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feline health problems

Gingivitis in cats: Symptoms, treatment, and prevention

Cats usually get gingivitis for the same reasons humans do — excessive plaque buildup. But in some cases, inflamed gums are a symptom of a more serious condition.

Updated October 19, 2020

Created By

Mariah Ackary,
veterinarian checks teeth to a cat.

Though many cat owners don’t bring their pets in for checkups, it’s a good idea to make sure they’re seen at least once a year.

The essentials

  • Gingivitis in cats usually looks like inflamed gums — It’s similar to the human condition.
  • Excessive plaque is usually to blame for gingivitis in cats — The plaque builds up, hardens into tartar, and then causes a bacterial infection in the gums.
  • Sometimes gingivitis is a symptom of a larger problem — Some diseases may cause gingivitis.

What is gingivitis in cats?

Even though cats don’t share humans’ cavity-causing vices, (we’re looking at you, Ben and Jerry’s) they do experience some of the same dental issues. According to Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, between 50% and 90% of cats older than age four experience some form of periodontal disease. Gingivitis is one of the most common dental problems from which cats suffer.

Gingivitis in cats is characterized by swollen, red gingiva (the area where a cat’s teeth meet the gums). The degree of severity can vary from mild to extreme. In severe cases, the gingivitis can progress to a more serious form of periodontal disease, leading to tooth loss and irreversible damage.

Typically, gingivitis in cats is caused by excessive plaque buildup. Plaque accumulation is normal and can easily be removed, but left uncontrolled, it will harden to form a yellowish layer over the teeth called tartar. The rough surface of tartar is a perfect home for harmful bacteria, which will invade the gums and cause the painful inflammation that is gingivitis. While it is reversible, you’ll need to address gingivitis before it progresses to a more severe form of periodontal disease.

Professional veterinarian examining cat's teeth in clinic. The cat has diseased teeth (concept veterinary stomatology, pet care)

A mild case of gingivitis

Symptoms of gingivitis

With gingivitis, swelling and redness of the gums should be evident — in particular, swelling of the gum area surrounding the tooth. A case of gingivitis with these symptoms alone is still considered moderate and reversible. Other symptoms include:

  • Gum recession
  • Bad breath (halitosis)
  • Decreased appetite or difficulty eating, especially dry or hard food
  • Dropping food while eating
  • Drooling
  • Irritable behavior

Stages of gingivitis in cats

  1. Mild. The first stage of gingivitis is very common and treatable. Gums will be slightly inflamed or red and maybe slightly receding. In the early stages, your cat shouldn’t be in excessive pain.
  2. Moderate. At this point, the symptoms of mild gingivitis will worsen. Gums will be more swollen, red and painful. Gingival pockets may appear and gums may be noticeably receding.
  3. Severe. Gums will be very inflamed and sometimes bleeding. Your cat may have difficulty eating and in a lot of pain. At this point, the gingivitis may not be reversible. Your cat may need to have teeth extracted.

Gingivitis is more common in certain cats

Kitty gingivitis is especially common among:

  • Aging cats. Though it occurs in cats of all ages, gingivitis is especially common in older cats.
  • Short-nosed breeds. Persians, British Shorthairs and other short-nosed breeds often have misaligned teeth, which makes them more susceptible to plaque buildup.
  • Cats with congenital abnormalities. Just like humans, cats can be born with overbites and underbites, which can cause poor tooth alignment and plaque buildup.
  • Cats with deciduous teeth. When a cat’s permanent teeth are growing in, the deciduous, or “baby teeth,” sometimes don’t fall out. When a baby tooth remains stubbornly in place, the adult tooth may grow crooked, making it more likely to accumulate plaque.

Causes of gingivitis in cats

Tooth crowding

When teeth are crowded and misaligned, it’s easier for some areas to collect food debris that turns into plaque and, eventually, tartar. There are a number of reasons teeth may be crowded, from injury to birth abnormalities to specific breed characteristics.

Diet

Some veterinarians point to soft food as a potential factor in the development of gingivitis. Without a regular tooth brushing routine, cats rely on abrasion from the foods they eat to remove any plaque or food buildup. Soft food may accumulate on cats’ teeth easier than dry foods, making it easier for bacteria to set up shop. Before you switch to just any dry food, ask your veterinarian for a recommendation. There are specific types of food designed to stop plaque from forming.

👉 Pro-tip: When switching your cat’s food, trying a new type of food each week is not the best strategy. With your veterinarian’s help, pick out new food and stick to it strictly for several weeks before making any changes.

Disease

Before jumping to conclusions, remember that gingivitis in cats is incredibly common, even in otherwise healthy cats. However, there are several diseases that may cause gingivitis.

Gingivitis is an immune response, usually to harmful bacteria that have invaded the teeth and gums. However, sometimes gingivitis can be a response to a weakened or malfunctioning immune system.

These are some of the illnesses that may lead to gingivitis:

  • Autoimmune disease. When cats have an autoimmune disease, the immune system malfunctions by attacking itself.
  • Feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection. Usually transmitted through bite wounds, FIV weakens the immune system enough to allow everyday microorganisms to cause life-threatening illness.
  • Feline leukemia virus (FeLV) infection. Transmitted through bodily fluid, FeLV is one of the more common infectious diseases in cats and can cause cancer, blood disorders, and the inability to fight off infection.
  • Feline calicivirus (FCV). In addition to mouth inflammation, this highly contagious virus causes cold-like symptoms and is usually not deadly.

Poor oral hygiene

While many cats don’t require human intervention to have good oral hygiene, some cats are genetically predisposed to plaque buildup. In this case, you’ll need to take some extra steps, such as at-home tooth brushing to ensure good oral hygiene.

Other forms of dental disease in cats

Periodontitis

A very advanced form of gum disease, periodontitis is similar to severe gingivitis, though the clinical signs are more severe. Periodontitis usually affects older cats. Gum recession and tartar will be severe, exposing the tooth root and causing it to be diseased as well. Often the tooth will be infected, creating pus. Because it’s such an advanced form of gum disease, periodontitis is only treatable through tooth extraction.

Stomatitis

More generalized and more severe, stomatitis has a less obvious cause. Inflammation is more prevalent than it is with gingivitis and can occur anywhere in the mouth. Stomatitis may begin as gingivitis, but the swelling and redness will spread from the gumline to other areas of the mouth. The presence of both gingivitis and stomatitis is known as gingivostomatitis

Though cats with stomatitis usually do have some plaque buildup, it’s thought that it is partially the result of an overactive immune system. Cats with stomatitis are typically in a lot of pain and will drool or struggle to eat. Cats with feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection may be more likely to develop stomatitis.

Feline resorptive lesions

A feline odontoclastic resorptive lesion is a painful tooth erosion which requires an x-ray or tooth probe to diagnose. When a FORL is present, the gums will become inflamed and poke out of the erosion. A tooth with a FORL will need to be removed, or else it will eventually break off to expose the tooth root, which will be very painful for your cat.

How to treat gingivitis in cats

If caught before severe, gingivitis is easily treated. However, it won’t go away on its own. If you notice any stage of gingivitis in your cat, you should seek the help of a veterinarian. Not only will they be able to diagnose the condition and recommend the appropriate form of treatment, but they can also make sure there’s no underlying disease causing gingivitis. If your cat has other symptoms of periodontal disease, your veterinarian may want to take x-rays.

  • For mild to medium cases: Your veterinarian may recommend at-home brushing and antibiotics (pills or an oral rinse), or anti-inflammatory medication. It’s also fairly common to do dental prophylaxis, which is a cleaning and polishing of the teeth, during which your cat will need to be sedated.
  • For severe cases: If plaque accumulation is advanced, your cat will likely need to undergo sedation to receive a professional cleaning. If there are other complications, such as fractured teeth, teeth may be removed. Drugs may be prescribed in the case of immune system disease.

How to prevent gingivitis in your cat

Regular veterinarian visits

Veterinarians will examine your cat’s oral health as part of a wellness visit. Though many cat owners don’t bring their pets in for checkups, it’s a good idea to make sure they’re seen at least once a year. That way you can check all your boxes, including dental care and looking for early stages of gingivitis.

Remember, if you do go to your vet for a cleaning, a thorough cleaning (while your cat is put under anesthesia) is best.

Cats with gingivitis (even mild cases) can experience some oral pain. As a result, brushing can be painful. A dental prophylaxis is the ultimate way to remove plaque and tartar from below the gumline which will help resolve gingivitis. ‘Awake (without anesthesia)’ dental cleanings are not effective and therefore are not recommended by most veterinarians and veterinary dentists.

Dr. Erica Irish, DVM
dental prophylaxis

This cat's undergoing a dental prophylaxis for the ultimate cleaning

At-home oral hygiene check-ins

It may be difficult to get your cat used to having you poke and prod around in their mouth, but it’s important to practice home care in between vet visits, especially if your cat is prone to gingivitis. One sneaky way to get your cat comfortable with their mouth being touched is to dip your finger in a favorite treat, like whipped cream, then lift their lips enough to see the gums. Your cat will be less likely to protest while enjoying a yummy treat.

Regular toothbrushing

If your cat has mild to moderate gingivitis, your veterinarian may recommend daily at-home teeth brushing. To avoid a traumatic experience for both you and your cat, you’ll want to be gradual in how you introduce the process. You’ll need the following:

  • A cat toothbrush
  • Cat toothpaste (human toothpaste is NOT safe for cats)
  • Treats

The following steps will help your cat adjust to regular toothbrushing:

Step one: Introduction
Spend several days allowing your cat to get used to the sight and taste of the materials. Place the toothbrush and toothpaste near your cat, giving them a chance to examine them. From there, you can dab a little bit of toothpaste on your finger and allow them to smell or taste it. Then you can try placing a little bit of toothpaste near their mouth for them to lick it off. Follow with treats.

Step two: Positive reinforcement
Make a daily routine of placing toothpaste on their teeth or gums, each time rewarding them with a treat afterward. The goal is that after a week or so, they will be comfortable with the taste of the toothpaste.

Step three: Make contact with the toothbrush
Instead of your finger, place some toothpaste on the toothbrush and allow your cat to lick it off. If they are hesitant to touch the toothbrush, ease them into it by dabbing a small amount of toothpaste from the toothbrush onto their mouth. Continue reinforcing with treats.

Step four: Begin brushing their teeth
Now that your cat is familiar with the toothbrush and toothpaste, especially in relation to their mouth, it’s time to start brushing their teeth. They may still express some resistance in the beginning, but it will become easier with repetition. Gently pull your cat’s lips up and place the brush on the inside of their cheek, facing the teeth and gums. Brush the area in a similar fashion to how you brush your own teeth — in a small, gentle, circular motion. Focus on the outer tooth area; the inner teeth are usually cleaned sufficiently by the cat’s tongue.