Bad Breath in Cats

Melissa Boldan, DVM
By Melissa Boldan, DVM on Feb. 16, 2024
A cat yawns.

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In This Article


What Is Bad Breath in Cats?

Is your cat’s breath unusually bad? The medical term for bad breath is halitosis, and it can be caused by several factors, such as dental disease, kidney disease, or diabetes. The most common cause is a buildup of bacteria on the surface of the teeth, leading to periodontal disease.

Plaque is a sticky substance that is made up of saliva and leftover food particles. It sticks to the surface of your cat's teeth and gives bacteria a place to grow.

Over time, that bacteria-laden plaque hardens into tartar, which can irritate the mouth leading to red swollen gums (gingivitis). It may also cause inflammation of the surrounding tissue like the inner surface of the cheeks, lips, tongue, and roof of the mouth, a condition called stomatitis. Besides causing stinky breath, it may be painful for the cat.

Halitosis is a common condition in cats and is not considered a medical emergency.

Symptoms of Bad Breath in Cats

Symptoms of bad breath in cats may include:

Causes of Bad Breath in Cats

The most common cause of bad breath in cats is tartar buildup and the periodontal disease that follows when it gets underneath the gum line. The tartar that forms on teeth can hurt the surrounding tissues, like the gums and inner surfaces of the cheeks, lips, and roof of the mouth.

An overgrowth of bad bacteria then occurs in the mouth, which leads to decay. Decaying tissue surrounding the teeth gives off a smelly sulfuric scent that contributes to bad breath. This can progress to rotten teeth and mouth pain.

Other causes include:

  • Getting things stuck in between the teeth or under the gum line, like string or food.

  • Oral ulcers, whether from an underlying virus like feline calicivirus or uremic ulcers from kidney disease.

  • Uncontrolled diabetes, which can create compounds called ketones that cause a sickly-sweet smelling breath.

  • Mouth cancer, which can also lead to dead or decaying tissue.

Any cat of any age or breed can have halitosis. Dental tartar and the resulting bad breath can affect all cats, but it is less common in very young cats who have not had time to build up much tartar.

Feline juvenile gingivitis-periodontitis, where cats are affected by dental disease at an early age, is more commonly in Siamese, Maine Coon, and Somali breeds.

Kidney disease, diabetes mellitus, and cancer are all more common in middle-aged to senior cats.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Bad Breath in Cats

If you notice bad breath in your cat, call your veterinarian. During the appointment, they will start with a thorough oral exam. If they are unable to check the entire mouth due to your cat’s stress level or pain, they may recommend sedation to help them see in the back of the mouth.

Let your vet know if your cat is not eating well or if you are seeing them do any strange movements with their jaw or tongue.

If your cat does not have any signs of dental disease as the primary cause of their bad breath, your vet may recommend more diagnostics, like blood work.

Treatment of Bad Breath in Cats

Bad breath is treated by addressing the underlying cause.

If the cause of your cat’s halitosis is dental disease, your veterinarian will clean the teeth and remove any that are rotten. The cleaning is done by putting your cat under anesthesia and using a special tool called an ultrasonic scaler to remove stubborn tartar and to clean around and under the gums.

They will also polish the teeth to smooth any microscopic scratches on their surface. This helps to slow the buildup of future plaque and tartar.

Antibiotics or pain medications may be prescribed.

If other underlying diseases are found, they will be treated by your vet.

Recovery and Management of Bad Breath in Cats

Recovery following a dental procedure is typically smooth. If your cat had any teeth removed, they may be put on a soft food diet for 10 to 14 days while their gums are healing. This means feeding either canned food exclusively or softening dry food by watering it down and allowing it to soak for 10 minutes before feeding.

If your cat had stitches following any teeth removals, you may see some pawing at the mouth if the stitching material is bothering them. For these cats, a recovery cone may be helpful to protect the gums while they heal.

Prevention of Bad Breath in Cats

Bad breath is best prevented with a good oral health care routine. If your cat will tolerate teeth brushing, that’s the best place to start.

It’s easier to make brushing part of your cat’s daily life. Start with a little bit of feline toothpaste on your finger and rub it on the outer surface of your cat’s teeth. Afterward, give your feline friend a special treat that they love. If they do OK with this, you can work up to using a soft pet tooth brush or finger toothbrush.

Don’t worry about getting the inner side of the teeth—focus your efforts on the outer surface. Always follow these daily teeth brushing sessions with a treat.

Another way to minimize harmful bacteria is with food or water additives that decrease the buildup of plaque. ProDen PlaqueOff® is a powdered supplement that you can mix with your cat’s food to minimize plaque sticking to the teeth.

Several cat treats are also approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) to promote good oral health, including Greenies™ Feline™ Dental Treats and Purina® DentaLife® dental cat treats.

Never use human toothpastes in pets, as several of the ingredients can cause upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea in cats.

Bring your cat to your vet  every six to 12 months for regular examinations to treat and prevent any problems that may lead to halitosis.

Bad Breath in Cats FAQs

Should I be worried if my cat’s breath stinks?

If your cat’s breath stinks, it may be a sign that they have dental disease or another medical condition that needs to be checked out. Normal cat breath should not be smelly.

While you should make an appointment to get your cat checked out, it is likely not a cause for worry unless bad breath is accompanied by decreased appetite, vomiting, or low energy.


Davis E. Bad Breath: Sign of Illness? Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Niemiec B. Feline and canine oral ulcerative disease. Today’s Veterinary Practice. 2014;4(1):44-49.


Melissa Boldan, DVM


Melissa Boldan, DVM


Dr. Melissa Boldan graduated from the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine in 2012. She initially practiced mixed animal...

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