How to check a cat’s mouth for oral health

How do you check your cat’s teeth, gums and mouth generally? It’s important to do it but very difficult to carry out. Even using the standard veterinary technique, which I refer to below, many cats are reluctant to have their mouths examined. They might need to be restrained or sedated by a veterinarian. I would not try and restrain your cat while checking their mouth as it is highly likely to go pear-shaped in a very bad way. Poor oral health in older cats is one the most common cat diseases. It is probably in the top 10.

Vet opening a cat's mouth
Vet opening a cat’s mouth. Image: Pixabay.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats

Personally, I can get a quick glimpse at the interior of my cat’s mouth when he yawns when he is close to me. I can see whether his gums are pink and whether he has a buildup of tartar or calculus on the border between teeth and gums. This provides a rough idea as to his oral health. It may be possible to photograph the interior of your cat’s mouth when she yawns. You’ll be lucky and you’ll need good photographic technique but if you succeed in capturing a decent quality photo it will give you time to study the mouth. Use flash and a close up setting if you have one.

My cat yawning. A moment when you can briefly inspect the inside of your cat's mouth!
My cat yawning. A moment when you can briefly inspect the inside of your cat’s mouth! The photograph is by me.

Having looked at many photographs taken by veterinarians of the interior of cats’ mouths, periodontal disease most often occurs at the back of the mouth, on the upper jaw. This is an area which is impossible to see without intervention.

You can check whether your cat is anaemic by checking their gums. Raising the lips exposes the mucous membrane of the gums. If they are pink, you can assume that circulation is good and that the cat is not anaemic. Sometimes a cat’s gums are pigmented and therefore it is harder to check if they are pink!

The way veterinarians advise to open a cat’s mouth is to place the “thumb and forefinger of one hand against her upper cheeks and press in gently. As the mouth begins to open wide, press down on the lower jaw with the index finger of your other hand. To see the tonsils and back of throat, push down on the back of the tongue or tip the cat’s head back”. The photo above illustrates the technique.

Cat with open mouth, yawning
Oral health. Photo: PoC.

You’ll be lucky to achieve it and if you have any doubts about your ability to carry out these instructions, I wouldn’t try it. The technique does not expose the area where periodontal disease (gum disease) is likely to occur as described above. Also, if the gums are diseased the technique may cause considerable discomfort but at least you’ll know she has a bad mouth.

In order to help, there are some signs of mouth and throat disease. If they are apparent, a veterinary visit is recommended.

Failure to eat is one sign of poor oral health because the mouth is sore. Mouth pain results in a loss of appetite. Sometimes cats will sit beside their food and look as if they want to eat and may begin to eat but then stop.

Another sign of a sore mouth is an unkempt appearance. The mouth is used to groom the fur and if it is sore the cat can no longer groom themselves.

A sore mouth causes drooling. The drool may be discoloured either brown or red from infection or bleeding. The hair on the cat’s chin and chest maybe wet and dirty.

RELATED: Home treatment for bad breath in cats

Another sign of poor health is bad breath. Sometimes bad breath is caused by stomatitis and gingivitis (gum disease). Below are some more pages on oral health.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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