Cat Breath - Something Fishy in the Air

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While dog breath is a common and often recognized term even among those without pets, the idea that a cat has halitosis is not something many people, even pet parents, think about. This can come as a surprise to pet parents and is often attributed to the myth that a cat’s breath smells because of the fishy, strong-smelling food they eat. Contrary to belief, however, this bad breath is not part of the normal package.

The Dish on Cat Breath

There are a number of reasons for the fishy odor that we smell when our cats breathe on us. These range from disease processes like feline leukemia and stomatitis (a severely painful disease of the gum tissue) to oral foreign bodies and, most commonly - dental disease. Called ‘periodontal disease’ within the veterinary profession, this term covers a 5 stage disease process, with 0 being a healthy mouth and 4 being an extremely diseased, painful mouth. Using the guideline of this scale, your veterinarian can provide treatment recommendations to help resolve the issue.  

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 the 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 emanating from our cat’s mouth.     

Plaque and Dental Disease - How to Fix It

With the help of your veterinarian, the progression of disease processes such as periodontal disease and gingivitis can be slowed. Because cats are excellent about hiding illness until it is far too painful, taking your cat to the vet for regular exams can be essential to her comfort. In the clinic, your vet can thoroughly examine the cat and briefly assess her mouth. A continued relationship and the information gained can help your vet determine the next course of action. Most often, they will side with the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) and recommend yearly dental cleanings.

Because our pets may not understand the reason for the dental cleaning and are not quite able to open their mouths and say ‘Ahhhh,’ this procedure is done while they are under anesthesia. An oral exam is the first step in the procedure, for, with the feisty feline asleep, a veterinarian is able to open her mouth and look for signs of more profound inflammation, ulcers, lumps, and foreign objects. This, combined with full mouth radiographs (just like what is performed at a human dentist), can help your vet choose the best treatment plan for your cat. 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 exam and radiographs serve a particularly important role in feline dental medicine. While sometimes present in dogs, two bad smelling disease processes are more common in cats. The first is known as stomatitis or the severe degeneration and inflammation of the gingiva. The cause of this disease is unknown, although its presence is both painful and can make your cat breathing on you an unbearable experience. The second disease, known as tooth resorption, is a painful affliction as the body absorbs the roots of the teeth. Treatment of both can require advanced dental care to dramatically reduce the stench of fish breath.

Aside from the treatment of painful diseases hiding in plain sight, a dental cleaning can also help to remove the plaque on the cat’s teeth and provide a starting point for continued, beneficial, home care.

An Ounce of Prevention...

Once the plaque is off (or before, if you started as a kitten), prevention is the next step. Just as they recommend in human dentistry, the ideal treatment plan is to brush your cat’s teeth daily. Not all of our cats are likely to permit that, and the veterinary community understands. A number of other items exist on the market, from dental chews and treats to mouth sprays and water additive. Care must be taken when introducing an additive to a cat’s water, and while many of the products are very effective, it can be essential to discuss these options with your veterinarian first. They will often 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, for recent studies show that kibble does not have the positive effect on plaque growth as was once thought.

Why Prevention is Important

With cats, searching for ways to clear up that fishy breath smell is critical, not just for our comfort but also for theirs. Cats are exceptionally good at hiding illnesses until they become severe, and their bad breath is often the first sign of underlying disease processes. A toothache or cavity in a person can be a rather painful experience, and by taking your cat in yearly for annual teeth cleanings and exams will count a lot towards her health and longevity. With the use of dental chews, brushing, or other dental products, we can continue to help our cats be healthy and comfortable.

There is no reason for pet parents to go through life simply tolerating fishy cat breath. This powerful indicator of disease comes with a great promise. Working together with your vet to develop a solid dental care plan will help keep the bad breath at bay and keep our felines healthy for longer.


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