February is National Pet Dental Health Month and complete oral health involves not only dental hygiene, but also monitoring the oral cavity for other problems such as cancer. Oral cancer accounts for 3% of all cancers in cats, a rate comparable to that in humans. Oral cancer is an important cause of morbidity and mortality in both humans and cats. Cat owners often ask me what they can do to prevent this deadly disease in their cats, so in keeping with this month’s theme of oral health, here are my suggestions for the cat owner.
Similar to oral cancer in humans, oral squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is the most common oral cancer seen in cats. Use of tobacco products and consumption of alcohol are known risk factors for the development of oral SCC in humans. Most cat owners are unaware that research has shown cats living in a household with smokers are victims of second hand smoke exposure. There appears to be a relationship between exposure to second hand smoke and the development of oral SCC in cats. If you smoke and can’t quit for yourself, then quit for your cat.
Cats should be seen by a veterinarian at least once a year and twice a year as they move into the American Association of Feline Practitioners “mature” life stage. Mature cats are 7-10 years of age and the average age for cat to develop oral SCC is 10 years, so the mature cat is at the target age for early detection of this tumor. During a scheduled wellness examination your veterinarian will assess the oral cavity and determine the need for dental cleaning or the presence of an abnormality requiring biopsy.
During National Pet Dental Health Month, pet owners will be reminded to brush their pet’s teeth daily. As a cat owner, you need to start early and teach your kitten to allow brushing. But don’t stop there, practice opening your kitten’s mouth to allow a visual examination of its oral cavity. Starting early will get your kitten used to having its mouth manipulated and make home monitoring of the oral cavity and vet visits easier for everyone. An added benefit of teaching your kitten to allow you to open its mouth will be less resistance to medication administration if required when your kitten is older.
When you look in your cat’s mouth, look everywhere. Oral SCC can occur anywhere in the oral cavity including on the tongue, under the tongue, gums or either the upper or lower jawbone. The tumor appears as a lumpy, reddening of the surface of the oral cavity, but this tumor can be devious. There may be nothing visible in the oral cavity, but the observant owner will notice swelling near one of the eyes, discharge from only one eye or reluctance to chew on one side of the mouth. Any of these changes should provoke a visit to your cat’s veterinarian.
Regular veterinary visits are vital to keeping your pet healthy. Our pets are experts at hiding things from us, including various illnesses; this is why routine veterinary care is so important.
The Animal Medical Center is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and is available for routine, specialty and emergency care. For more information or to make an appointment, please call (212) 838-8100 or visit www.amcny.org.