Just like people, cats have a set of baby (deciduous) teeth when young, which are replaced by permanent teeth. Similarly, keeping the teeth and gums healthy requires regular preventative care. Food and saliva form plaque, which can mineralize into hard deposits of tartar.
Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums) and loss of permanent teeth can result. Actual cavities are relatively rare, but pitting and other tooth damage can result from neglecting oral hygiene. Mouth pain and tooth loss may reduce a cat's interest or ability to eat, causing weight loss and making the cat more prone to illness.
What to Do
Brush regularly. You don't need to have an actual toothbrush and paste, but giving your cat's teeth a good going-over a few times a week is the best way to fight plaque. There are pet toothbrushes available, but you can also just use a piece of gauze or rough cloth that is moistened and wrapped around your index finger. Rub the cloth vigorously over the outside surfaces of the teeth (you don't usually need to get the inner or biting surfaces). This will help keep your cat's teeth clean and gums healthy.
Give Tabby the crunchies. Hard, dry cat food is the best bet to prevent plaque and tartar. There are now some chew-toy products on the market made especially for cats, which can also help.
Look out for tartar. Plaque is a mushy whitish material that you can easily scrape off the teeth with your fingernail. Tartar, on the other hand, is greyish, white, or brown and does not come off with brushing. Tartar buildup needs to be removed by your vet.
Gums the word. Giving your cat a weekly gum massage helps keep gums healthy and prevents tooth loss. Using a cotton swab, rub the area where the teeth and gums meet. If the gums are red or there's any bleeding, it could be gingivitis, and your cat may need veterinary treatment.
Broken teeth and abscesses. A cracked canine tooth isn't rare in cats, especially outdoor cats and former strays. Broken teeth are usually only a problem if the pulp (the capsule of blood vessels and nerves in the middle of the tooth) is exposed. This can be quite painful, and the tooth may die.
In either case, there's a risk of infection in the tooth root -- an abscess. Abscesses can also form from bad oral hygiene. Symptoms include swelling around the mouth that may come and go and tenderness. Broken teeth that have exposed pulp, die, or abscess need to be removed by your veterinarian.
When to Call the Vet
Make an appointment with your vet if your cat has tartar buildup, shows signs of gingivitis (red or bleeding gums), has a broken tooth with exposed pulp or that has died (it will usually become discolored), has any swelling or tenderness around the mouth, or has any loose permanent teeth. Adult cats often lose teeth as they get older -- especially the small front incisors -- and veterinary care usually isn't necessary for this.
DANGER LEVEL: Tooth and gum problems can cause discomfort, make the cat touchy, and give her bad breath -- annoying but not particularly dangerous. However, as the problems worsen, the cat can stop eating altogether and infections can set in. These infections could be considered dangerous if not treated.
Moving down from the mouth a little bit, we will discuss upper respiratory diseases in our last section.