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Cats:  Dental Tidbits

How many teeth to cats have?
Cats have 30 adult teeth and 26 baby teeth. That’s far fewer than dogs (42 and 28) and less than humans (32 and 20). Those “fangs” or upper canine teeth often protrude saber-tooth tiger style and lend some cats an intimidating smile. 

When do cats get their baby and adult teeth?

Observing the eruption or emergence of teeth is a great method for estimating a kitten’s age. This is particularly helpful when faced with a stray kitten. The first teeth to erupt are the tiny front teeth or incisors and the long, pointy canines (some people still refer to them as “fangs.”  The primary (or “baby”) incisors and canines become visible around three to four weeks of age. The teeth immediately behind the canines, the premolars, quickly follow the front teeth. This typically occurs when the kittens are around five to six weeks old. The permanent teeth erupt around 11 to 16 weeks of age, beginning with the incisors followed by the canines at 12 to 20 weeks. The premolars are in place by 16 to 20 weeks of age. The difficult-to-see, way-in-the-back molars emerge around 20 to 24 weeks. 

How can I tell if my cat has gum disease?

Start by lifting your cat’s lips. If you see dirty or discolored teeth, typically an ugly brownish-greenish color, this is likely tartar or plaque and is an early sign of imminent gum or periodontal disease. Next examine the gums for any swelling or redness. If you brush your fingertip along the gum line and observe the tissues become angry and inflamed or even bleed, this indicates more serious gum infection and disease. Finally, take a whiff. If your cat's breath is foul smelling, this is usually associated with bacterial infection.  A cat with a healthy mouth should have pleasant or at least neutral odor. If your cat exhibits any of these signs, see your veterinarian for help.

My vet said my cat had some painful tooth problem that may require extraction of several teeth. Is this legit?
Your cat may be one of the millions of cats affected by an unusual, exceptionally common and extremely painful condition known most often as feline ondoclastic resorptive lesions, or FORLs. Most cats with FORLs are over five years old. The most common clinical signs associated with FORLs include excessive salivation, bleeding from the gum line or teeth, and difficulty eating. Many of my patients will suddenly become “picky” and refuse to eat dry kibble. There are many treatments available, but extraction is still the most commonly performed procedure to relieve this excruciating condition. The exact cause of FORLs has yet to be determined, although researchers are actively pursuing several theories. 

My cat has swollen gums and his entire mouth seems inflamed. What’s going on?
Your cat may have a condition called stomatitis (more correctly referred to as lymphocytic plasmacytic gingivitis pharangitis syndrome). This condition is also very painful and most cats have problems eating and swallowing, weight loss, and excessive salivation. Treatments vary widely and cats respond differently to an assortment of options. The exact cause is unknown although an underlying immune-mediated disorder is strongly suspected. Be patient and work closely with your veterinarian; cats with stomatitis require extended periods of treatment. 

Can cats get mouth cancer?
Sadly, yes. Oral tumors in cats are very serious and require immediate and aggressive treatment. Squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) are the most common malignant oral tumor in cats, although many other forms of cancer occur. If you observe any lumps, swelling, or discolored areas in your cats’ mouth, have it seen by your veterinarian at once. 

I can’t brush my cat’s teeth! Am I a bad pet parent?
If not brushing your cat’s teeth is your worst offense, I’m not going to say you’re a bad kitty parent.   If it isn't possible, it is even more important to have their teeth regularly cleaned (typically at least once a year) under anesthesia by a veterinarian.  Under anesthesia each tooth is evaluated and a thorough examination of the entire oral cavity is performed.  

Following the dental procedure, cats should be offered chew treats approved by your veterinarian to help reduce tartar in cats.  Some cats will tolerate oral antimicrobial rinses and tooth brushing.  It is also important to do your own oral exam and look at the lips, teeth and gums each week to make sure everything looks healthy. So don’t fret; take your cats to your veterinarian at least once a year, have the teeth cleaned by a veterinarian when needed, conduct routine home mouth checks, and use products proven to help keep your kitty’s mouth healthy.

And because more than 14% of cats tested with oral disease were positive for feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and feline leukemia virus (FeLV), dental exams should also include FIV/FeLV testing.  Cats most at risk for FIV/FeLV infection include:

  • Cats that have been exposed to other cats with an unknown FIV/FeLV status
  • Cats exposed to other cats that have tested positive for FIV/FeLV
  • Cats with an unknown FIV/FeLV testing history
  • Any cat that spends any time outdoors

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