Hi there! We’re glad you’ve come to this post looking for information about how to help your cat with dental disease. This post was written a long time ago, and we’ve written an updated post with information about care resources that were available as of October 30, 2016. Please visit that post and you’ll find the answers to your question there.
Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:
I have a 14-year-old male cat. He’s in great shape, still eating and active, but his teeth are bad. He’s definitely got gingivitis: reddening around the gum line around his teeth. His back teeth are gross, they don’t even look like teeth anymore. I’m hoping he’ll lose those teeth at the top on both sides. I know they’re bothering him and I can’t afford to take him to the vet. The vet quoted me $1,000 to get his teeth fixed. I want to keep my little buddy comfortable. Is there a holistic antibiotic or something else I can do for him?
Siouxsie: Periodontal (gum) disease is one of the most common problems seen by veterinarians. It occurs in two forms: gingivitis, a reversible inflammation of the gums; and periodontitis, an inflammation of the deeper structures supporting the teeth.
Thomas: Both of these conditions begin when plaque and calculus form on the teeth along the gum line. Most cats over 2 years old have some plaque and calculus, and some cats start building up plaque even before they’re 1 year old.
Dahlia: There does seem to be a link between diet and plaque formation. Anecdotal evidence suggests that cats fed primarily on canned food tend to have more plaque buildup because there’s no abrasive action to clear the plaque from the teeth.
Siouxsie: There’s also a genetic component. Some cats just have a hereditary inclination to develop more plaque and calculus. It’s very similar to what happens with people–some of you humans just have great teeth and never have any dental problems, and some of you have a greater tendency to develop cavities and gum disease. A few people have mentioned that orange, or ginger, cats tend to have more dental problems that cats of other color patterns, but we don’t know if there’s any evidence to support this.
Thomas: Cat caretakers can do some things to prevent plaque buildup, including brushing their cat’s teeth on a regular basis. Most cats don’t like this at all, and you probably won’t be able to brush your cat’s teeth unless you’ve gotten the cat used to this from an early age.
Dahlia: Special brushes and toothpastes are available at pet stores and other outlets. But we should warn you never to use a human toothpaste on your cat! Human toothpastes contain chemicals like fluoride that can be quite toxic to cats. And they taste horrible!
Siouxsie: When a cat has some plaque built up on the teeth but the condition hasn’t advanced to gingivitis or periodontitis, it is possible to pick the plaque off the cat’s back teeth with a fingernail. Our vet, Doctor Sarah, showed Mama how to do this. But Mama has short fingernails and I don’t like having her fingers in my mouth, so I won’t let her pluck plaque off my teeth. Unfortunately, I’m starting to get a little gingivitis myself, and Doctor Sarah told Mama I might have to have my teeth cleaned.
Thomas: Dental cleanings are done under anesthesia because, as you can imagine, we cats won’t sit still for poking and prodding and scraping–especially when it hurts.
Dahlia: Sam, it sounds like your cat has pretty advanced periodontal disease. Not only are your cat’s teeth covered with plaque and his gums swollen, but there are deep pockets and crevices that have trapped food and bacteria at the gum line. Infections have almost certainly developed in these pockets, causing tooth decay and weakening the tissues that support the teeth. Your cat’s condition is probably not reversible without a deep cleaning and extraction of infected teeth.
Siouxsie: Whether or not your cat shows it, dental disease is very painful. Of course he still eats–but maybe he only eats soft food or instead of chewing he swallows his kibbles whole.
Thomas: If your cat’s gums and bones become infected, there’s a risk that the infection might spread throughout his body and kill him. The bacteria that grow in cases of dental disease have a nasty tendency to infect the heart and the structures surrounding it, which can cause congestive heart failure or an overwhelming infection that could kill him.
Dahlia: The mouth is perilously close to the brain as well. That means the infection can travel to the sinuses and thence to the brain, causing encephalitis, or swelling of the brain.
Siouxsie: We suppose you could wait until your cat’s teeth fall out, but that would certainly cause him great pain and suffering and we would not recommend it. Plus, when the teeth fall out, the infected pockets of pus and plaque are still in the gums wreaking their havoc.
Thomas: Sam, what this all boils down to is that you really need to have your vet operate on your cat and treat his gum disease. The vet will probably have to pull out a number of your cat’s teeth and then do a deep cleaning in all the pockets of crud that are left. After the surgery, your cat will have to take antibiotics for probably 2 weeks in order to clear up any remaining infection. There’s very little you can do at home to treat him.
Dahlia: A dental procedure of this magnitude does cost a lot of money. There’s no doubt about that. But your other options are to spend a lot more if you wait until your cat gets really sick due to infection, or allow him to suffer with pain and infection until he dies.
Siouxsie: Sam, you said you can’t afford the surgery your cat needs. If you’re on a fixed income (for example, if you live in the US and you’re on Social Security Disability or you receive aid through food stamps, TANF or other welfare programs) or if you rescued a cat in need, you may qualify for aid through a local humane society, the Feline Veterinary Emergency Assistance Program, or through one of the organizations listed here.
Thomas: If you can’t qualify for assistance through one of these programs and you have decent credit, Care Credit may be an option. You’ll need to check and see if your vet will take Care Credit before going through the application process.
Dahlia: A few vets will take payments for procedures if the arrangements are made in advance. But keep in mind that most vets are hesitant to do this if you’re not a client they know well–entirely too many people skip out on their promise to make payments, after all.
Siouxsie: But if by “I can’t afford it,” you mean that you would rather buy a new plasma TV or some other new toy than take care of your cat’s health needs, then we suggest you re-evaluate your priorities. If this cat were your child, what would you do to make sure that he stayed in good health or got treatment for a serious disease?
Thomas: Your cat depends on you to provide him with the care he needs. He can’t take himself to the vet. He can’t seek financial assistance. He can’t make you do anything to help him.
Dahlia: We hope you’ll be able to find a way to cover the cost of the surgery your cat needs, because he does need that surgery to relieve his pain and be restored to full health. Good luck, Sam, and please let us know how things turn out.