Many cat owners look at the grace, athleticism and beauty of their pets and think that they have the “perfect” animal. Unfortunately, many of these same cats will have a very “imperfect” mouth, due to a serious and very painful condition that causes teeth to resorb, dissolve and even break! Here’s what we know about tooth resorption in cats.
Ask any cat owner about how they care for their feline’s teeth and most will reply that “he eats dry food;” or, more commonly, “I really don’t look at her teeth.” While most veterinarians will acknowledge that brushing a cat’s teeth is a real challenge, they will also stress the importance of a routine oral assessment of your cat’s mouth. These exams help find preventable problems and even some concerning issues such as oral cancer. But one of the most serious diseases we are seeing more often is called Feline Tooth Resorption.
Tooth resorption, or “TR” as it is commonly called, is a condition seen in a growing percentage of cats over the age of 6. The same strange condition is also seen in dogs and in people, but it is not nearly as common.
In the past, this disease has been called “neck lesions,” “cervical line lesions” and even the cumbersome “Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions.” Whatever the name, this condition is seen in cats who often appear very normal. The process is a slow progression but causes extreme pain because of the exposure of the root canal. This can even lead to behavior changes and lack of normal appetite.
Dr. Tony Woodward, a noted board-certified veterinary dentist, said the exact cause for TR has not been determined. Theories about exposure to certain viruses, breed prevalence and chronic inflammation of the mouth and gums have all been proposed. Woodward said one study suggests that high levels of Vitamin D in cat foods could be linked to resorptive disease, but that research is still ongoing. Interestingly, there has even been evidence of TR in cat skeletons that are 800 years old!
Cats learn to hide their pain very well. While on the surface they may not appear to be painful, there are subtle signs that they do have mouth pain; and some are so severe they stop eating and lose weight. Observant owners may note that their cat prefers to chew food on just one side or that the cat stops grooming. They may “toss” dry food into the back of their mouth and not chew. As TR progresses, some pets will even develop sullen or aggressive attitudes, as if they are mad at the world!
Interestingly, many of these teeth look normal on a clinical exam. Your veterinarian may point out how some of your cat’s cheek teeth are showing lines of inflamed, fleshy material right near the base of the tooth – typically on the lower jaw. At this point, the erosion has exposed the tooth to the bacteria of the mouth and this is when affected cats become extremely painful. Even under a general anesthetic, a slight touch of these teeth will cause a cat to “chatter” their jaw, indicating very serious pain.
Dental X-rays are the only way to diagnose TR and understand the extent of the disease process. When the radiographs are taken, your veterinarian can see changes in the density of the roots and crowns of the teeth. Affected teeth have a “moth eaten” appearance. Some teeth can be partially affected, while others may have completely dissolved away, leaving a “ghost image.”
Unfortunately, there is no effective treatment that can save the teeth. A normal cleaning and polishing will simply not work. Veterinary dentists have even tried root canal therapies (endodonics), but they fail, as this resorption occurs on a microscopic basis. A tooth that is showing any signs of resorption needs to be extracted. Some cats will need full mouth extractions. All cats with a known history of TR should be X-rayed every six months to a year. It is likely other teeth are affected, and they must be monitored.
The good news in all of this is that once your veterinarian knows about the disease, several things can be done to keep your cat comfortable. Experience has shown that cats who were once not eating well or even aggressive will often have a positive behavior change in just a matter of weeks. It is surprising how the removal of these painful teeth can often bring back your affectionate feline friend.
Cat lovers are often unaware their pets are experiencing such pain. But regular visits to your veterinarian can help identify the issue and start work that will make your cat feel better. If you have a middle-age to older cat, have a comprehensive oral examination for your pet, including dental X-rays and regular dental cleanings.
Dr. Jim Humphries is a house call veterinarian in Falcon. He also serves as a visiting professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Texas A&M University. He lives in Falcon with his wife, horses and Great Danes. http://www.MobilePetDocs.com