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Vet 101: Senior Cat Dental Health

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Pet Dental Month cats

It’s February again and that means a focus on oral health for Dental Health Month. Our guest post is by veterinarian Letrisa Miller who shares her excellent advice on senior cats and dental health. Almost all senior cats have dental issues and they require special treatment. UPDATED 2019. This info in this article applies to cats of all ages. Senior cats refer to those age 8+.

Senior Cat Dental Health

by Dr. Letrisa Miller

Who knew that becoming a veterinarian meant becoming a dentist?

I find that many of my clients have fears about dentistry for their senior cats, usually because they have been told that anesthesia is risky for older patients. As long as an anesthetist is present during the procedure to monitor the patient and a doctor is performing any extractions that need to be done, the risk for a healthy senior patient is no greater than for any other patient. While some of the more common ailments that senior cats have can pose concerns for anesthesia, those concerns can usually be easily addressed. Healthy older cats have no higher anesthetic risk than healthy middle-aged cats. Remember, age is not a disease!

  • For cats with kidney insufficiency, injectable medications that have to be eliminated through the urine should be avoided. To ensure that the patient does not become dehydrated during the procedure, IV fluids can be given before and during anesthesia to support hydration and blood pressure. These two steps eliminate any extra risk from the cat’s kidney disease.Regular dentistry is particularly important for cats with kidney disease because inflammation and infection in the mouth cause further damage to the kidneys and can result in eventual kidney failure and death.
  • Cats with hyperthyroidism should be regulated to normal thyroid levels for at least one month before undergoing anesthesia. But once regulated, they have little increased risk from anesthesia in my experience. In cases where the veterinarian suspects the hyperthyroidism might have caused damage to the cat’s heart, a cardiac ultrasound can help the doctor determine whether any issues need to be addressed before anesthesia or whether anesthetic medications and monitoring need to be tailored to avoid undue strain on the heart.
  • With cats that are underweight, extra care should be taken to ensure they don’t get cold while under anesthesia. At my practice we use warming blankets to help maintain patients’ body temperature while they are under anesthesia.Warming the cats IV fluids will also help.
  • Despite the small but real risk of complications with anesthesia, the greater risk to older cats is often in forgoing dental care. Unaddressed dental disease is one of the most common debilitating diseases I see in older cats. Dental disease is extremely painful and when left untreated can have serious consequences for other body systems.
Other must know facts about feline dental issues.
  • Cats can’t tell us that their mouth hurts, and they rarely show obvious signs of oral pain. Instead, they might just become quieter and less playful.
  • Antibiotics can be helpful in the short term but do not address the underlying problem.
  • Dental cleaning and surgery are the only way to resolve dental disease.
  • Dental infection can take its toll on multiple body systems. Because they are in pain, cats with dental disease often don’t want to interact as much, may eat and groom less, and may have nausea from swallowing the discharge (pus) from the infection. Their immune system constantly has to work double time, which reduces the amount of energy the body has available to maintain muscle mass and stamina.
  • Dental disease often results in the overproduction of inflammatory compounds and mediators, which the whole body—but especially the liver and kidneys—then has to deal with. The constant strain of handling the byproducts of dental disease can eventually damage those important organs.
  • In addition to pain in the cat’s mouth, pain elsewhere in the body can be intensified by the inflammatory compounds and mediators that are released because of the dental disease. Arthritis hurts more and the energy that might have been used to deal with arthritis pain is not available because the body is using it to fight infection in the mouth.

In my practice I often see a decrease in kidney function and an increase in mucus in the urine of cats with dental disease. The condition usually reverses once the dental disease has been resolved and is likely caused by the kidneys being constantly exposed to the inflammatory compounds associated with the inflammation in the mouth and bacteria that are released into the bloodstream every time the cat eats. Once the dental disease is resolved, the kidneys usually recover.

Dentistry is essential for the health of our senior cats! If you have concerns about risk or about whether your cat needs dental care, talk about them with your veterinarian. If you are still unsure, get a second opinion. As always, I recommend consulting with a veterinarian who has a special interest in cats and who gets regular continuing education in feline medicine.

Big kitty smiles to all of you this Dental Health Month! Visit the American Veterinary Association for the latest on Pet Dental Month

Dr. Letrisa Miller has a feline-centered practice in Manchester, Conn. Visit her website


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