't treat it properly.
If you get bitten by your cat, or by all means if a stray bites you, immediately flush the wound with saline solution or hydrogen peroxide. Bandage it to stem the worst of the bleeding (a little is actually a good thing) and go to the doctor to get an antibiotic. It's not something to dismiss as minor.
Proper Feline Oral CareA proper diet and regular dental care may prevent your cat from having to endure the problems listed above. Feeding the proper diet, as described above, will help.
If your cat will tolerate it, you can brush his teeth. There are special cat toothbrushes made just for this; a human one is too large. And never use human toothpaste for a cat (even the natural brands); you'll need to get some of the special toothpaste made just for cats. Start brushing kitty's teeth at a young age, make it a pleasant experience, and the cat may actually enjoy it. I know an animal communicator whose cat told her she liked having her teeth brushed because it made her feel like a little person!
Not all cats will tolerate tooth brushing, however. There are several alternatives, from water additives and sprays to treats, that work to varying degrees. Every cat is different.
Even without teeth, cats can usually eat most canned foods without hesitation, and can even crunch up some dry foods with just their jawbones. (But remember the caveat above about the unhealthy nature of dry food for cats.) You can pay more for better food and proper dental care now, or pay more in the long run, while your cat suffers from mouth pain and possible serious disease from untreated dental problems.
February is Pet Dental Health Month, so it's a great time to call your vet and make an appointment for a feline dental check. Do it today!
Sources: "Dental Anatomy of Cats", Vivo, Colorado State University; "When Kitty Needs a Dentist", Cornell Feline Health Center; "5 Things About Your Cat's Teeth", JaneA Kelley, Catster; "Cats: Teeth", Kidzone; "Feline Dental Health Concerns: Resorption Lesions and Stomatitis", Town Centre Veterinary Hospital; "Tooth Root Abscess in Cats", Dr. Jan Bellows, VCA Hospitals; "Endodontic Disease and Root Canal Treatment", American Veterinary Dental College; "8 FAQs about Dental Disease in Cats (Feline Periodontal Disease)", MedicAnimal; "Cat Teeth", Cat World Australia; "Twelve Facts About Your Cat's Teeth", Show Cats Online.