Does Your Senior Cat Have Dental Disease?

Odds are your older cat does have dental disease. Here’s what to look out for and what you can do about it.

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Older cats are susceptible to periodontitis and oral cancer, so it's important to keep up with regular exams. IvonneW/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Brian Roberts

So, does your older cat have dental disease? I bet the answer will be “definitely.” Why am I so confident saying that someone’s senior cat — a cat older than 10 years old — has dental disease? Well, it’s based on statistics and also the fact that most cat owners do not play an active role in preventing dental disease for their senior cat.


It is very common for adult cats to have tartar and gingivitis, which is caused by bacteria in the mouth. Image your older cat has tartar and plaque build-up. If your cat was a human, a visit to the dentist and proper brushing/flossing will take care of it. But he’s a cat, so unless you make sure he gets proper dental care, the tartar and plaque will only get worse.

As the inflammation worsens from plaque, the gum recedes away from the tooth, creating a sulcus or pocket. More bacteria colonize the pocket, eventually infecting the bone where the tooth roots are cemented. This is periodontitis.

Periodontitis is permanent; you cannot reverse the changes of bone destruction once it has occurred. Eventually, the root will loosen to the point where the entire tooth will no longer be held in place and can literally rot out of the mouth! Approximately 40 percent of cats aged 9 or older have periodontitis.

Signs of Periodontitis In Cats

Any senior cat with evidence of tartar and calculus build-up on the teeth should be assessed for periodontitis, which is an infection of the bone around the tooth roots.

To definitively state that periodontitis is present, X-ray evidence and physical exam evidence is needed, both of which require heavy sedation or anesthesia.

Treatmeant of Periodontitis In Cats

Once periodontitis is identified, the next decision your veterinarian will need to make is determining if a particular tooth can be salvaged or not. Many factors play into this decision such as:

  1. Is the owner able to do any dental home care?
  2. Is this cat tolerant of dental home care?
  3. How much supporting bone has been lost?
  4. Is the tooth physically loose?

Teeth that are loose during examination or those with a large area of bone destruction surrounding the root are a no-brainer. Those affected teeth will need to be extracted. On the other hand, teeth affected by early on-set of periodontitis that are not loose and show minor, initial bone loss can be “saved.” Surface cleaning and deep gingival cleaning is required to remove the plaque, tartar and calculus. It is the bacteria (plaque) under the gum line that is responsible for periodontitis, so it must be cleaned away. The problem is that even after doing all of this, you must have a willing cat and you, yourself, must be willing to do some home-care of your senior cat’s teeth.

From brushing with specialized tooth brushes and pet toothpaste to using antibacterial mouth rinse and feeding specialized diets, there are many options for cat owners to care for their senior feline-friend’s teeth. Your family veterinarian will guide you regarding diet, type of food, type of treats and cleaning you can perform.

Oral Cancer

While not nearly as common as periodontitis and dental disease due to plaque and tartar, cancer of the mouth and pharynx is more likely to affect senior cats than young or adult cats.

Cancer is defined as a group of cells, growing and dividing uncontrollably. Cancer can be either benign or malignant, meaning it can be something like a mole on your skin (benign) or it can be aggressive, causing local dysfunction and spreading to other areas of the body (malignant).

Unfortunately, the most common oral cancer affecting senior cats is malignant, called squamous cell carcinoma or SCC for short. This cancer accounts for up to 80 percent of oral tumors in cats and is composed of abnormally dividing squamous or skin cells. It is not a cancer that typically spreads to other organs like the lungs or liver; however, it is locally aggressive. These tumors can grow rapidly and tend not to cause too many problems until they affect your cat’s ability to eat, drink and swallow.

Signs Of Oral Cancer In Cats

Signs of oral cancer include lack of appetite, drooling, blood in the saliva or in the mouth, swelling of the gums, jaw or area under the tongue, and difficulty swallowing. These tumors are fleshy, pink to red in color with irregular surface characteristics.

The tumors are not easy to spot because they tend to grow under the tongue or at the very back/base of the tongue. That is why once there are symptoms of difficulty eating or swallowing in a senior cat, the SCC is at a pretty advanced stage.

Treatment Of Oral Cancer In Cats

Cancer in that location is also very tough to treat because surgical removal is the best way to try to control it. If the cancer is growing under or at the base of the tongue, removal is often not possible.

This type of cancer, if removable, requires extensive surgery. Basically the cancer and surrounding, non-cancerous tissue needs to be removed, along with any local lymph nodes.

Squamous cell carcinoma responds poorly to chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapy, leaving aggressive surgery as the best option for control. Notice I didn’t say “cure.” This type of cancer commonly re-grows after surgical excision.

Most cats will not succumb to the cancer, meaning it is unlikely to spread to vital organs like the lungs, brain and kidneys, causing them to fail. Unfortunately, most cats are euthanized because their quality of life becomes poor. They can no longer eat, they cannot swallow and the cancerous tissue easily becomes infected from the normal bacteria living in the mouth. I definitely would do everything in my power to keep my cat happy if she was diagnosed with SCC, but I also would not want her to suffer, being unable to eat or drink normally.

This is why I cannot say or recommend this enough: Definitely follow your family veterinarian’s advice on keeping up with regular check-ups! While a good oral exam requires sedation, it’s really important! The earlier dental disease and cancer are identified, the better the treatment outcomes.

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Cats · Health and Care