Reviewed and updated for accuracy on December 2, 2019, by Dr. Mallory Kanwal, DVM
You may be well aware that your cat’s breath sometimes smells like cat food, but are you really familiar with what’s going on with their teeth?
The inside of a cat’s mouth is a mystery to many pet owners (seriously, how often do you take a look in there?), but keeping up-to-date on your kitty’s dental situation is vital to maintaining their overall health and wellness.
The best defense is a good offense, so here are nine fascinating cat teeth facts to give you some insight on your cat’s dental health.
1. Human teeth and cat teeth have some similarities.
While a cat’s teeth look quite different from a human’s pearly whites, both humans and cats are diphyodont animals. This means that we have two successive sets of teeth.
The first set—the deciduous or baby teeth—fall out when we’re young. Then, a permanent set comes in.
However, a cat’s dental timeline is a bit more accelerated than a human’s.
“Cats are born without teeth, but their baby teeth start coming in when they’re about 2 weeks old,” says Dr. Dan Carmichael, a board-certified veterinary dentist at NYC’s Animal Medical Center. “Then, the baby teeth start falling out at around 3 months to make room for the permanent teeth.”
If properly cared for, a cat’s permanent teeth should last their entire life.
Cats have 26 baby teeth and 30 permanent teeth. For comparison, humans have 20 baby teeth and 32 permanent teeth, and dogs have 28 baby teeth and 42 permanent teeth.
2. Cat teeth are optimized for hunting.
“The crown shapes of cat teeth reflect the function of a true carnivore,” says Dr. Alexander Reiter, associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery and clinician educator at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. Your cat’s teeth are made for shearing and tearing through their prey like a jungle cat.
Those large canine teeth (fangs) are optimized for puncturing the skin of prey. Of course, that means that a cat bite really hurts.
3. Different teeth serve different functions.
A cat’s incisors—those tiny teeth set between the canines in the front of a cat’s mouth—aren’t of much use when hunting. They are good, however, for grooming and picking up objects. “They’re very helpful if a cat has to nibble at something,” Dr. Carmichael notes.
Dr. Reiter adds that some cats use their incisors to chew on their claws and remove loose pieces of their nails, as well as “scratch” itches.
4. Cats don’t get cavities.
Well, they don’t get cavities in the sense that humans get cavities, which can also be referred to as “caries.” This is partially due to the shape of their teeth.
“Unlike humans and dogs, cats do not have occlusal tables [horizontal surfaces] on their molars; thus, they do not develop true carious lesions,” Dr. Reiter says.
The sugar-eating bacteria that cause caries thrives on the pits and divots typically found in occlusal tables, which are meant for grinding food.
Cavities have never been reported in domestic cats due to a combination of the shape of their teeth and their diet. The only cavities reported in cats were in a fossil from the 13th century.
5. However, cats can have other dental issues.
Like us, cats can develop periodontal disease (gum disease, a condition that weakens the structures that support the teeth), as well as severe oral inflammation called gingivostomatitis and oral cancer.
They are also prone to a condition called tooth resorption. This happens when structures within one or more teeth are resorbed and eventually replaced with bone-like material. “This can be quite painful for cats,” Dr. Carmichael says.
Tooth resorption can be difficult to diagnose, as symptoms range from an actual hole in the tooth to a little red dot at the gum line. If a vet diagnoses tooth resorption, he or she will likely recommend the extraction of the tooth.
6. Cats rarely show dental pain.
“Cats hide their pain,” Dr. Carmichael says. “The most common symptom I see in cats with dental problems is no symptoms at all. It’s up to pet owners and veterinarians to be on top of cats’ dental issues and be proactive when looking for problems.”
Remaining diligent involves keeping an eye out for drooling, red gums and changes in a cat’s eating habits, as well as noting any changes in your cat’s breath.
“Oral health issues often have a distinct, rotten odor,” Dr. Carmichael says. “A really fishy, rotten smell.”
7. Cats can still eat after they’ve had teeth removed.
If your cat is diagnosed with dental issues that require extraction, don’t be too distressed. Cats can eat wet food (and usually even dry!) without some or even all of their teeth and live a long and healthy life.
“It's more important to have a healthy and a pain-free mouth than to have a mouth full of teeth,” Dr. Carmichael notes. Plus, if your veterinarian recommends extracting teeth, those teeth are likely painful for your cat so they will feel much better once they are gone.
8. Regular dental visits and tooth brushing will protect your kitty’s dental health.
Both Dr. Reiter and Dr. Carmichael tout the benefits of daily tooth brushing for cats, as it prevents the buildup of bacteria that cause many dental issues.
Brushing your cat’s teeth may seem like an impossible task, but many cats can be trained with some patience. Brushing works best on teeth that are clean, so start when your cat is a kitten, and be consistent between veterinary cleanings.
“Also, cat owners should always ask that an oral examination be performed during annual wellness visits,” Dr. Reiter notes.
9. There’s an official seal you can look for on trusted cat dental products.
Cat owners looking for more information about their cat’s oral health, as well as guidance regarding which products are best for a cat’s teeth, should consult the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website.
“Any product featuring that VOHC seal has undergone rigorous scientific study and meets a high standard of efficacy,” Dr. Carmichael says.
Products range from water additives to treats to specially formulated kibble, so you can find the right fit for your cat.
By: Kate Hughes
Featured Image: iStock.com/byakkaya