Cats, humans and other animals can suffer from gingivitis. Gingivitis is the inflammation of the gums (or 'gingiva' in medical-speak) caused by a build-up of plaque (solidified bacteria and food debris in the mouth). Gingivitis can be localised to one tooth or so widespread that it affects the entire mouth. In the early stages plaque deposits are laid on the teeth. If this is untreated - and brushing is the best treatment - the plaque hardens and becomes tartar (also known as calculus). Tartar is yellow in colour and develops mainly along the gum, at the border with the teeth.
Bacteria are the major culprit in plaque formation, and these bacteria can set off chronic inflammation. Without dental care this spreads to the root of the tooth loosening it and eventually causing it to fall out. The bacteria in the mouth may also get into the bloodstream and spread into other parts of the body causing more widespread infection. This can result in serious conditions, including organ failure.
Cats may develop a chronic inflammation of the mouth and gums called lymphocytic-plasmacytic gingivitis stomatitis (inflammation of mucous membrane) or LPGS. This condition affects the entire mouth and is the result of the immune cells - in this case lymphocytes and plasma cells (the cells which produce antibodies) - getting into the gums and the mucosal membrane of the mouth. The exact cause of the problem is unknown but the most likely explanation is an allergic reaction to the bacteria within the plaque.
How do I know if my cat has gingivitis?
Cats are masters at hiding pain, but gingivitis is very painful. So one noticeable symptom is a cat's reluctance to eat, (especially as most cats are generally eager to do so!). The cat may rush to the food bowl as usual, but after a small nibble walk away from the food. This is because although the cat is hungry, it is simply too painful to continue eating. Other obvious signs are that the cat will have bad breath and drool a lot. The gums, because they are inflamed will be much redder than usual and will bleed more easily.
There may be also visible changes in cat's behaviour. You may notice that a previously sociable cat has become withdrawn or irritable and may even become unusually aggressive.
How is gingivitis diagnosed?
By simple examination of the cat's mouth your vet will be able to see if there are plaque deposits on the teeth. In more advanced gingiviyis he will also see lesions and ulcers on the gums or the roof of the mouth. If the condition is chronic, a more detailed examination may reveal tooth resorption. Tooth resorption is the loss of tooth structure to the plaque, starting with the outer enamel surface, usually at or below the gum-line. The lesions (which are not cavities), begin as a loss of tooth enamel and can eventually spread to the dentin and then the pulp canal, which contains the blood vessels and nerves to the tooth. Sometimes, the entire crown of the tooth may be missing. Tooth resorption may only become obvious when the plaque is removed and the clean tooth exposed. An X-ray may be needed to determine the extent of the damage.
If LPGS is suspected, a biopsy will be required to confirm the diagnosis.
How can gingivitis be treated?
Once plaque has built up into tartar, it requires professional help to remove it. Proper dental descaling will also expose any additional dental problems such as tooth resorption. If necessary the vet will suggest tooth extraction. In mild cases of gingivitis just a professional cleaning may solve the problem. There are now increasing numbers of dental biscuits for cats to reduce the build up of the tatar. This may be combined at home with regular tooth cleaning. Make sure you use the toothbrushes and toothpastes which are specially prepared for cats, and remember that not all cats are prepared to submit to having their teeth brushed!
If a cat has chronic gingivitis and LPGS, regular descaling will be essential, and this should be combined with regular cleaning of the cat's teeth at home. The vet may also prescribe anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics to limit the gum inflammation. Good nutritious meals with additional vitamins will be essential because a cat with gum inflammation will probably eat less.
In severe cases, if the treatments do not work, the vet may suggest total extraction of all the cat's teeth. Drastic as this is, with severe LPGS it may be the only cure.
Prevention of gingivitis
Most cats will develop some form of gingivitis during their lifetime, so good dental hygiene is important to prevent this developing into more severe gum disease. Adding biscuits designed to reduce tarter build up into your cat's diet, and regular tooth brushing (assuming a co-operative cat) will go a long way to preventing gum disease. Regular checks at the vet and regular dental descaling is also strongly recommended.
Note: This information is for guidance only. It is not intended to replace consultation with a licensed practitioner.