What Should I Know About My Cat’s Mouth?

Cats are considered to be a discriminating species.  They are picky in many aspects of their normal behaviors.  They choose whom to be friendly with and when they want to obey commands.  They are “finicky” because of their feeding behavior.  Does being finicky have to do with the taste of food, or is it merely a behavior designed to drive cat owners crazy?

Cats are carnivores.  They are hunters and natural meat eaters.  Their teeth are designed to tear rather than chew.  The prominent fangs, called canine teeth, are shaped to kill small animals when they are bit in the neck. In the wild, cats eat the bones and organs of their prey.  This supplies them with vitamins and minerals.  Plain muscle meat, the meat that humans eat, does not fulfill feline nutritional requirements.

The tongue of the cat is uniquely designed to detect tastes, temperature, and food texture.  It can ladle liquids, pick up tiny bits of food, remove meat from bones, and groom the coat.  The surface of the tongue is covered with papillae.  Some papillae contain taste buds, and some contain spine-like structures that help in grooming.

The sense of taste in cats is probably more sensitive than our own.  Some researchers believe that cats like to drink out of running spigots because they prefer fresher tasting water.  Different taste buds are specific for different sensations.  Sour, bitter, and salty tastes can be detected by cats, but they apparently cannot detect sweetness.

Taste and palatability are not the same thing.  Palatability is crucial to a cat’s decision to eat something.  Cats are sensitive to the taste, texture, and physical shape of their food, and these factors determine palatability.  Food ingredients that have been determined to affect palatability for cats are moisture, animal fats, protein hydrolysates, meat extracts, certain proteins, and acidity.  Pet food manufacturers use this information when formulating diets for cats.  They try to maximize palatability because it makes cat owners happy.  Owners want to feed their cat something the pet really wants to eat.  The problem with increased palatability is that it leads to obesity.  Higher fat content is common in the more palatable foods.  With increased intake, more caloric foods will lead to weight gain.

Diseases and conditions that affect the tongue, teeth, or gums of a cat alter normal functions.  Changes in eating, drinking, and grooming behaviors should alert an owner to a potential problem with their cat’s mouth.  Some owners are hesitant to open their cat’s mouth for fear of hurting the cat or getting bit.  Opening a cat’s mouth is normally not painful to a cat.  It is a good technique to practice with a kitten so that during its life you can observe overall health, the teeth, and administer medication.

Bad breath, drooling, difficulty with eating, mouth pawing, and jaw chattering are the clinical signs associated with oral diseases in cats.  Dental diseases including abscessed or broken teeth, maligned teeth, and inflamed gums are the most common oral problems found in cats.

Drooling is not a normal characteristic of cats. Unlike slobbering canines, only a few cats drool when they are excited, nervous, or happy.  If your cat is drooling, you should consult with your veterinarian. Some causes of drooling are foreign objects stuck in a cat’s mouth, viral infections that cause oral ulcers, and tumors of the lips, gums, or tongue.  If a cat licks a bitter substance, such as rubbing alcohol, or eats a bitter object, such as a bug, he can drool.

A cat needs a healthy, pain-free mouth and a strong tongue to groom adequately.  The amount of time spent grooming varies between cats.  Some cats groom themselves, some groom other cats, and some even try to groom their owners!

Cats cry, meow, and talk to other cats with their mouths.  They lack the ability to move their lips, so they are unable to produce the wide variety of sounds that humans can.  Some owners think that their cat can smile, but that is not a normal ability of a cat mouth.

Cats are quite adept at using their mouths to carry things.  Queens use their mouths to transport and care for their kittens.  Cats that are good hunters parade around with their prey in their mouths.  Some cats will fetch objects and carry them back to their owners.

The mouth plays a role in numerous aspects of a cat’s life.  Oral health is crucial for a cat to eat, drink, and groom properly.   The cat mouth performs many of the duties that human hands do.  Bad breath, drooling, and difficulty with eating are clues that point to potential oral disease.  By watching your cat’s mouth, and seeking veterinary advice when problems are observed, you can help your cat stay healthy.

Written by Dr. Wexler-Mitchell of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
Copyright © 2011 The Cat Care Clinic

About Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell

Dr. Elaine Wexler-Mitchell is the owner of The Cat Care Clinic in Orange, CA
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