Top 10 Signs Your Cat Has Oral Pain

Me-Ouch! See if your cat's mouth hurts by observing these cues.

By Helen Jablonski

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British Shorthair with tongue out
Start checking out your cat's mouth when she's young, so you know what a healthy mouth looks like.
How easy it would be if our cats could tell us when their teeth, gums or mouth hurt? In reality, cats are experts at hiding pain. This instinctive behavior stems from their wild ancestry, when any sign of weakness could mean the difference between life and death. While this is a great survival mechanism, it doesn't benefit the modern-day cat in letting his people know when he needs help. By the time a cat shows unmistakable signs of mouth pain, such as when your cat drools, medical or dental problems are usually well advanced.  

Caring cat owners must know the subtle signs of discomfort their cats display.

The top 10 signs that your cat has oral pain include:
1. Bad Breath (halitosis). A strong or offensive mouth odor — as opposed to normal “kitty breath” — indicates that something is amiss in your cat's mouth. Problems can include periodontal disease, tooth resorption, infection, cancer or any number of mouth, tooth or gum disorders, all of which are likely to cause pain.

2. Difficulty eating (dysphagia) or loss of appetite. This can present as avoidance of dry food, chewing on only one side of the mouth, dropping food from the mouth while eating (called quidding), or vomiting unchewed food.

3. Drooling (ptyalism) — especially if the drool (or your cat's water dish) is tinged with blood.

4. Chattering (when the jaw shakes or quivers) when a cat eats, washes his face or grooms. 
 
5. Pawing at the mouth or rubbing his face against the floor or a wall.  

6. Excessive yawning or teeth grinding (bruxism). If oral pain is severe enough the cat might have difficulty closing his mouth.

7. Head shaking or exhibiting a head tilt.  

8. Decrease in grooming or avoidance of grooming all together.

9. Pulling away or meowing when touched or petted near the mouth.  

10. Changes in normal behavior, which can range from growling and aggressiveness to hiding and avoiding people.

Not long ago Toby, my sweet-tempered 8-year-old Maine Coon mix, unexpectedly bit me when I scratched his face. A close inspection of his mouth revealed sensitive resorptive lesions on two of his teeth. Once Toby's dental problem was taken care of, he returned to enjoying his daily facial massage.  

Many pet parents don't realize their cat has mouth pain, they just sense that Whiskers isn't acting like himself.  That's why paying attention to your cat's behavior and habits — in addition to regular home dental care and annual dental checkups by your veterinarian — is essential for monitoring your cat's oral health.  

“[Cat owners] need to start looking in their cat's mouth at an early age so they know what's normal,” says New Philadelphia, Ohio, veterinarian Dale Duerr, DVM.

Familiarity with your cat's mouth — and his behavior — can alert you to problems that need to be treated by your veterinarian before they become major issues, and before your cat wishes he could say, “Ouch, my mouth hurts.”
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Reader Comments

Cat    International

7/30/2014 12:20:32 AM

Fantastic article. Every cat caregiver (owner) should know these signs as soon as kitty enters your home. I lost a cat last year because she was so good at masking pain. She didn't display and signs but one day she took a bite of kibble and ran. Upon checking her gums I knew that she had a bad gum infection. The vet treated her but the infection never got better. I had to have her put to sleep at only 8 years old. I now look at my other cat's gums at least once a week and the vet checks on her regular visit yearly.

Marci    Boulder, CO

12/24/2013 7:55:52 AM

Very helpful list of symptoms. I found 2 that my cat is exhibiting. I'm off to the vet.

Emma    International

11/27/2013 4:39:34 AM

Thank you so much, I knew something was wrong with my cat but no one believed me. My cat (Tyson) has been drooling for a couple of years because he had been hit by a car and has few teeth but just recently he has been rubbing his mouth, cleaning a lot less than normal, dropping his food as he eats, shakes his head every so often, his jaw chatters a lot now, meows or growls when he is petted near his mouth meaning he can't have his chin scratched like normal and stays away on my mums or my grandmas beds most of the time.

CatChannel Editor    Irvinev, CA

4/17/2013 7:36:13 AM

Vickie -- If you'd like a more detailed explanation, try contact a different vet for a second opinion. Pawing at the mouth can indicate pain or illness: LINK

If your cat stops this behavior on his own, you can chalk it up to irritation from the cleaning. Sometimes, however, an outside opinion can lead to a better diagnosis. Good luck!

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