cat teeth cleaning

Gum Disease in Cats: Causes, Symptoms & Cure

Have you noticed that your cat’s breath smells? Are its gums swollen, red, cracked and bleeding? If so, it might have gingivitis. But what it gingivitis and what causes it?

What is gingivitis? It’s a health condition that affects a cat’s teeth and gums. Plaque builds up on the teeth, a mixture of saliva, starches from food, and bacteria. This hardens to form tartar, which collects near the gumline. The bacteria in the tartar and its physical hardness combine to irritate and infect the gum, making it swell and become red. It can progress until it affects the teeth and makes them fall out. Symptoms include halitosis (bad breath), redness and swelling in the gums, bleeding gums, irritation and pain, tooth loss, difficulty eating and weight loss. If the teeth are unaffected, the condition can be entirely reversed with immunosuppressants and antibiotics combined with scaling and polishing of the teeth.

The guide below is a thorough examination of gingivitis, and its related condition, periodontitis (advanced gingivitis). We’ll look at what causes gingivitis, whether it’s contagious, what the symptoms are, how you treat it (both naturally and with dental/medical care), how you prevent it, and how much it all might cost you.

What Is Gingivitis?

Gingivitis is a common kind of gum disease that affects cats. If you happen to know a lot about the human form of the disease, it’s much the same as the one that affects cats. The term gingivitis comes from ‘gingiva’, which is the scientific term for where the gum meets the teeth.

Gingivitis causes several key symptoms that are easy to notice: irritation, redness and swelling of the gums, and bad breath. It can progress to a more severe form of gum disease called periodontitis, which causes tooth loss. Tooth and gum disease in cats is common, ranging from gingivitis to tooth loss.

What Causes Gingivitis in Cats?

kitten teethGingivitis is caused by a buildup of something called plaque. Plaque is a see-through film that forms on the teeth after eating. It’s a sticky fluid that’s made of water from saliva, starches from food, and bacteria.

If it isn’t cleaned away, plaque eventually turns to tartar. This is the same thing as plaque, only it’s left to harden and coat the tooth. It collects underneath the gumline on the surface of the tooth. Since there is bacteria in and underneath the tartar, it forms a kind of protective shield so that the bacteria can’t be brushed, licked or otherwise moved away. They can then grow without being disturbed, and go on to infect the gumline.

It’s then that tartar causes gingivitis. The longer the tartar remains in place, the worse the gingivitis gets. There are also other prior causes that make gingivitis more likely to occur, which are detailed below. The bacteria cause the inflammation and smell that gingivitis are known for, but part of the condition is the immune system’s overreaction to the tartar. The immune system goes into overdrive trying to get rid of the tartar/bacteria, but because the tartar cannot easily be broken down, it overreacts. This causes problems of its own, making the area more inflammed and painful.

Lack of Dental Care

The most obvious cause of gingivitis is a lack of good dental hygiene. If you take good care of your cat’s teeth, then the probability of it developing gingivitis is dramatically reduced.

This is something that a lot of owners don’t appreciate. It is possible to teach a cat to accept having its teeth cleaned, especially if you teach it to trust you, and begin when it’s young. You don’t need to use minty toothpaste; just gently brushing with a bare toothbrush is enough to help. Some vets can either clean your cat’s teeth for you, or show you how to do it.

You don’t need to floss your cat’s teeth. For one thing, your cat probably wouldn’t let you, as the feeling is unusual and can be painful. But besides that, there’s less need, because your cat’s teeth are pointier than our own. There’s less chance of things getting caught between them.

If your cat has tartar, this cannot easily be brushed away. You will need to have your cat’s teeth professionally cleaned instead.

Infection With Common Cat Viruses

Gingivitis can be made more likely to occur and more serious if your cat has one of several common viruses.

These viruses like feline herpesvirus, feline immunodeficiency virus, FeLV and feline parvovirus all make the cat’s immune system less effective. Your cat cannot overcome these viruses, so its immune system is constantly tasked with trying to stop them spreading. This constant state of stress, the inflammation, the spiking fevers and general lethargy all contribute to worsening your cat’s health overall and making it a target for secondary infections like gingivitis. These viruses can be prevented with vaccination.

Moreover, they also mean that if your cat does develop gingivitis, it’s more likely to get worse. Your cat will have fewer immune resources available to keep the bacterial infection of the gums at bay. This means it’s more likely to cause severe symptoms like intense pain, noticeable swelling and tooth loss.

Teeth That Are Incorrectly Formed or Positioned

If your cat’s teeth aren’t formed/positioned correctly, they stand more of a chance of developing tartar. Teeth that are closer to others or that point at odd angles are particularly susceptible. Say that one of your cat’s teeth is pointing outwards slightly: plaque, and then tartar, would accumulate easily at the point where the tooth meets the gum.

Is Gingivitis in Cats Contagious?

Gingivitis is not a contagious condition in cats. One reason is that viruses spread easily through transmission of bodily fluids like saliva. Bacteria can, but not as readily. And since gingivitis is caused by a unique mix of food, bacteria and saliva that sticks to your cat’s teeth, this can’t be spread.

But besides that, the bacteria that cause gingivitis are present in your cat’s mouth already. Therefore if your cat picks up those bacteria from another cat, it doesn’t matter.

Are Some Cats Susceptible to Gingivitis?

As with all health conditions, there is a possibility that the cause of gingivitis is partly genetic. Or, more accurately, some cats are more susceptible to gingivitis because they don’t have strong immune systems. It’s also a frequent occurrence for a cat that has previously had gingivitis to develop it again, whether because the condition never quite went away, or because the conditions that caused it in the first place haven’t changed.

What Does Gingivitis in Cats Look Like? (Symptoms)

Gingivitis has several obvious symptoms. Some appear before the others, so you may not see all of them at once.

So, how do you know if your cat has dental problems? Check against the symptoms listed below.

Bad Breath

The first symptom that most people notice is bad breath.

Bad breath is the result of bacteria in your cat’s mouth. Bacteria thrive in places where there are lots of sugars for them to use for energy, and lots of water/fluid. That makes your cat’s mouth the perfect place for them to live. That’s the case even when your cat doesn’t have gingivitis, which means that a ‘diagnosis’ of bad breath doesn’t necessarily indicate the disease. But gingivitis makes it worse and more noticeable. That’s because the bacteria produce bad-smelling gases when they eat.

You will notice your cat’s breath particularly when it yawns.

Drooling & Wetness Around Mouth

Another early symptom is if your cat drools. This drool collects around your cat’s mouth, so can make the area around the mouth damp. This can occur because the mouth won’t shut properly, either because of malformed teeth, painful teeth and gums, or spaces in the gums where teeth were lost.

Difficulty Eating & Consequent Weight Loss

cat food ingredients

The reason for your cat’s difficulty eating is that gum disease is painful. If you’ve ever had gum disease, or any other dental problem, you will have experienced a similar pain.

This pain leads to two issues: changes in behavior (detailed below), and difficulty eating. Since your cat may find it painful to chew, especially in the later stages of the disease, it will simply avoid doing so. This in turn leads to weight loss.

It can be difficult to spot weight loss, especially in fluffy cats, or cats that have always been big. Your vet may weigh your cat each time they give it a checkup. If that’s the case, then you can spot this change by taking your cat to the vet and asking them to weigh it. You can weigh your cat at home, even if it doesn’t want you to, in the following way:

  • Take regular kitchen scales and place them on a flat surface.
  • Take a medium-sized cardboard box. It should be large enough that your cat can fit in it with a little room to spare, and with enough space that you can close the lid so that the cat can’t get out easily.
  • Place the empty box on the scales and tare the weight. To tare means to weigh the empty box first, so that you can then put the cat and the box together on the scales, subtract the box’s weight, and thus find out the weight of the cat. All digital scales have this function.
  • Get the cat into the box and shut it so that it can’t easily get out. Weigh the box with the cat inside and subtract the weight of the box.

Do this a week later to see if your cat has lost weight, stayed the same weight, or gained weight. You can do this even when your cat isn’t sick as a simple way of gauging its health.

Changes in Behavior

Your cat’s behavior may change because it’s in pain. In particular, you may notice that your cat is more defensive than usual.

This may appear as aggression: your cat may bite and scratch you in what you feel are unprovoked attacks. However, your cat is actually behaving in what it feels is self-defense. The reason for this is your cat feels vulnerable because it’s in pain.

Cats typically try and hide the fact that they’re ill or in pain. It’s for that reason that each of these symptoms is clinical and medical rather than behavioral. This is an adaptation from the wild, where cats were hunted by predators bigger than themselves. Those cats which were obviously in pain couldn’t escape or defend themselves as well as normal, so would make easy prey. While housecats don’t face this issue anymore, the instinct remains, so your cat hides its pain for the most part. It’s only when it feels threatened that it will lash out and its pain becomes obvious.

Since its condition is painful, your cat will resist if you try to have a look in its mouth. This can be an impediment to making an initial diagnosis of gingivitis. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to see a vet.

Swelling & Redness in the Gums

These are symptoms of infection, which is what gingivitis is: infection in the gums.

The redness is a result of the swelling. Swelling occurs during an infection because of the immune response. When the body notices bacteria infecting tissue, it sends lots of histamine to the area. The histamine makes the tissue swell up so that more blood can get there; this is useful because the blood contains lots of antibodies, which are what kill bacteria that gets where it shouldn’t be. The redness occurs because there’s more blood in the area.

As such, you can expect to see red and swollen gums if your cat has gingivitis. Again, this is easier to notice when your cat yawns. Otherwise, you can try and lift your cat’s cheek to see underneath. Cats don’t typically like when you go poking around in or opening their mouths, especially when they have gum disease, which can be painful.

Your cat’s gums may swell to such a size, and become so irritated, that they begin to bleed. This bleeding will only be slight, but it can be noticeable when you check your cat’s mouth for the first time.

My Cat’s Teeth Are Falling Out!

In the later stages of infection, you may notice that your cat loses some of its teeth.

Medically speaking, gingivitis is a term that refers to mild gum disease. As gingivitis gets worse, it can eventually be classified as periodontitis. This is the exact same condition as gingivitis—a bacterial infection of the gums. But as the infection gets worse, it can travel up the gums and affect the roots of the teeth, making them fall out. Cats also experience a condition called tooth resorption, which is where the inner tissue of the tooth breaks down. While the biological cause of tooth resorption is unknown, it occurs secondary to periodontitis.

Bacterial infection of the gums also commonly occurs alongside cavies and other problems with the teeth. That’s because these problems are also caused by poor dental hygiene. This makes tooth loss even more likely.

Can Gingivitis Kill a Cat?

Inflammation of the gums alone cannot kill your cat. It may be painful and irritating for your cat, but it’s not going to prove fatal.

If the condition is left entirely unchecked, then it can progress. Gingivitis first progresses to periodontitis, which causes severe inflammation and tooth loss. There are multiple ways in which periodontitis can kill your cat:

  • It can contribute to overall poor health in conjunction with other health issues
  • The bacteria in the gums can get into the bloodstream and damage the internal organs, leading to death (a condition known as sepsis)
  • Tooth loss can stop your cat from eating, and it can die as a result

With prompt treatment, though, these worst effects can be avoided.

How Do You Treat Gingivitis in Cats?

Gingivitis can be treated and reversed. With appropriate treatment the swelling in your cat’s gums will go down, and it won’t lose any of its teeth. It’s important that treatment is timely so that tooth loss does not occur. If your cat’s teeth are wobbly/loose or have already fallen out, then treatment will not reverse that issue. But you can still treat your cat’s inflammation and pain.

The first step whenever your cat is ill is to take it to the vet. There are several reasons for this:

  • The vet can diagnose exactly what’s wrong with your cat. If you misdiagnose your cat, you could end up treating it for the wrong condition. Your vet can also identify how far the condition has progressed, which is important since there are different ways of treating simple and serious gum infection.
  • The vet has access to the best medications, many of which are not available over the counter. Antibiotics and painkillers are good examples, both of which might be necessary for your cat. Furthermore, not all antibiotics work on the same bacteria, so your vet may need to check which bacterial species is infecting your cat’s gums before administering the correct pills. This isn’t something you can figure out at home.
  • The vet can perform follow-up checks to see if the treatment is working. Gingivitis can take a while to treat, so this is important too.

A vet visit is therefore something you should undertake whether you demand a holistic or homeopathic treatment, or a normal pharmaceutical/dental/surgical treatment. Leaving your cat gingivitis untreated, or treating it in a way that isn’t going to help, is not an option.

Immunosuppressant and Antibiotic Drugs

There are two kinds of medication that the vet might prescribe for your cat: immunosuppressants and antibiotics.

This might seem somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, immunosuppressants stop the immune system from doing what it does. But antibiotics are supposed to help the immune system by killing the bacteria infecting the area of infection. The reason for this is that both can have their role, depending on what precisely is causing the inflammation.

Immunosuppressants may be necessary because the inflammation and irritation can be made worse when the immune system overreacts. While the immune system can kill bacteria, it cannot shift the tartar, so remains in a state of continual defensive stress. Immunosuppressants give your cat’s immune system the chance to relax, while dentistry and antibiotics take care of the problem for it.

Antibiotics will combat the deep infection of the gums and teeth. The infection reaches places that toothbrushes and teeth scalers can’t reach, so antibiotics are necessary. Follow your vet’s guidance on how and how often to administer these medications.

Tooth Scaling & Polishing

The tartar that has built up on your cat’s teeth cannot be removed though brushing. But if it stays where it is, then the gingivitis cannot be managed or reversed. As such it’s imperative that the teeth be thoroughly cleaned so that the infection and inflammation can be treated.

This is done by ‘scaling’ and polishing the teeth. Scaling is a routine dental procedure that removes plaque and tartar. It gets rid of any visible tartar from the gumline, but can also clean underneath the gumline, which is essential to full recovery. It can be done either manually with a pick or with an ultrasonic instrument that blasts the tartar away. If you’ve ever had your teeth deep cleaned by a dentist, then scaling would have been a part of the procedure.

Polishing is exactly what it sounds like. It is not solely a cosmetic procedure. Polishing leaves the surface of the tooth (the enamel) smooth and clean, thereby removing any additional plaque and tartar formed on the tooth. It essentially leaves the tooth in ‘as new’ condition, so assists in recovery as much as scaling. Both scaling and polishing can be performed as part of the same dental procedure by normal vets.

Tooth Removal

Depending on the state of your cat’s teeth, the vet may also recommend that some of them are removed. When periodontitis occurs, the teeth can become loose and/or partly hollow. These teeth will stay in such a state even if the treatment for the infection is successful. The vet may therefore determine that it is better to have them removed all at once so that your cat can heal fully, rather than having it in pain and in recovery for an extended period.

This is something that is decided on a case-by-case basis. The vet will check to see how sound each tooth is and make a decision based on that.

Pain Management for Gingivitis in Cats

The vet’s next thought may be to manage the pain of the gingivitis. This is especially the case if the condition has reached the later stages. Not only is managing its pain good for your cat, but it helps the cat stop irritating the area by grooming it, which can aid in the gums coming back to full health.

There are many ways to manage pain in cats. Painkillers can be administered either as liquid or as pills. Discuss with your vet which form is likely going to be best for your cat.

Homeopathy for Gingivitis in Cats

In many cases, homeopathy is not a suitable replacement for pharmaceutical or surgical medical care. But in the case of gingivitis, it may have some effect.

Case studies published by Innovative Veterinary Care indicate that certain homeopathic treatments may be beneficial. The case of Samson is illustrative:

Samson, a five-year-old male Siamese-cross feral cat, was taken in by a foster family after being trapped. …

A homeopathic analysis was performed using the following symptoms characterizing Samson’s unique presentation of his disease:

• Right-sided inflammation
• Excessive thirst
• Soft stool
• Profuse green-tinged saliva
• Red ulcerated gums
• Confident demeanor with tendency towards aggression

Based upon this particular presentation of symptoms, Samson was given one dry dose of homeopathic Mercurius viv 30c. Within two days, his mouth appeared less red and inflamed, with decreased salivation.

A month later, his salivation had begun to increase slightly. There were no new symptoms. Therefore, the same remedy in a higher potency was selected, and Mercurius 200c was given. The client reported, “His whole demeanor changed almost immediately. He became more vibrant and seemed much happier. Over the next day or two, the green ooze completely stopped. His mouth looked great.”

Since that time, Samson has become calmer and more relaxed and is no longer biting. The excessive salivation and halitosis have resolved. His gingiva are normal, with no redness or swelling.

If this is something you are interested in, talk to your vet about your options. It’s important to note that this treatment is not instead of scaling and polishing, but in conjunction with it; if the tartar is not gotten rid of, it will continue to irritate and infect your cat’s gums.

Coconut Oil for Cat Gingivitis

The idea of using coconut oil to improve dental health is not a new one. It’s common in Asia and Africa to do so. On the one hand, there is limited evidence from an African journal that it may work; on the other hand, the American Dental Association don’t recommend its use. It makes more sense to stick with tried, proven methods.

Prevention of Gingivitis in Cats

Prevention is always better than cure. In this case, it also happens to be a lot easier.

All you have to do to entirely prevent gingivitis in your cat’s mouth is brush its teeth regularly. Brushing gets rid of plaque. Without plaque, tartar cannot form, and gingivitis cannot occur. It’s for the same reason that we brush our own teeth each night. When you brush your cat’s teeth, don’t use the same toothpaste you use when you brush your own teeth, as this may be toxic to your cat. Instead, use a tooth gel/toothpaste designed specifically for cats.

How to Brush a Cat’s Teeth

The idea of brushing a cat’s teeth may seem silly, but it a) is possible without making your cat hate you and b) is highly effective. Before you start, follow these steps:

  • Have a professional brush your cat’s teeth for you. They will keep your cat comfortable, and so stand more chance of success; they will also show you how it’s done. A vet or veterinary nurse can do the job for you.
  • Ask them if they stock toothpaste for cats, or know somewhere that does. These toothpastes are flavored with flavors that cats like, such as chicken.
  • Ask them if they stock toothbrushes for cats as well. Soft toothbrushes are the best. Ones designed for cats are smaller so that they can fit in a cat’s mouth more easily.
  • Get your cat used to the taste of the toothpaste without the toothbrush. Place a dab on your finger and allow the cat to lick it off. Since it tastes like something they like, they should enjoy it.
  • Let the cat see and smell the toothbrush so that it knows what it is.
  • Set up a routine on which you brush your cat’s teeth. Every day is, of course, ideal. But even brushing once every other day or even just once a week is better than not brushing at all. Do so at the same time each day as cats do best with routine.

After all this, you can start actually brushing your cat’s teeth. It’s important that you do this right, because you don’t want your cat to react too negatively to it. If your cat doesn’t like having its teeth brushed, and doesn’t accept you doing it, everything will be much harder. You therefore have to take the following careful approach:

  • Approach your cat when it’s calm and relaxed.
  • Hold your cat’s cheeks and lift them up gently. Do so from behind as the cat’s natural reaction is to back away. This exposes your cat’s teeth for you to brush.
  • Place the toothbrush on your cat’s teeth without brushing them. This will get it used to the feel of the toothbrush.
  • If all goes well, progress to brushing your cat’s teeth with the toothpaste. Do so gently and slowly: imagine you’re brushing a baby’s teeth. Do so for a brief period at first—just a few seconds—before brushing for longer next time.

At each stage of the process, use treats to encourage your cat to allow you to brush its teeth. Better yet, you could use clicker training. Clicker training is where you click a clicker and offer a treat when your cat displays a behavior you want it to display. It’s typically used to teach cats tricks like rolling over, but can also be applied to scenarios like these. Read the full guide linked above for more information.

Does Dry Food Clean a Cat’s Teeth?

One way that some people seek to prevent gingivitis in cats is through feeding them dry cat food. It’s thought that the dry, abrasive texture of the food could remove both plaque and tartar, slowing or preventing the development of gingivitis. On the surface this seems like a resonable proposition.

However, there are several reasons why this doesn’t work in the way that people think it does. One is that cats don’t chew their kibble as much as they could. They may bite it once or twice, breaking it into large chunks, or they may not chew it at all. It stands to reason that if your cat isn’t chewing the dry food then it would have no effect in this regard.

Even when your cat does chew its kibble, it’s still not effective. That’s because cats break the kibble with the tops of their teeth, and it immediately breaks up. Your cat doesn’t sink its tooth into the kibble all the way, scrubbing it from top to bottom. Since the tartar that’s responsible for gingivitis is at the top of the tooth, then, what chewing does happen is ineffective.

Another issue is that tartar is very tough. A sharp, pointy pick or a highly powered ultrasonic device is required to remove it. The force of your cat’s jaws and the breaking up of the kibble isn’t enough to remove it.

It’s still true that wet, sticky soft food can be bad for a cat’s teeth. The fluid component of wet food contains lots of starches that are readily available for bacteria, which isn’t the case with biscuits. So dry food may still be preferable for this reason. But it can’t clean your cat’s teeth and promote good dental health.

How Much Does It Cost to Treat Gingivitis in Cats?

The exact cost of treating gingivitis in cats depends on several factors. The overall cat gingivitis treatment cost will be somewhere between $250 and $1500.

One variable is where you live. Vet treatment in big cities tends to be more expensive than in more rural areas, as part of the general trend of things in cities being more expensive. The more expensive the city you live in, the more likely the price to be at the higher end of that range.

Another variable is how much treatment your cat needs. If all your cat requires are immunosuppressants and antibiotics, then you won’t pay much. But if your cat needs its teeth scaled and polished, some of its teeth out, and repeat checkups for a condition that won’t go away then you will pay more. If you’re concerned about the price of your cat’s dental care, talk to your insurance company, or check to see which vet is cheapest in your area. Just remember that the cheap option isn’t necessarily the best option when it comes to healthcare of any kind.