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What's Up with My Cat's Bad Breath?

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Noticing something fishy in the air? It might be your feline friend’s breath (yikes!). Sometimes your cat’s bad breath is harmless and sometimes it can be a result of underlying health issues. Learn more about why your cat has bad breath and what you can do about it.

The Dish on Your Cat’s Bad Breath

Dental disease, or “periodontal disease,” is the most common cause of bad breath in your cat. Dental disease has five stages: zero is a healthy mouth and four is an extremely diseased, painful mouth.

Periodontal disease in cats begins much like it does in dogs, with an incremental buildup of tartar on the surface of her teeth. This soft plaque layer is created from the activity of bacteria naturally occurring in the cat’s mouth and the residue of food and saliva that is constantly present. On its own, this plaque can slowly build into a thicker, harder layer of calcified material known as calculus or tartar.

While not as common in cats as it is in dogs, this thick layer irritates the gum tissue or gingiva. This irritation causes the gingiva to degrade and recede, causing infection and root exposure. In cats, however, their most common sign of the dental disease is often the presence of gingivitis, or inflammation of the gum tissue. This is evidence of the cat’s immune response to the presence of plaque and is often painful. Much like morning breath in humans, the plaque and bacterial overgrowth is what causes the powerful, fishy smell coming from your cat’s mouth. 

Plaque and Dental Disease

With the help of your vet, the progression of periodontal disease and gingivitis can be slowed. Because cats are excellent at hiding illness until it’s become severe, it’s important to remember to take your cat to the vet for regular exams. In the clinic, your vet will be able to assess your cat’s mouth and provide recommendations. The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) recommends yearly dental cleanings to keep your cat’s mouth healthy.

Because your cat isn’t able to open their mouth and say ‘ahhhh,’ this procedure is done while under anesthesia. While your cat is asleep, the vet can open the mouth and look for signs of more profound inflammation, ulcers, lumps and foreign objects. Your vet may also perform a full mouth radiograph (just like what is performed at a human dentist). The next step is to use an ultrasonic scaler to clean off any existing plaque. This is followed by polishing the teeth using a fine paste.

The oral exam radiographs will help your vet determine if your cat has an underlying issue, such as stomatitis, severe degeneration, inflammation of the gingiva or tooth resorption (a painful affliction as the body absorbs the roots of the teeth). Treating these issues should help improve your cat’s breath and overall comfort.

An Ounce of Prevention

While brushing your cat’s teeth daily is ideal, many cats aren’t likely to cooperate with this plan. Luckily, a number of other teeth-cleaning items exist on the market, from dental chews and treats to mouth sprays and water additives, which can help prevent teeth troubles. 

Make sure you talk to your vet first before trying these products. They will likely direct you to products in the pet store labeled with the seal of the Veterinary Oral Health Council, or VOHC. Products with this seal help with the reduction of plaque growth and the development of strong teeth and gums. Almost all dry kibble diets lack this seal and recent studies show that kibble does not have the positive effect on plaque growth that it was once thought to have.


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