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When Kitty Needs A Dentist

Most cats experience dental problems at some point. Here's how to help.

A cat grows two sets of teeth during its lifetime. The first set comprises 26 deciduous teeth otherwise known as milk teeth. They start to appear when a kitten is about four weeks old and by six weeks of age or so the full complement is present. By the time the kitten is about six months old the deciduous teeth will have fallen out and been replaced by 30 permanent teeth – perfect for catching prey ripping it to pieces and chewing it up. They're also useful for self-defense.

The term permanent however isn't quite accurate since a sizable portion of the adult cat population will eventually lose one or more of their teeth as the result of injury or disease. In fact only about 10 percent of cats will make it through life without experiencing some sort of dental problem. And in many cases the problem can be treated only by extraction of an affected tooth or teeth.

Nature and Nurture

To some degree genetics play a role in determining which cats are more susceptible than others to dental disease. Some purebreds - such as Abyssinians Siamese Maine Coons Persians and Somalis - tend to be at greatest risk. But the overriding cause of dental problems can be traced to the modern cat's diet.

Cats are carnivores. Their teeth are meant to be kept strong and clean by chewing up the flesh and bones of birds rodents and other prey. Today the cat subsists basically on a diet of the mush that we feed. We are inadvertently setting our cats up for serious dental problems.

Common Afflictions

Three types of feline dental disease make up the vast majority of problems for which the extraction of one or more teeth may be the only remedy:

Periodontal disease is the most common affecting an estimated 85 percent of cats over the age of six. Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORL) is another comparatively common dental affliction affecting an estimated 50 percent of cats. This disease is characterized by plaque-caused lesions that start in the bone tissue (dentin) just below the enamel. Due to an inappropriate immune-system response the tissue is unable to rebuild itself and the lesions can progress rapidly and damage the tooth and its root irreparably.

Feline gingivitis/stomatitis syndrome (FGS) is a relatively uncommon condition occurring in about one in 100 cats most frequently among those with feline leukemia virus (FeLV) feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or other viral nutritional or hormonal conditions.

Signs that a cat is suffering dental problems include bad breath red and swollen gums pawing at the mouth and refusal to eat hard food. But cats are unlikely to display pain. Cats are descended from wild animals and it's very deep in them that if they show weakness they might become prey themselves.

Problem Solving

The only way to really find out what's going on in a cat's mouth is to examine the animal's teeth under general anesthesia and if necessary take X-rays. The cat will usually be anesthetized for as long as it takes to clean its teeth do the examination and perform treatment as needed. If extraction is necessary the procedure should take about 45 minutes to an hour.

Surgical Removal

During the surgical removal of a tooth a veterinarian will lift the gum tissue on the outside of the tooth and use a high-powered water-cooled drill to remove some of the bone tissue that is holding the tooth in the mouth. Then with special instruments they remove the tooth and sew the gums back together with dissolvable suture material. Any licensed veterinarian is qualified to clean examine and extract teeth. The cost of an extraction depending on the difficulty of the procedure will typically range from $25 to $100 excluding any anesthesia and any necessary laboratory tests.

Shortly after the extraction the cat wakes up and goes home with a few days' supply of pain medicine. A cat will never miss a tooth that's been extracted. It will feel better eat better and do better overall without it.