Tooth resorption is a very common and painful condition that affects an estimated 20-60 percent of cats – but can easily go unnoticed.
The cause is unknown, but seems to be that cells called osteoclasts that naturally eat up and remove baby teeth, persist long after they are needed in some cats.
There may be various levels of resorption in affected teeth, and the destruction can occur at varying speeds until it progresses to a point at which it must be addressed. The dentin in a single tooth (or several simultaneously) erodes and eventually becomes irreparably destroyed. Over time, all areas of an affected tooth, from root to crown, may become involved.
Within each of a cat’s teeth is a chamber (root canal) that contains tissue made up of blood vessels, lymphatic vessels, and nerves. This tissue, which communicates with the rest of the animal’s body, is surrounded by a bony substance called dentin, which accounts for the bulk of the tooth’s structure.
In this condition, the dentin in a tooth, or several teeth, erodes and eventually becomes irreparably destroyed. Over time, all areas of an affected tooth, from root to crown, may become involved.
Dental pain in all animals is almost always hidden from view, so that they don’t appear vulnerable or weak. Sudden loss of appetite might occur if the crown were to break off from a single tooth. In that case, the cat could be off its food for a significant amount of time, 24 to 72 hours, say, but in general, the condition has to get to an extreme level before the cat stops eating.
One of the first signs would be that the cat starts swallowing its food without chewing it or that it suddenly develops a preference for soft food.
A cat may clearly indicate that it is experiencing excruciating pain when it bites down on an affected tooth or if the tooth is touched by a veterinarian’s probing fingers or examining tool. However, chronic toothaches are not among the condition’s most usual clinical signs.
A more reliable indicator is a cat’s behaviour while eating. The owner may notice that it’s appetite appears to be normal but that it tilts its head and tries to chew on just one side of its mouth. If it is eating kibble, it may try to swallow it without chewing, or the food may fall out of its mouth.
Diagnosis and treatment
The best way of confirming the suspected presence of the condition is with a trip to the vet who can usually diagnose the condition with a visual examination or sometimes an x-ray. A good precaution is to have your cat’s teeth examined annually.
Unfortunately complete extraction of all affected teeth is the only treatment. Drastic as this sounds, it should not cause major concern for the patient. Cats can cope very well with no teeth at all!