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Can Cats Get Cavities?

April 19, 2012

Cats do not develop the same type of cavities that people get—those nasty black holes we dread getting drilled and filled at the dentist office! However, cats do get holes in their teeth, but they are generally the same color as the tooth and are the result of tooth resorption rather than decay. Most commonly seen at or below the gumline, these "cat cavities" or "neck lesions" are now termed FORLs or feline odontoclastic resorption lesions. FORLs often lead to shearing off of the teeth at the gumline and are very painful. Difficulty eating, salivation, tooth loss, are some signs of “cat cavities”, but sometimes these lesions go undetected.

Though they have been a recognized disease entity in both domestic and wild cats since the 1920s, it seems that since the late 1960s, the number of cats affected by these lesions has skyrocketed.  Research continues into the exact cause of FORLs, but consistently, overactive osteoclasts (odontoclasts) or bone resorption cells are seen in tissue samples.

Some factors that have been suggested as possible contributors to the risk of focal tooth resorption problems include:

  • Inflammation around the teeth (gingivitis, periodontal disease, tartar)
  • Resorption of the supporting ligaments of the tooth (deterioration of the periodontal ligaments without signs of inflammation)
  • Diet (magnesium levels, acidifying effect)
  • Indoor lifestyle, especially urban, and an urban water supply
  • Genetic
  • Tooth stress from tooth malocclusion and abrasion
  • Chronic virus diseases (especially Feline Immunodeficiency Virus)

The exact cause is still under investigation.

Approximately one-third of all cats will develop FORLs over their lifetime and in one study of a healthy cat population, prevalence of these tooth problems was almost 50 per cent in those cats provided with a thorough dental and oral X-ray examination. Older cats are more likely to get FORLs and the lower premolar teeth are most commonly affected, symmetrically.

Usually extraction of affected teeth is recommended since studies of restoration of diseased teeth show that fixing teeth still results in over three quarters of the restored teeth undergoing deterioration.

Preventive measures include regular tooth brushing at home, and perhaps feeding non-acidifying diets with higher magnesium, potassium, calcium and phosphorus content. More definitive recommendations will have to await further research. Talk to your veterinarian about the benefits of regular dental care for your cat.