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My cat broke a tooth. Should we take her to the vet or let it heal naturally?

Dear Sinéad, Siouxsie and Thomas:
Kitty has broken a canine. It looks as if it has just snapped off. We should like to know whether it is best policy to have the tooth taken out or whether to just leave it to nature to heal. Kitty is eight months old and has just had her neutering operation so if possible we would like to save her from another vets visit if it isn't necessary. What do you think?

Thanks,
Linda

Sinéad: Well, Linda, think about this for a moment. If you broke or chipped a tooth, how would you feel?

Siouxsie: If you chip a tooth, it's inconvenient and annoying, but generally not too painful. If Kitty's fang is broken off close to the end of the tooth, you could probably wait a little while.

Thomas: But if the tooth is broken off close to the gum, and particularly if the nerve is exposed, it could be quite painful. The closer to the nerve the break is, the more sensitive the tooth will be to extremes in temperature and the like.

Sinéad: Cats have all their adult teeth by the time they're about three months old, so at eight months of age, Kitty's not going to grow any new teeth.

Siouxsie: And, of course, teeth don't heal by themselves. Once a tooth is broken, it's broken for good.

Thomas: And there's no cosmetic dentistry -- caps and the like -- for cats, either. So, now that the tooth is broken, that's the way it's going to be for the rest of Kitty's life. Unless it falls out or is removed, of course.

Sinéad: Healthy teeth don't break from minor impacts. While your kitty could chip a tooth from chewing on a prey animal with hard bones, a break closer to the root of the tooth could be a result of a road accident or a fall. It could also be the result of tooth decay, which is more common than you might think.

Siouxsie: Considering your kitty's age, it's pretty unlikely that she's suffering from tooth decay. However, she could have had an accident. Look for other signs of injury such as ragged claws or scuff marks on the fur or skin.

Thomas: If you see any symptoms that would suggest a more serious injury -- dizziness, bleeding, unevenly dilated pupils, nausea, lethargy, or lameness, for example -- get the cat to a vet right away.

Sinéad: We would recommend that you call your vet and ask for his or her advice about how best to deal with Kitty's broken tooth.

Siouxsie: Your vet may want to examine Kitty to determine if the break is causing pain or discomfort. If the break is causing discomfort, or if Kitty has developed an abscess at the root of the broken tooth, the vet will want to remove the tooth. However, if this is not the case, Kitty should be okay for a while.

Thomas: If the vet tells you that it's okay not to remove the tooth, you will want to keep an eye on Kitty and look for signs of discomfort.

Sinéad: But be advised that cats are very good at hiding pain. This is an ancient survival strategy.

Siouxsie: If Kitty is having tooth pain, you may see her chewing only on one side of her mouth, dropping food, or perhaps swallowing her kibble whole rather than chewing it. You may also see her pawing at her mouth or cheek.

Thomas: If she is in extreme pain, she will stop eating entirely. This is an emergency. Cats can get very sick if they stop eating and lose weight quickly.

Sinéad: If you see any of these signs, or if you see swelling in her cheeks or mouth, contact your vet immediately, especially if these symptoms are accompanied by lethargy or fever.

Siouxsie: It is also possible that the broken tooth could irritate the tissue on the inside of Kitty's cheek. If the broken part rubs against the soft flesh in that area, this could cause a sore spot in Kitty's mouth.

Thomas: Again, if you see her pawing at her cheek, check to see if there is a red or raw area on the inside of the cheek where the broken tooth may be rubbing. Your vet may be able to either smooth the tooth down (if the tooth is viable and not decayed) or remove the tooth, which will alleviate the discomfort.

Sinéad: A couple of years back, we wrote a column about basic dental care for cats. This will give you more information about how to examine your cat's teeth and gums, what a healthy mouth looks (and smells) like, and other information.

Siouxsie: We hope this helps, Linda, and that Kitty's tooth is just fine.

Got a question? Need some advice? E-mail us at advice@paws-and-effect.com. None of the material in this column is meant to be a substitute for regular veterinary care.