Gingivitis in Cats

Open mouth cat

Qingyue Zhang / Getty images

Diseases of the teeth and gums are common in cats. It is thought that as many as 85 percent of cats aged three years and older have some degree of dental disease. Dental disease in cats can cause severe pain and discomfort and untreated it can lead to bone infection, tooth loss, and oral bacteria entering the bloodstream through diseased oral tissues, affecting other organs as well. 

What is Gingivitis? 

Gingivitis refers to inflammation of the gingiva which is the gum surrounding the tooth. Gingivitis can be mild to severe. Mild gingivitis is very common in cats of all ages and is considered the earliest stage of periodontal disease. With moderate gingivitis, as time advances, plaque will accumulate on the teeth and the gingiva will become more inflamed and gum recession may begin at this stage. If left untreated, the gingivitis will worsen and become severe. In severe cases, cats can have difficulty eating, be very painful, and a dental cleaning under anesthesia will be needed. 

Gingivitis can also be seen by various infection or systemic diseases including feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline calicivirus, and autoimmune diseases. 

Signs of Gingivitis in Cats

  • Red and/or swollen gums 
  • Bad breath
  • Drooling
  • Difficulty and/or not eating
  • Weight loss
  • Changes in behavior, more isolated and/or irritable due to pain 

Causes of Gingivitis in Cats 

The most common cause of gingivitis in cats is a build-up of plaque and bacteria. Other predisposing factors include:

  • Infectious diseases such as feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, and feline calcivirus
  • Lack of dental care
  • Genetics: some cats are probably genetically more predisposed to developing dental disease than others.
  • Teeth that are positioned abnormally in the mouth (malaligned) are more likely to accumulate plaque and tartar than those which are correctly positioned.

Reasons for malalignment can include:

  • Very short nosed breeds, or variants in breeds (eg, Persians, Chinchillas, British and Exotic Shorthairs) commonly have abnormally positioned teeth, sometimes severely so. Their jawbones are often too small to accommodate the teeth, resulting in overcrowding and misalignment of teeth.
  • Deciduous tooth retention: In some cats, deciduous teeth ('baby teeth' or 'milk teeth') can be retained after the permanent teeth have erupted (grown through)
  • Trauma or congenital abnormalities (i.e over or under bites, healed, fractured jaw)  

Treatment of Gingivitis

Treatment of gingivitis centers on removing accumulated plaque and dental calculus and treating or extracting destabilized and/or infected teeth to prevent further disease progression. 

Regular dental care and medical management are typically the first line of treatment. A routine dental cleaning and dental x-rays should be performed under anesthesia to address any inflammatory dental disease, remove plaque and tarter, and clean the tissues beneath the gum line. 

Ideally, cats’ teeth should be brushed regularly after the dental cleaning. However, cats with stomatitis have mouths that are commonly too painful to tolerate brushing. Oral rinses or gels may be of benefit.

How to Prevent Gingivitis

The most effective ways to prevent gingivitis is to establish a daily dental care routine, feed an appropriate diet and schedule annual veterinary visits.

It’s important to introduce the concept of brushing to cats slowly and always to use toothbrushes and toothpastes specifically designed for them. Cat toothpastes, for example, have been formulated to be palatable to them. They don’t foam, don’t need to be rinsed away and don’t contain fluoride which is toxic to cats.

How to get your cat comfortable with teeth brushing

  • Get the cat familiar with toothbrush and toothpaste: Find a flavor of cat toothpaste your cat enjoys. Leave both the toothpaste and toothbrush out on the counter and place treats around them to help the cats create a positive association with them. You should also have them lick the toothpaste off your finger or leave a dab on the counter near the toothbrush 
  • Get your cat familiar with you touching their mouth: Choose a delicious lickable treat your cat likes (like tuna or whipped cream) then begin to place a small amount of the lickable treat on one of your cats canines to start and reward with a treat immediately after. Continue to the next step of lifting his or her lips, and slowly and gently rub your cat’s teeth and gums with your finger and reward with a treat immediately after. You can then gradually switch to toothpaste and reward after. 
  • Get your cat comfortable with the toothbrush: Put some toothpaste onto the brush and have the cat lick it off, reward with a treat. When your cat is comfortable with you touching his or her mouth and is familiar with the toothbrush and toothpaste, gradually switch to putting the toothpaste on your finger, and then to putting the toothpaste on the toothbrush. Let your cat lick the paste off the brush at first to get used to having the brush in his or her mouth
  • Brushing: Now that your cat is comfortable with the toothbrush, toothpaste, and you touching their mouth, we can start to work on brushing the teeth. When brushing your cats’ teeth, you only need to brush the outside of their teeth. Gently brush your cats’ teeth along the gum line for 15 to 30 seconds for each side. Give a treat after. 

Remember to go at a pace your cat is comfortable with, be patient, and keep it positive!