8 Common Dental Problems in Cats

At a Glance

Cats are at risk of several dental problems, but unlike humans, they can’t tell us when something is wrong. Anybody who has had dental issues will know just how painful it is. This highlights the importance of annual veterinary visits, which will include a thorough oral examination that can pick up dental issues.

1. Gingivitis

Gingivitis in cats
Gingivitis in cats

Gingivitis is the earliest stage of gum disease (below) caused by inflammation of the gums due to a build-up of plaque and tartar on the teeth. Plaque is a sticky biofilm composed mostly of bacteria (predominantly streptococcus), glycoproteins and extracellular polysaccharides which stick to the teeth. If plaque isn’t removed, it hardens to form tartar (calculus).

In the early stages, plaque forms and if it isn’t removed the plaque hardens into tartar. Tartar is yellow and is visible along the gum line, where it meets the teeth.


  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Drooling
  • Red or swollen gums, especially along the gum line
  • Gums which bleed easily, especially when touched
  • Receding gum line
  • Difficulty and or reluctance to eat


Treatment depends on how far advanced the gingivitis is. It may be possible to treat early gingivitis at home with regular dental cleaning.

More advanced gingivitis requires regular dental cleaning (every six months) and extraction of diseased teeth.

2. Gum disease

Also known as periodontal disease, gum disease is a common disease affecting the teeth and supporting structures (bones and gums) caused by chronic inflammation and infection.

Gum disease occurs when tartar begins to collect under the gum line. Irritation occurs due to toxins produced by the bacteria in plaque. This, in turn, produces an inflammatory response. Bacterial toxins and inflammation destroy the supportive structures (gingiva, alveolar bone, cementum, and periodontal ligament). Gums separate from the teeth, forming pockets (spaces between the teeth and gums) that become infected.


  • Bad breath, this is probably the most obvious sign a pet owner will notice
  • Unwillingness to eat, dropping food, chewing on one side
  • Yellow deposits on the teeth
  • Sneezing
  • Avoiding dry/hard food in favour of softer food
  • Drooling
  • Pawing at the face
  • Pus around the tooth/teeth
  • Gums which bleed easily
  • Red or swollen gums, especially along the gum line
  • Teeth that are loose or missing
  • Reluctance to groom/poor coat condition


  • Thorough cleaning above and below the gum line is necessary.
  • In severe cases, where pocket depth is deep, the veterinarian may need to surgically access the roots by cutting the gums (open flap curettage).
  • Tooth extraction may be necessary if the above procedures fail to resolve the problem or bone destruction is too great.

3. Dental abscess

A localised collection of pus, (a foul-smelling thick white/yellow liquid that is primarily made up of dead white blood cells and bacteria) located within the tooth or surrounding tissues.

Dental abscesses can occur for several reasons. Bacteria from a dental cavity descend into the inner part of the tooth and gum, which causes the body to wall off the affected area. Trauma can occur as a result of an accident (hit by a car) or biting down on something hard.



Surgery to lance the abscess, flush it with saline and where necessary, extract the affected tooth. The cat will go home with oral antibiotics and pain killers.

4. Stomatitis

Stomatitis is a common disease-causing chronic inflammation and ulceration of the soft tissues in the mouth.

There is no definitive cause, but it is thought to be multifactorial with an immune-mediated component, possibly representing a hypersensitivity to oral bacterial antigens. Other possible factors include oral irritants, some viruses, immunodeficiency diseases, metabolic diseases, drug reactions etc.



The goal of treatment is to address the underlying cause as well as treat the stomatitis; this can include:

  • Professional cleaning of the teeth under anesthesia is necessary, as periodontal disease may cause or at least contribute to stomatitis.
  • Antibiotics
  • Corticosteroids to control inflammation
  • Clean the cat’s teeth daily at home to keep plaque under control

Extraction of all teeth may be necessary to provide long-term relief for cats who do not respond to treatment.

5. Feline odontic resorptive lesions

Cats don’t get dental cavities in the same way humans do. However, a very common problem in cats is feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions (FORL) or resorptive tooth lesions) in which odontoclasts (specialist cells responsible for reabsorbing the roots of deciduous or baby teeth) reabsorb the adult roots and tooth. FORL occurs in between 20-75% of cats.

Lesions start under the gingival margin and are due to reabsorption of the tissues by cells called odontoclasts. The role of odontoclasts is to absorb the bone and roots of deciduous (baby) teeth. In the case of FORL, these cells reabsorb adult teeth.


  • Pain when eating, or reluctance to eat, especially hard food
  • Drooling
  • Bleeding from the mouth
  • Granulation tissue in a visible hole or gum tissue growing over the tooth


Treatment depends on the severity of the condition but may include:

  • Application of fluoride varnish or sealant over the tooth.
  • Remove the tooth to the level of the gum, leaving the root fragments intact; gum tissue covers the underlying area.
  • Surgical removal of the entire tooth.

All of the above procedures will be carried out under general anesthesia.

6. Oral cancer

Also referred to as malignant neoplasms or malignant tumours, cancer is the uncontrolled division of cells that normally should be restricted in their growth.

Ten percent of all cancers in cats are oral cancer, and squamous cell carcinomas (SCC) are the most frequent type. This cancer accounts for 60-70% of all oral cancers in cats. The next most frequent are fibrosarcomas; other cancers include lymphoma and malignant melanoma.


  • Ulcerated, red lesion on the gums, tongue or underneath the tongue
  • Difficulty eating and a loss of appetite
  • Painful mouth and face
  • Bleeding in the mouth
  • Bad breath
  • Swollen face
  • Loose teeth
  • Enlarged lymph nodes under the jaw
  • Drooling
  • Grooming less
  • Weight loss due to loss of appetite


  • If the tumour is found early enough and is in the front portion of the mandible (lower jaw) surgery (mandibulectomy) may be performed.
  • Cryosurgery (freezing) on small tumours.
  • Radiation therapy may be recommended before surgery to shrink the cancer or after surgery to kill off any remaining cells.
  • If the tumour is too large, or not in a part of the mouth that can be surgically treated, radiotherapy and chemotherapy may be used to shrink the tumour and slow down the growth.

7. Mouth ulcers

A mouth ulcer (or mouth sore) is a painful, open sore that can affect the gums and tongue. They are not a disease in themselves, but rather, they are a symptom of an underlying condition.

Mouth ulcers can occur for several reasons including viral infection, ingestion of corrosive substances, stomatitis, immune-mediated disorders, thermal or electrical burns, kidney disease, and oral cancer.


  • Small, painful, round, white lesions affecting the mouth including the lips, tongue, and gums
  • Reluctance to eat
  • Drooling
  • Unkempt coat due to grooming less


The goal of treatment is to address the underlying cause and relieve symptoms. This may include:

  • Offer soft food
  • Antibiotics may be necessary if a secondary infection develops
  • Analgesics to relieve pain (never self-administer pain medication to cats, most human painkillers are toxic to cats)

8. Retained baby teeth

Cats have two sets of teeth, the deciduous (baby) teeth which fall out and are replaced with permanent teeth from 12 weeks of age. Sometimes the adult tooth erupts before the kitten tooth has fallen out.


Two teeth in the same spot


If you see an adult tooth erupting and the baby tooth has not fallen out, it should be removed by your veterinarian as soon as possible. In a lot of cases, the deciduous tooth will already be somewhat loose, and extraction is relatively easy and painless. If treated in time, the adult tooth should grow out in its correct position.


  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio

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