Tartar in Cats This article is verified by a vet

cat tartar

Old cats in particular often suffer from severe tartar, which is made up of brownish-yellow deposits on the surface of the teeth. This forms through accumulated dental plaque, which is still soft in contrast to hard tartar. More precisely, it is a thin film of mucus made up of food particles like proteins or polysaccharides and microbes (e.g. fungi and bacteria). Tartar in cats can develop from inflammation of the mouth, such as in the gums or periodontitis. In addition, tartar leads to further inflammation through bacterial infections.

What is tartar and how does it form?

Tartar is predominantly found in adult cats and is characterised by its typical yellow-brown deposits on the surface of the teeth. Mostly the rear outer surfaces of the molars are affected first, but gradually groups of front teeth can be affected too.

In general, tartar is an accumulation of what is known as dental plaque, which is made up of film-like structures that deposit on the surface of the teeth. These form through the accumulation of small food particles, bacteria and fungi.

Calcium salts from the saliva cause demineralisation of dental plaques, which results in final tartar in cats.

The following diseases are also known causes of tartar in cats:

  • Periodontitis (bacterial inflammation of the periodontium)
  • Gingivitis (inflammation of the gums)
  • Lymphoplasmacellular stomatitis (inflammation of the mouth mucosa) or gingivitis stomatitis oropharyngitis (GSO): the cause of this disease is still unknown, although stress, plaque and infectious agents like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukaemia virus (FeLV) are important development factors. Stomatitis leads to infected growths in the mouth mucosa, some of which have small blisters on their surface.

Tartar in cats: what symptoms?

The breakdown of carbohydrates, i.e. sugar, subsequently leads to the formation of lactic acid, which ultimately leads to the breakdown of the surrounding gums. In addition, other structures are also damaged, such as the tooth enamel or periodontal ligament. The latter is an important part of the periodontal apparatus and surrounds the dental root.

The consequence can be periodontal illnesses, such as inflammation of the periodontal apparatus (parodontitis) or the gums (gingivitis). Other symptoms can emerge along with the brownish-yellow deposits, such as:

  • Bad breath and neglected teeth
  • Bleeding gums and gum recession
  • Damage to the periodontal apparatus and other surrounding structures: loosening of the teeth until tooth loss and breakdown of the jaw bone
  • Mouth inflammations and pains
  • Reduced or impaired chewing processes and weight loss
  • Lymphoplasmacellular stomatitis or gingivitis stomatitis oropharyngitis (GSO): swelling of the mouth lymphatic glands and mouth mucosa with bubble-like inflammation
  • Bacteria penetrate the periodontal pockets: potential inflammations and abscesses in other organs like the kidneys.
cat gets dental check up at vet

What are the diagnostic options?

Generally tartar in cats is easily noticeable with yellow-brown deposits on the teeth and usually doesn’t need immediate veterinary treatment. However, if the deposits occur more frequently and lead to inflammation, it is very much recommended to see a vet.

When examining the mouth, vets can often gauge at first glance the extent of tartar and accompanying symptoms like gum inflammation or periodontal apparatus. Since severe tartar and inflammations in the mouth area (e.g. like a lymphoplasmacellular stomatitis with cats) are associated with certain infectious diseases, a blood examination is recommended in such cases. As a result, significant infectious agents can be diagnosed and if possible treated thanks to a special blood test.

A radiological examination of the head is also recommended in order to rule out damage to bone structures. In this way, the jaw and teeth can be more closely inspected for structural and inflammatory changes.

How is tartar treated in cats?

If there is already so much tartar that the health of the teeth and surrounding structures is in jeopardy and the vet can’t remove the deposits with their finger, professional tartar removal under anaesthetic is advisable. This involves the following measures:

  • It’s important that cats have an empty stomach for an anaesthetic. This mans that they should have been fed for the last time at least six hours before the anaesthetic.
  • The vet can roughly remove tartar with their finger or tartar removal tongs.
  • With special ultrasound devices such as scanners, the remaining plaque and tartar is removed from the teeth and gaps in the teeth by generating vibrations. Meanwhile, the teeth and gums are cleaned with cleansing rinses and the resulting waste is removed from the oral cavity with water and an extractor.
  • Once the tartar has been removed, the teeth are polished to prevent new formation of plaque and tartar.
  • Severely damaged teeth need to be removed (tooth extraction).
  • Anti-inflammatory and pain-relief medication may be helpful.

What is the prognosis of tartar in cats?

Not all cases of tartar require professional teeth cleaning or extraction. However, if the latter is required, the cat’s food intake is usually hardly affected.

How can my cat be prevented from tartar?

Tartar often affects older cats and is almost impossible to prevent. Nevertheless, there are some tips which can prevent tartar forming too quickly as well as subsequent diseases affecting cats like periodontosis:

  • Regular veterinary monitoring of dental health
  • If it is possible for the owner to clean their cat’s teeth with special toothpastes and toothbrushes for cats, this can prevent the formation of plaque and tartar with regular use.

Franziska G., Veterinarian
Profilbild von Tierärztin Franziska Gütgeman mit Hund

At the Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen I was extensively trained as a veterinarian and was able to gain experience in various fields such as small animal, large animal and exotic animal medicine as well as pharmacology, pathology and food hygiene. Since then, I have been working not only as a veterinary author, but also on my scientifically driven dissertation. My goal is to better protect animals from pathogenic bacterial organisms in the future. Besides my veterinary knowledge, I also share my own experiences as a happy dog owner and can thus understand and enlighten fears and problems as well as other important questions about animal health.

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