Cats have all kinds of quirky behaviors that make us shake our heads- sleeping belly-up, headbutting your face, or chattering at the birds out the window, to name a few. One behavior that shouldn’t be cast off with a smile and a headshake but should instead alert you that something is wrong is teeth grinding.
What is Cat Teeth Grinding?
Teeth grinding, also called bruxism, is when cats move their lower jaw in a side to side motion, rather than up and down as when chewing. This causes their lower teeth to grate on their upper teeth. Cat parents often will hear clicking, chattering, or see the jaw moving from side to side. Cats may grind their teeth for many reasons, none of which should be overlooked.
Causes of Teeth Grinding in Cats
Let’s look at them now along with ways to determine what’s behind your cat’s bruxism.
The most common cause by far of teeth grinding in cats is problems with the oral cavity. These issues include tooth resorption which causes severe pain leading to teeth grinding. Tooth resorption occurs when the bony part of the tooth, called dentin, is broken down by your cat’s body. The tooth can eventually break or the body will resorb all of it, including the roots. It is unknown what causes tooth resorption in cats even though it affects nearly ¾ of our feline friends by the time they’re five years old. Tooth resorption is painful and besides grinding their teeth, your cat may stop eating, drop food from their mouth, or drool excessively.
Dental disease such as broken teeth and gingivitis can also lead to teeth grinding because of pain and friction associated with an abnormal bite. Painful gums can be a result of gingivitis or stomatitis, which is inflammation of the soft tissues of the mouth including the gums, cheeks, and tongue. Kitties with gum disease often have red, bloody ulcers and swelling when you look in their mouth. Oral masses, both cancerous and non-cancerous, get in the way of a normal bite, leading to teeth grinding.
Malocclusion, which means abnormal alignment of the teeth, can lead to teeth grinding because of friction when the upper and lower teeth come together. It’s not a smooth connection. Malocclusion can be a breed specific issue, especially in short faced cats like Persians or pointy faced cats like Siamese, as there isn’t proper space for all of a cat’s teeth to fit in their mouth properly. It can also happen when a cat’s canine teeth–those long, pointy ones—are longer than they should be and don’t allow the mouth to close properly.
Other health issues
Outside of the mouth, other issues causing pain can lead to teeth grinding in cats. Abdominal pain due to pancreatitis, stomach ulcers, inflammatory bowel disease, and cancer have a way of making cats grind their teeth to help them ease their discomfort. With these health issues, you will notice other signs such as diarrhea and vomiting plus or minus blood, a decreased appetite, and a painful or distended tummy.
Rather than having full-body convulsions, jaw movement like that seen when grinding teeth is another form of seizure activity. It’s slight and harder to notice but epileptic or other types of seizures can present this way instead. Often cats will exhibit this type of teeth grinding only at certain times, instead of more consistently like that seen with other causes of teeth grinding. Your cat may also be a little disoriented or out of it while they are doing that movement. Seizures can be caused by epilepsy, brain tumors, brain abscesses or infections, or by an electrolyte or glucose imbalance.
Occasionally, stress or anxiety can also cause teeth grinding in cats. Movement of the teeth against each other in this way may help some cats to calm their nerves or to release nervous energy. Stressed or anxious cats will often have other behavior changes as well including hiding, an increase or decrease in appetite, and possibly being overly affectionate or standoffish.
Effects of Teeth Grinding in Cats
Besides your cat suffering from the cause of their teeth grinding, the actual act of grinding their teeth can have some negative effects as well. It can wear down the hard, protective surface of the teeth, the enamel, and make them more vulnerable to dental disease and breakage. Tooth grinding can also cause pain and discomfort in the temporomandibular joint, which is the joint connecting the jaw to the head. This is the joint that is responsible for opening your cat’s mouth, so any pain or inflammation there could cause them to stop eating and grooming themselves. Teeth grinding in humans also causes headaches, something that can’t be measured in cats, but we can assume that they get then as well.
What To Do If Your Cat is Grinding Their Teeth
To prevent further damage to your cat’s mouth and to get to the bottom of their underlying teeth grinding issue, take your cat to the veterinarian as soon as you notice any consistency in their teeth grinding. If it’s only an every now and then occurrence you may have a little more trouble figuring it. Your veterinarian will start with an oral examination, which may require sedation since your cat is most likely experiencing some oral pain and may not be willing to let them look inside their mouth. The oral exam will show them any tumors, dental disease, or malocclusions that need to be addressed to stop their teeth grinding. Further tests may include dental x-rays, blood work, and fecal tests to diagnose other health problems.
Any treatment for teeth grinding in cats requires a multimodal approach including pain medications to relieve discomfort and then treatment of the underlying problems. Most dental issues can be treated with a dental under anesthesia. Broken teeth, gingivitis, and tooth resorption can be taken care of with a good cleaning and extraction of problem teeth. Oral tumors can be biopsied and malocclusions can be addressed. Stomatitis usually takes treatment with anti-inflammatories.
Other health issues like pancreatitis or inflammatory bowel disease will need further treatment with anti-inflammatories and possibly a diet change. Cancers causing tooth grinding may require further surgery and possibly chemotherapy. For issues with the brain, imaging to diagnose brain tumors or abscesses may be required. For stressed or anxious tooth grinding, you’ll need to get to the bottom of your cat’s worries and try to reduce them or treat them with medication.