by Suzanne Morris, DVM

Once again, that time of year for love and pet dental health awareness is upon us. Yes, February is National Pet Dental Health Month!

Your kitty likely does not brush her/his teeth daily and most kitties are not amenable to your assistance in that department. If tooth brushing is introduced in kittenhood and routinely performed, it can slow the progression of dental plaque into dental calculus (known as tartar in humans) and subsequently the development of periodontal disease. However, this practice is not usually well-established in most feline-inhabited households.

The Physical Exam

Even if you have accomplished the feat of brushing your cat’s teeth, routine dental evaluation is still recommended, and can be performed during your kitty’s physical exam with your veterinarian. And if, like most cat owners, you are unable to routinely brush your cat’s teeth, an oral exam is even more critical. On physical exam, your veterinarian can evaluate for the signs and stages of dental disease, including severity of dental calculus accumulation, gingivitis, and/or tooth resorption (more discussion on that later). Your veterinarian can also evaluate for other types of oral lesions.

Dental disease

The most common feline dental disease is periodontal disease, which originates from plaque. The periodontum consists of all of the tissues securing teeth in place. Periodontitis is the inflammatory process that erodes the periodontum (and can ultimately lead to a tooth loosening and falling out).

As mentioned previously, periodontal disease originates with plaque. Plaque is an oral biofilm of bacteria that covers tooth surfaces. With the addition of mineral-containing saliva, calculus forms and continues to have an active biofilm (plaque) on its surface. While plaque and calculus themselves may not automatically progress into periodontal disease, they are its necessary precursors. Other signs such as severity of gingivitis and overall gingival health can be evaluated on physical exam to help determine whether dental treatment is indicated.

Another type of common dental disease, tooth resorption, may also be apparent on your kitty’s physical exam. In this disease, the tooth exterior begins to erode and can be uncomfortable for your kitty (placing pressure on these lesions will often produce a “chatter” movement of the patient’s mouth, due to discomfort).  The cause of these resorptive lesions remains unclear—sometimes periodontal disease appears adjacent these lesions, but not necessarily—and they appear to affect approximately 30% of the feline population. Hence, even those kitties whose teeth are calculus-free can still develop tooth resorption lesions.


If there are signs of periodontal disease, your veterinarian will most likely recommend a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT), also known as a dental procedure, which will entail anesthesia, full-mouth dental x-rays, scaling, polishing, and extractions of diseased teeth.