Why Does My Cat Have 2 Canine Teeth?

Many cat owners notice that their feline companions have particularly prominent canine teeth. Known as “fangs” in everyday language, cat canines often inspire curiosity due to their sharp, pointy shape. These elongated teeth situated in the front corners of a cat’s mouth make them seem especially fierce or dangerous compared to other household pets.

While all cats have canine teeth, some breeds like the Bengal cat appear to have longer canines than other breeds. This difference leads many cat owners to wonder – why do cats need canines that look more like a wild predator than a domestic pet? Examining the anatomy, evolution, and function of cat canines provides insight into this question.

Anatomy of Cat Teeth

Cats have a total of 30 permanent teeth [1]. Their teeth fall into four main categories:

– Canines – There are four canine teeth, located on either side of the jaw next to the incisors. These are the long, sharp teeth used for gripping and tearing prey.

– Incisors – Cats have a total of 12 incisor teeth, six on the top and six on the bottom row. The incisors are located in the front of the mouth and have a flat edge used for scraping meat from bone and other work.

– Premolars – There are 10 premolar teeth in cats with 6 on the top row and 4 on the bottom. Premolars are used for holding and tearing food.

– Molars – Cats have only 4 molars with 2 on top and 2 on bottom that are located all the way at the back. They help cats crush and chew food.

Functions of Cat Canines

Cat’s upper canine teeth are designed primarily for killing prey and tearing meat (Virbac Pet Health, 2022). The two (sometimes four) elongated, sharp upper canine teeth are perfectly adapted to swiftly puncture the neck of small prey and sever the spinal cord or carotid artery. Once the prey is dead, the lower canine teeth work in coordination with the upper canines to grip, hold down, and tear meat off the carcass (Mission Ridge Veterinary Hospital, 2022).

Compared with other teeth, the canines are considerably thicker, longer and sharper. This allows cats to exert the extra force needed to quickly and accurately puncture the prey’s skin and underlying tissue. The sharp tips and edges of the canines slice easily through flesh as the cat pulls back its head while biting (A-Z Animals, 2021). Overall, the form and function of feline canine teeth provide cats with deadly hunting abilities perfectly evolved for a hypercarnivorous predator.

Evolution of Cat Canines

Canine teeth have evolved over time in the Felidae family to become effective hunting tools. Early wild cat ancestors like Dinictis first developed elongated upper canine teeth around 40 million years ago during the late Eocene period. These saber-toothed cats likely used their canines for slicing meat and killing prey (https://www.mun.ca/biology/scarr/4505_Felid_Teeth.htm).

As wild cats continued to evolve, their canine teeth became longer and more blade-like. Famous examples like Smilodon (saber-toothed cats) had upper canines that could grow over 7 inches long. The purpose of these lengthened canines was to deliver lethal bites to prey like bison, camels, and mammoths (https://www.jstor.org/stable/20445602).

Although domestic cats today do not need long canines for hunting, they retain shorter versions. Kittens are born with small deciduous canines that fall out around 3-4 months old. The permanent upper and lower canine teeth then erupt. While not as long as their wild ancestors, these teeth still help cats grasp prey and deliver strong bites if needed.

Uses for Modern House Cats

Even though house cats today mostly live indoors and are provided food by their owners, their canine teeth still serve important functions. One key use of cats’ canine teeth is for killing vermin like mice and rats. Cats have an innate hunting instinct and will kill and sometimes eat small rodents that get into homes. Their sharp upper and lower canine teeth are well-suited for swiftly killing small prey.

In addition, cats use their canines for other instinctual behaviors like mock hunting, biting, grooming, and playing. Kneading with their paws and biting fabric or toys allows cats to engage their natural hunting behaviors. Cats also use their canines to efficiently groom and remove dead hair. And when playing with toys or even their owners, cats will commonly bite, exposing their canine teeth. So even domestic cats rely heavily on their sharp upper and lower canines as part of their normal behavioral repertoire.

Potential Problems

Cats can experience various issues with their canine teeth that pet owners should be aware of. One potential problem is damage from trauma or decay. Canine teeth can fracture or break from trauma like a fall or fight with another cat. They can also decay over time from plaque buildup, especially if dental care is not provided (Cornell Feline Health Center).

Another issue that can occur if canine teeth become overgrown is damage to the roof of the mouth. feline canine teeth normally wear down with use, but some cats’ teeth may overgrow and cause injury. Overgrown canines may need to be trimmed by a veterinarian to prevent injury (VCA Animal Hospitals). Regular dental cleanings and exams can help monitor for overgrown teeth.

Caring for Cat Canines

Proper care of your cat’s canine teeth, like all their teeth, is important for preventing dental disease. There are several at-home methods cat owners can utilize for keeping their cat’s canines clean and healthy:

Regular dental cleanings help prevent plaque and tartar buildup. Gently brushing your cat’s teeth at least 2-3 times per week can remove bacteria and food particles. Use a soft-bristled brush and cat-safe toothpaste. Introduce slowly and use positive reinforcement so your cat accepts brushing as a pleasant routine. Only brush the outer surfaces of the teeth, avoiding the inner side and gumline where your cat’s scent glands are located (https://nymag.com/strategist/article/how-to-take-care-of-your-cats-teeth.html).

Dental treats or chews help scrape away plaque. Offer treats specifically formulated for dental health that are crunchy or rubbery in texture. Chewing strengthens muscles around the mouth and cleans the tooth surfaces. Look for the VOHC seal from the Veterinary Oral Health Council when choosing dental treats (https://www.rspcapetinsurance.org.au/pet-care/cat-care/guide-to-cat-dental-care).

Annual vet dental exams allow for professional cleaning and assessment. Cats need professional veterinary dental cleanings to fully remove tartar above and below the gumline. Your vet can also identify any dental disease needing treatment during an exam (https://www.scottsdalecatclinic.com/blog/at-home-cat-dental-care-tips/).

Trimming Cat Canines

Trimming a cat’s canine teeth should only be done by a veterinarian if absolutely necessary. Attempting to trim or file down a cat’s teeth without professional training and proper anesthesia can be extremely dangerous and painful for the cat (CDHP). The risks of improper trimming include:

  • Injury to the cat’s tongue, lips, gums or other oral tissue
  • Cracking or splintering of the tooth
  • Introduction of infection into the tooth pulp or gums
  • Excessive tooth sensitivity or nerve exposure after trimming
  • Fracturing of the jaw from the cat’s reaction to uncontrolled pain

In almost all cases, there are better alternatives to trimming that a veterinarian can recommend, such as extracting damaged teeth or changing the cat’s diet. Trimming should never be performed on a conscious cat at home, as it will likely lead to a very painful and traumatic experience for the animal.

Teeth Removal

Tooth removal in cats is usually only necessary due to injury or severe tooth decay. According to Extractions in cats: indications, techniques and complications, the most common reasons for tooth extraction in cats are periodontal disease, tooth resorption, and fractured teeth.

Tooth extractions in cats must be performed under general anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian. The procedure involves surgically extracting the tooth, including the root when necessary. According to Oral Surgery to Remove Teeth in Cats, the vet will make an incision in the gums to expose the tooth, loosen it from the socket, and then use dental instruments to fully extract it. Proper aftercare is essential to allow healing and prevent infection.

Tooth extraction should only be performed when necessary, as it can lead to complications like bone loss and other dental issues. However, it is an important treatment option for injured, infected, or damaged teeth in cats when deemed appropriate by a veterinary professional.

Conclusion

In summary, cats have two pronounced canine teeth for several important reasons related to their natural behaviors and evolution as predators. The canines are used for hunting, gripping prey, grooming, and defense. They are a key part of the cat’s dentition, allowing them to capture and kill prey for food. Even though domestic cats may not need to hunt to survive, these teeth are still maintained by evolution.

While cat canines serve important purposes, they sometimes need minor care and maintenance by owners. Trimming the tips of overgrown canines or even full removal may be necessary in certain situations. Overall though, these teeth are adapted for the cat’s needs and play a role in their daily lives. Understanding why cats have canines provides cat owners greater insight into feline anatomy, behavior and health.

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