What is involved in cat dental care?

Cat dental care means removing the plaque and tartar from the teeth before it has developed a kitty cavity or other painful condition; the problem is many of those things are unseen. That's why the way to do that is to have annual general anesthetic procedures, which can sound like a lot, but we can talk more about that.


Dr. Jennifer Mathis
Family Pet Veterinary Center

How does dental health impact the overall health and wellbeing of my cat?

That's a good question. So overall health, we know that dogs (and the same should apply to cats - we just had a study on dogs) live 20% longer when they have annual anesthetic dental procedures than those who don't. We also know that cats that have healthy mouths tend to have fewer incidents of kidney problems and other sorts of things. So when you keep the mouth healthy, you keep other areas of the body healthy.

When you look at a cat's teeth, if they'll let you look, you're only looking at about a third of each tooth, two-thirds underneath the gum line. And the way to see that is with a type of x-ray—either an intraoral x-ray, kind of like your dentist putting a sensory sensor into your mouth and having you take a picture. Now, I don't even want to bite on that tiny sensor so that it holds it still; no cat is going to do that. So we have to do it under anesthesia.

The other thing we do in this office is 3D imaging to get answers faster and in more detail.

What types of dental care should I be giving my cat at home?

We have a separate video to watch on all the types of care; the simple answer is: choose what's doable. We can choose things that are specialized foods. There isn't an over-the-counter food that's successful. Then there are specialized treats; we have ones that are just one calorie a piece. There are special diets, and there are wipes. And if you could just pick 10 seconds a day with a wipe or brushing, especially just a wipe that makes it easy, it is all cats need every day. And that will reduce the chance of problems because a cat has about a 40% chance of having an issue the following year. But if you brush daily, it's only about 15%. So you've dropped the risk over double.

What are some signs and symptoms of issues with oral health in my cat?

Many cats won't show any signs or symptoms, and that is the concern. And so, the best way to figure things out is to have annual dental care. We don't want to wait until it gets worse and there is irreversible bone loss; we want to get to it sooner. You may see painful redness, but we want to get to it before that if we can. We may smell bad breath, but most cats hide disease, and 80% of cats have painful problems hidden with no outward signs.

How do veterinarians diagnose dental problems in cats?

We can guess when we look at the mouth when they're awake, but it's only a guess. And that's missing things about 80% of the time, according to one study—another study around 30% of the time. Either way, we're still missing things. And it depends on which things they were studying, that's why there's an extensive range. So essentially, 3D imaging or intraoral x-ray under anesthesia to look at what's below the gum line will tell us what's going on. That's how we diagnose oral health issues. And we do the oral exam that's thorough under anesthesia as well. You'd be surprised what you can find when they're sleeping, and they are allowing you to do whatever you need to do.

What are some possible conditions caused by poor cat dental care? And what are the treatments?

Untreated dental care results in cavities and bone loss, and the treatment is typically extraction—unfortunately, cats kind of like to lose teeth. But then, without a tooth, they're better, they don't have a painful tooth anymore, and now they can have a healthier mouth. And potentially, some cats get to the point where they don't have any teeth, while they can still eat hard food even if they didn't have teeth. Cats with bad teeth are also at increased risks for kidney and heart issues.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (515) 224-9747, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.

Cat Dentistry/Dental - FAQs


Dr. Jennifer Mathis
Family Pet Veterinary Center

Why does my cat need anesthesia for teeth cleaning?

We can do imaging under anesthesia. So we can't do internal x-rays or 3-D imaging without anesthesia. And imaging looks at two-thirds of the tooth that is below the gum line you can't see when they're awake. 80% of the cats have problems when you look at that stat. If you don't look underneath the gum line, you'll be missing two-thirds of each tooth, then potentially missing common problems.

Are there ever circumstances when a cat can get their teeth cleaned without anesthesia?

It's been tried and done, but it's cleaning the stuff off the top—like what I can touch, but it's not working in the gingival sulcus. The gingival sulcus is the space between the gum and the tooth, and if you go in there when the cat is awake, you're going to damage the soft tissues of the mouth and cause a lot of bleeding and pain, and you'll miss problems. And so if you clean the teeth and make them look prettier while the cat is awake, you're still missing things and leaving the pet with an 80% chance of having a painful mouth still present, and potentially make things worse.

Why are antibiotics and pain medications sometimes prescribed for my cat's dental work?

We want to make sure every pet has a fear-free and pain-free experience. So we try to utilize calming techniques in the office and minimize the fear, anxiety, and stress they may go through. And we do a pretty good job of that. We use many different techniques. And when we see painful problems, we don't want to wait until it gets bad. We want to address it. We know it's a painful problem. So we like to use pain management before, during, and after the procedure. And many times, we use nerve blocks. The numbness will go away, but the analgesia, the pain-relieving component, will last 24 to 96 hours without you having to do anything at home. And so when we need antibiotics, when we need pain meds, we're going to use them, and not every patient needs those.

How do I know if my cat will have a reaction to anesthesia?

Well, what you're really asking is about anesthetic safety, and while no pet is without risk with anesthesia, the risks of having problems and painful, hidden problems in the mouth are very high. In contrast, the risk of anesthesia is about 0.0 or 0.1%. It's extremely low. And we try to do everything we can to prevent problems by doing blood work to tailor the anesthetic drugs to them by doing special heart enzyme tests. We had a patient with a murmur that we caught with this special tiny stethoscope, and we were able to modify our anesthetic plan and have increased safety and a good recovery.

And so, we do things to make administering anesthesia as safe as possible. For example, it's been shown that a cat that has either no anesthesia and physical restraint or a cat that has sedation but not anesthesia has a higher risk of problems and/or death with those items than the patient that has what's called "multimodal pain management anesthetic event." And so we make it easier for the pet and have a better outcome.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (515) 224-9747, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as fast as we can.