Stomatitis and Your Cat's Dental Health Title

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Have you looked in your cat’s mouth lately? A cat’s dental health is essential to his/her ability to thrive. The best nutrition out there can’t help a cat become healthy if it doesn’t have a way into the cat’s body. Regular dental check-ups with your veterinarian can help prevent or catch diseases like stomatitis that could pose a real threat to your cat.

What is Stomatitis?

Funny Cat Face

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Though the word “stomatitis” looks as if it might mean “inflammation of the stomach,” it really means inflammation of the mouth. This includes the cat’s gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, back of the throat, and all of the underlying bone. The inflammation is believed to be caused by the cat’s hypersensitivity to the plaque (a type of bacterial growth) build up on the cat’s teeth. It is an immune system abnormality that might even be described as an allergy. Pain from stomatitis can make eating unbearably painful for the cat and cause death by starvation. However, with appropriate treatment, cats with stomatitis can survive and live relatively normal lives.

Gingivitis and stomatitis are closely related. Gingivitis is the inflammation of the gums, most noticeably where the teeth and the gums meet. If the gingivitis is left untreated, the inflammation can spread to the rest of the mouth and back of the throat, at which point it is considered to be stomatitis.

Cats of any age or breed could be at risk for stomatitis. The average age for developing the disease is 7 years old. However, there is a juvenile onset version of the disease begins between 3 and 5 months of age. It can become very serious by the time the kitten is 9 months old.

Is stomatitis the only cause of inflammation in a cat’s mouth?

Stomatitis is only one potential cause of inflammation in a cat’s mouth. According to Dr. Jennifer Rawlinson, DVM of Cornell University, stomatitis is fairly uncommon and affects only about 3-5% of cats. Cats with other immune system diseases like FIV or Feline Leukemia are the most likely to be diagnosed with the disease.  It is very important to get a definitive diagnosis from a licenced veterinarian. Some other potential reasons for inflammation in a cat’s mouth include:

It is very important to get a definitive diagnosis from a licenced veterinarian. Some other potential reasons for inflammation in a cat’s mouth include:

  • Infectious diseases
  • Injuries to the mouth
  • Overcrowding in a kitten’s mouth as adult teeth come in.
  • Inflamed blood vessels (potentially caused by diabetes)
  • Lymphoma
  • Low parathyroid (a hormone) levels
  • High level of waste products in the bloodstream

Watch Your Cat for These Symptoms

If your cat is experiencing the following symptoms or you think that your cat may have stomatitis, contact your veterinarian. This disease is very painful and many of the symptoms are caused by the pain rather than the disease itself.

Pudding yawning

Notice the redness in this cat’s gum line.
Photo Credit: Alexander via Flickr

  • Your cat appears to be hungry but is reluctant/refuses to eat. Do not ignore this symptom! When cats do not eat for 24 hours (even 12 hours in kittens) the situation can become a medical emergency. 
  • Plaque build-up on the cat’s teeth (yellowish in color)
  • Redness/Swelling of the gums (often developing around the molars and premolars first).
  • Depression
  • Weight loss / Muscle wasting
  • Lack of grooming
  • Bad breath
  • Dehydration
  • Reclusiveness
  • Irritability
  • Drooling
  • Ulcers on the roof of the mouth, lips, tongue, or throat

Diagnosis and Treatment

Most likely, your veterinarian will diagnose your cat simply by what they can see when they look in your cat’s mouth. They will check for plaque build-up on the cat’s teeth and  redness and swelling of the gums, tongue, roof of the mouth, and throat. X-rays may be needed to determine the extent of the disease. A biopsy is not likely to be needed.

Truman Gets His Teeth Brushed - 4

Photo Credit: John Morton via Flickr

If the cat’s stomatitis is in it’s early stages, efforts may be made to remove the plaque from the teeth and reduce the inflammation. The veterinarian will need to remove the plaque from your cat’s teeth during a deep cleaning under anesthesia. From there, maintaining a low level of plaque will require brushing the cat’s teeth at home and using veterinary oral disinfectants.

Inflammation may be controlled with drugs like antibiotics and steroids, but an anti-inflammatory diet will be needed as well (low in carbs and starches). Since stomatitis is an autoimmune disease, removing environmental toxins that could be putting stress on the immune system is also suggested. Check the quality of the air, water, and food your cat is receiving as well as what chemicals you might be using around the home.

In later stages of stomatitis, more drastic treatments are needed. Unfortunately, medicines do not help cats with severe cases of the disease in the long run. The cat will need to have all of his/her teeth surgically removed. The good news is that such an extraction removes the plaque from the cat’s mouth completely and thus removes the immune system’s need to react to it. This causes the swelling to go away and the cat can eat again without pain. Most cats that have their teeth extracted heal well and go on to live fairly normal lives.

Do you check your cat’s mouth at home?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Feline Stomatitis: This Is One Dental Disease You Don’t Want to Mess With – Dr. Karen Becker, DVM

Gingivitis and Stomatitis in Cats – Drs. Foster & Smith

Inflammation of the Soft Tissues in a Cat’s Mouth – PetMD

Gingivostomatitis – Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine