Peggy's cat Wilson has a broken tooth, and she wonders if she needs to be concerned.
Yes, Peggy, there is cause for concern.
Cats are pure carnivores with teeth to match. They have 30 teeth arranged and designed to grab, cut and tear their meals. Wilson has lost the tip off an upper canine. These are the pointed large teeth there are four in the front of a cat's mouth, designed primarily for grabbing.
In captivity, cats do not need to do a lot of grabbing, cutting and tearing, as their food is generally provided for them and requires very little processing by teeth compared with their wild counterparts. This does not mean, however, that their teeth are not important. Dental health in pets is very important, and a fractured tooth can compromise dental health and overall body condition.
Cats have a relatively thin layer of enamel over each tooth, especially when compared with dogs or even humans. This protective layer provides a barrier to invasion by bacteria. Even a tiny tip fracture, as in Wilson's case, can destroy the enamel barrier at the fracture site and allow bacteria to invade the tooth.
Beneath the enamel, a more porous layer, dentin, extends to below the gumline. A soft interior portion called pulp contains vital nerves and blood vessels. Bacteria in the pulp cavity can cause an infection, which can proceed down through the root of the tooth. In the case of an upper canine tooth, an infection can invade the nasal cavity as well. Left unchecked, a tooth infection can lead to systemic disease most often involving the heart, kidneys and-or liver.
Antibiotics alone will not cure this disease process, as the bacterial invasion will return when antibiotics are stopped. The tooth must either be extracted or repaired via a root canal. This will eliminate the avenue for bacterial infection and spare Wilson the potential of serious illness.
It is also important to do a radiograph to make sure the rest of the teeth are in good order. Abscesses can lurk under the gumline they're invisible to the naked eye but should be addressed.
Jeff Kahler is a veterinarian in Modesto. Questions can be submitted to Your Pet in care of LifeStyles, The Modesto Bee, P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352.