Bad Breath In Cats: Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

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There’s nothing like snuggling up with a warm, purring cat… until your cat leans in close and you catch a whiff of bad breath! Given the typical feline diet, it’s not uncommon for cat breath to have a slightly unpleasant odor. In some cases, though, bad breath can suggest the presence of significant underlying health problems.

Causes Of Bad Breath In Cats

Causes of Bad Breath in Cats

Bad breath in cats is caused by a number of underlying factors, with the most common being dental disease.

 Just like their human companions, cats can develop bad breath (halitosis) for a number of different reasons. In many cases, bad breath may be simply caused by the smell of your cat’s food.

If the bad breath doesn’t smell like cat food and it’s a persistent issue, however, you may need to go on the hunt for an underlying cause of your cat’s bad breath. Some of these underlying causes are easily treatable, while others are more complicated.

Dental Disease

The most common cause of bad breath in cats is dental disease. If you went for weeks, months, or even years without any dental care, your breath would also smell pretty terrible!

When a cat’s teeth aren’t brushed regularly, several things happen.

First, plaque begins to form on your cat’s teeth. Plaque is a filmy combination of food particles and bacteria, which has a foul odor and contributes to bad breath.

Additionally, food particles may become trapped between your cat’s teeth and begin to decay, leading to an even worse smell. Unfortunately, dental disease isn’t just stinky! Dental disease can lead to inflammation and infection of the gums, the bones within the jaw, and other tissues within the mouth.

Kidney Disease

Bad breath can also be caused by kidney disease. When a cat’s kidneys do not function properly, certain toxins (called uremic toxins) build up in the bloodstream. As these toxins become more concentrated within the blood, the smell of these toxins can be noted on the cat’s breath.

Diabetes

Diabetes can also result in changes in a cat’s breath. In early diabetes, cats can become more prone to dental infections, which can change the smell of their breath.

In severe cases of diabetes, however, cats can enter a condition known as diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA). In these cats, the smell of ketones can sometimes be detected on the cat’s breath.

Not everyone is capable of detecting the smell of ketones, but those who can smell ketones describe a smell that may smell similar to acetone or even slightly fruity.

Respiratory Infections

Respiratory infections, which cause nasal drainage and inflammation of the upper airways, can also contribute to bad breath in cats.

Gastrointestinal issues, such as an obstruction in your cat’s gastrointestinal tract, can also lead to bad odors escaping from the digestive tract, which can be smelled on the cat’s breath.

Given the many possible causes of bad breath in cats, a veterinary checkup is often required to arrive at an answer.

How Do You Know If Your Cat’s Breath Is Normal?

Is cat's breath normal

A healthy cat’s breath may smell a bit fishy or meaty, depending on what they eat. That said, persistent and severe bad breath is a sign of disease.

It can be hard to tell the difference between normal cat breath and halitosis. After all, many cat foods are seafood-based and therefore they don’t smell very good!

Cats also groom themselves regularly, meaning that their breath can take on odors after they groom feces or other foul-smelling material from their coat.

If your cat’s breath smells abnormal, don’t jump to conclusions.

First, stop to ask whether there’s a good reason your cat might have bad breath. For example, did your cat just finish eating some stinky canned cat food?

If you can think of an explanation for the bad breath, you have your answer. If you can’t think of a straightforward explanation for your cat’s bad breath, you may need to investigate further.

Check your cat’s breath several times, over the course of a day or two. Smell your cat’s breath at different times of day, to see if her breath changes over time. If you notice consistent bad breath lasting more than a couple of days, or if your cat’s breath is accompanied by other signs of illness, you probably need to investigate further.

Treatment For Bad Breath In Cats

Treatment for bad breath in cats

Treatment for bad breath addresses the underlying cause of the odor, whether that is poor dental health or another issue.

Your cat’s treatment will depend on the underlying cause of her bad breath.

Therefore, the first step is a physical exam by a veterinarian.

Your veterinarian will closely evaluate your cat’s oral health, looking for signs of dental disease, such as plaque, tartar, gingivitis, and periodontal disease.

Your veterinarian may also recommend blood tests or other diagnostics, to look for the presence of underlying diseases that may contribute to bad breath.

If your cat’s bad breath is caused by poor dental health, the next step is a thorough dental examination and teeth cleaning.

Your cat’s teeth will be scaled (tartar removed) and polished under general anesthesia, allowing the veterinarian to thoroughly examine all surfaces of the teeth. The veterinarian will also probe your cat’s teeth with a dental probe, looking for defects on the surface of your cat’s teeth.

Full-mouth dental radiographs (x-rays) may also be performed, to allow detection of abnormalities below the gumline.

In some cases, a thorough dental cleaning alone will be sufficient to address your cat’s bad breath. Your veterinarian can also recommend an at-home oral hygiene routine to help slow the recurrence of dental disease and help keep your cat’s breath fresh.

At-home dental care may involve daily toothbrushing, using a cat toothbrush and toothpaste, or a daily water additive.

If your veterinarian finds a diseased tooth, however, dental extractions or other treatments may be needed. Removing diseased teeth will not only remove the source of the bad smell within your cat’s mouth, it will also make your cat more comfortable and prevent further worsening of your cat’s dental disease.

When bad breath is caused by another underlying condition, such as kidney failure, diabetes, respiratory disease, or gastrointestinal disease, the treatment depends on the particular underlying condition.

Your veterinarian may recommend additional testing to better characterize your pet’s condition, then address your cat’s underlying illness with a combination of medications, diet, and other interventions.

Conclusion

There’s no need to panic over a single episode of bad breath. If bad breath becomes a recurrent or consistent issue, however, it’s important to involve your veterinarian.

Find and treating the source of the problem may not only help improve your cat’s breath but may also improve your cat’s overall health and quality of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why does my cat's breath smell so bad?

There are many possible causes of bad breath, or halitosis, in cats. Halitosis is most commonly caused by dental disease, but underlying illnesses such as kidney disease, diabetes, respiratory disease, and gastrointestinal disease may also cause bad breath.

How can I get rid of my cat's bad breath?

Before treating your cat’s bad breath at home, it’s important to see your veterinarian to rule out medical causes. If your veterinarian doesn’t see any evidence of dental disease or other illness, brushing your cat’s teeth daily may alleviate bad breath.

What is normal cat breath smell?

It’s normal for cat breath to have a slightly unpleasant odor. In most cases, a cat’s breath smells like the food that he or she eats.

Is bad breath a sign of illness?

Bad breath in cats can be a sign of a number of underlying conditions. While the most common cause of bad breath in cats is dental disease, other conditions such as kidney disease, respiratory disease, gastrointestinal disease, and diabetes can all change the smell of your cat’s breath.

Dr. Cathy Barnette, DVM

About Dr. Cathy Barnette, DVM

Dr. Barnette is a veterinarian and freelance writer based in Florida. Her 14 years of experience in small animal clinical practice have allowed her to witness firsthand the communication gaps that often exist between pet owners and members of the veterinary team. Her goal is to create engaging content that educates owners, empowering them to make the best possible decisions for their pets. Dr. Barnette has two cats of her own, in addition to a dog and a pet dove.

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