What is a Cat Dental Emergency?

Dental problems in cats are among the most common medical problems in cats. If left untreated, dental problems can lead to a number of consequences, including bad breath, loose teeth, mouth pain, and eating disorders.

In my experience, the most common dental emergency in cats is a sudden inability to eat due to severe neglect of the mouth. While people see their teeth in the mirror daily while brushing their teeth, most people don’t check their pet’s teeth regularly, if at all. I have had many cats come to my hospital for sudden loss of appetite and upon examination I discovered an infected, diseased mouth with loose and missing teeth, bleeding gums, heavy tartar and breath that would make your eyes water.

Without exception, the owner insists that the cat has been eating well by this morning, and given their stoic, resilient nature, I’m sure that goes for many of these cats. Since the mouth is so painful that the cat can no longer eat, it is indeed a veterinary emergency that requires dental x-rays, teeth cleaning, tooth extraction, antibiotics, and possible hospitalization with nutritional support until the cat feels better and can eat again.

Here’s what you need to know about dental problems in cats. Photo: zygotehasnobrain | Getty Images

What are the signs of dental problems in cats?

Sometimes it can be difficult to tell if a cat has mouth problems because cats are naturally secret. Occasionally cats will show you that their mouth is sore by:

  • Paws on it
  • drool
  • When you eat, turn your head to one side on purpose to avoid chewing on the side of your mouth that is painful
  • refuse to eat dry nibbles and only eat canned foods

When is a dental / oral problem considered an emergency? As a feline practitioner, there are several scenarios that I believe require immediate attention.

Trauma to the oral cavity

A hard tissue trauma leads to an injury to the bone tissue and can lead to fractures, which are often accompanied by mouth pain, bleeding, loss of function and susceptibility to infection. The trauma can be caused by a high-energy impact (fall from a height, bullet, BB, or other projectile), a bite from another animal, or an earlier, progressive pathological condition that can weaken the facial bones or teeth like a tumor.

Soft tissue trauma tends to damage structures such as the tongue, soft roof of the mouth, or the lining of the mouth (the tissue that lines the oral cavity). Foreign objects (such as a fish hook), impalement, and corrosive liquids can cause soft tissue trauma.

The initial stabilization of cats with oral trauma requires pain control and antibiotics. Final treatment will depend on the type of trauma and may require surgical repair.

Broken teeth

A broken tooth is a dental emergency. When a tooth is broken, the pulp cavity inside becomes exposed and causes pain. Bacteria can invade the exposed pulp cavity and eventually cause infection.

A tooth with an exposed pulp should be extracted immediately. Advances in veterinary endodontics have made it possible to treat and save some broken teeth, and a referral to a veterinary dentist can be done if the client is inclined. These treatments are costly and most cat owners opt for extraction.

Inability to open or close your mouth

This is a rare problem, although it does occur occasionally. Masticatory muscle myositis, an inflammatory condition in which the muscles of the mastication become inflamed, can prevent the mouth from opening. Fortunately, this condition is very rare in cats.

Tetanus is a bacterial infection that can cause all muscles, including the muscles of the face, to become stiff and prevent the mouth from opening (“tetanus”). Tetanus is quite rare in cats too.

A retrobulbar abscess (a pocket of infection behind one of the eyeballs) can cause the eyeball to protrude. Although affected cats can open their mouths, they often resist the acute pain that occurs while doing so. Fortunately, this is also unusual. (I saw one case in my career and that was in a dog.)

The inability to close your mouth is more common than the inability to open it, the most common cause being a dislocation of the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). In simple terms, the lower jaw (mandible) pops out of the joint. This can happen through simple, accidental trauma. As a result, the teeth are not properly aligned and affected cats are suddenly unable to close their mouths. This causes immediate distress and restlessness, and many cats will paw anxiously on their mouths. Sedation (or general anesthesia) may be needed to get the jaw back into position.

I’ve handled a few cases of this over the years. When I was an intern (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth), one of my professors showed me a technique that uses a pencil as a fulcrum to bring the lower jaw back into position. A full description of this procedure is beyond the scope of this article, but all feline practitioners seem to know this trick, and it works like a charm. Most cats return to normal immediately after the lower jaw is brought back into position.

Prevention is the key!

Keep your cat’s oral health up with these Dental Principles, all of which are available on and other pet supply retailers.

Time for an investigation

The best way to handle cat emergencies is to prevent them from occurring. Some oral emergencies can be inevitable; However, regular veterinary exams, which include a thorough assessment of the mouth, can help prevent dental disease from progressing sufficiently to require emergency treatment.

Featured image: demaerre | Getty Images

Continue reading: Why dental disease is the most common problem cats face


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