How to survive a teething kitten

So little Fluffy has slowly morphed from being a cute little bundle of fur to a demented little monster determined to chew her way through the entire universe, one item of furniture at a time. Despite her fondness for gnawing your toes, electrical cabling and household plants, the kitten is not paying much attention to her cat food biscuits. Occasionally she wails for no reason, and may even start drooling.

Relax, you have not imported a feline Frankenstein into the home. Your kitten is teething.

Like humans, cats grow two sets of teeth while young. The first set are technically known as 'deciduous' teeth, because like the leaves on a deciduous tree, they are going to fall out. Most people call these the kitten's 'milk teeth' or 'baby teeth'. The tiny teeth first appear after three weeks, but there is so much else going on in the kitten's life that the arrival of these teeth is relatively uneventful. It is when these teeth start to fall out and are replaced by adult teeth that things get interesting.

Expect the process to start when the kitten is 10-12 weeks old. (These times can vary.) Until your kitten is six months old it will probably be teething. Overall, thirty permanent teeth have to grow through the gums, and this happens in stages. The incisors are first, and followed by the canines. These are the important teeth for a wild cat as they are the teeth that grip and kill prey. They should be in place at around five months. The premolars follow over the next month or so. Finally your cat will develop 'wisdom teeth' in the form of another four molars as she becomes a young adult.

This is a normal part of a kitten's development, and something the average kitty does not have a lot of trouble with. However on rare occasions, a kitten will develop what the vets call 'occlusion'. That's when the top and bottom sets of teeth do not mesh together well. This may happen when a baby tooth is too slow in dropping out and the new tooth emerges out of position. Cats bred to have short, flatter muzzles are particularly at risk. Occlusion has to be sorted out with dental work, because not only will your cat otherwise have a lifetime of trouble chewing, but if the tooth pierces the palate it can cause an infection.

How can I tell if my kitten is teething?

Well firstly, don't expect the house to be littered with tiny teeth. Most of the teeth of even a mature cat are barely the size of a grain of rice, and most kitten teeth as so small that you will probably vaccuum or sweep them up without noticing.

Occasionally you might notice your kitten 'yawning' or pawing at her jaw, especially after eating dry biscuits. Provided this does not happen excessively, it's not usually anything to be concerned about it's just that the kitten has tender gums as the new teeth make their way out. You may notice swelling or redness of the gums at this point.

You might also find a smear of blood on a chew toy, or a bit of drool around the mouth. Again, unless we are talking gushers of blood or drool, this is not usually a major problem, but it is a good idea anyway to take your kitten for regular check-ups at the vet's over this period. Lots of blood is never good, and heavy drool may not be teething but a mouth injury, or something stuck in the kitten's jaw.

Something stuck is more probable because the one thing you will notice most about the teething process is that your kitten becomes a chew fiend. Toys, table legs, legs, shoes and electrical wiring are all at risk, and so are your beloved pot plants. (If you have not already done so, now is an essential time to remove plants which are poisonous to cats.)

How can I help my kitten get through this?

Most kittens get through teething just fine. However, this is a good time to instil some healthy habits for later life.

For a start, it is almost certain that at some point your teething kitten will take a nip at your fingers or toes. Many humans regard this as a cute bit of play rather than a dangerous precedent. Yet unless you want a future as a fleshy chew toy, now is the time to put a stop to this behaviour before it becomes a habit.

Don't try punishments, because cats don't really get the concept. Instead of connecting cause and effect, the kitten just encounters what she regards as a random attack. Thereafter human-cat relationships deteriorate accordingly. Instead, when you get a nip, say 'ow!' loudly, and then put the kitten down, walk away or generally ignore the little brute. That's what the kitten's mother would do if junior was acting anti-socially. Given this treatment the kitten learns fast what is acceptable and what's not.

Do make sure that the kitten has plenty to chew on, because she will chew regardless. Most pet shops these days offer chew toys for kittens, and if your kitten's gums are particularly tender, try chilling the toy in the fridge, or even briefly in the freezer for a bit of extra relief. An old leather belt is a good teething chew, but avoid anything that the kitten can chew off and swallow.

Watch carefully for, and prevent chewing through wires. The soft plastic around electrical cables is both tempting and lethal. Solutions include clipping wires out of reach with cable ties, putting plastic sheaths around accessible bits, and rubbing the wires with lemon juice or something equally unpleasant. However, the best solution is to make sure that there is something better in chewing range at all times.

If you brush your kitten's teeth (a good idea, if you can persuade your cat to accept this), you will want to pause while the kitten is teething. You won't be able to avoid causing some pain, and this is both bad in itself, and it teaches the kitten that brushing is painful and unpleasant. Also, if dry biscuits are causing pain or discomfort, try soaking them in cold water first, or better, switch to wet food for a while.

The important thing to remember is that teething is generally over within three months. You can both get through it.

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