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Ask the Doctor April 2015 Issue

Dear Doctor

Does a catís tongue habit signify a problem?; Help for a shy cat with a troubled background

Perplexed by cat’s tongue

Q Sometimes, my male cat sits around with his tongue sticking out of his mouth. What is the reason for this? I have not noticed my female cats doing it.

Mary Ann Myers

THINKSTOCK

Some cats have funny little quirks that are harmless. But sometimes, they signify a health problem. It's always prudent to mention them to your veterinarian.

A Dear Mary Ann: As a feline practitioner, I have heard many stories and have seen my share of cats who, during the normal course of their day, happen to sit around with their tongues sticking out a little. In most cases, there is nothing to be concerned about. It is simply the cat’s own personal quirk, and it is actually kind of endearing.

However, a protruding tongue can also be a sign of significant oral disease. Disorders of the teeth and gums should be considered a possible cause of a protruding tongue. Periodontal disease is very common in cats. Periodontal disease is easily diagnosed during an oral examination, however, determination of the true extent of periodontal disease often requires oral X-rays.

Some cats experience gingivitis or stomatitis (inflammation of the entire mouth) of such severity that they paw at their mouth, refuse to eat hard food and may stick out their tongue and drool excessively. Biopsy of the gums or other affected oral tissues may reveal a severe infiltration of inflammatory cells. This condition, called “lymphocytic/plasmacytic gingivitis or stomatitis” is usually quite painful. Treatment consists of antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, and in extreme cases, extraction of all of the teeth.

Oral tumors can cause misalignment of the teeth and/or jaw, leading to improper closing of the mouth and protrusion of the tongue. Oral trauma and associated pain and discomfort can lead to tongue problems. Broken teeth with resultant nerve exposure, a fractured jaw and temporomandibular joint disorders are traumatic injuries that could lead to pain, inability to close the mouth properly and tongue protrusion.

Kidney failure is a very common condition, especially in geriatric cats. Cats with severe kidney failure may have significant uremia (literally “urine in the blood”). Uremic cats often develop ulcers on the gums, tongue and edges of the lips. These ulcers are painful, and some cats stick their tongues out when they have oral ulcers. These ulcers are readily visible on oral examination. Feline immunodeficiency virus and calicivirus infections can also cause ulcers on the tongue.

I suspect that there is a benign reason behind your cat’s tongue protrusion, but I would play it safe and have your veterinarian conduct a thorough oral exam to make sure there’s no oral disease. If everything checks out fine, then this is just a cute quirk that your cat has, and you don’t need to worry about it.

Arnold Plotnick, DVM, DACVIM

Catnip contributor

Helping an extremely shy cat

Q I adopted my cat, Flower, about 2-1/2 years ago from a local shelter. She was there for six months and was about eight at the time. She was in good health except for having feline herpesvirus, which my veterinarian treated. Flower has been receiving lysine ever since and is doing well.

Since I’ve adopted her, Flower has never made any vocal sounds. I find this unusual, since my previous cats were quite vocal. She also spends all of her time upstairs and refuses to come down and socialize with us. (My husband and I have no other pets and no children.) She is somewhat receptive to me when I go to see her, comb her and give her affection and treats, but her acceptance is limited. After a while, she will get up and walk away, which has become my cue to leave.

I would appreciate if you could let me know if there are any other cats that are not vocal, and do you think she will ever become more social? Her breed is mixed. She is also an indoor-only cat.

Ruth Roschak

A Dear Ruth: Thank you for your question. It sounds to me that your cat, Flower, has experienced a tough time in an earlier part of her life. Sometimes, when cats or other animals find themselves in a hopeless situation, they shut down, seemingly expecting very little out of life and lacking joie de vivre. This may account for her reclusive nature and her unwillingness to speak up.

She is lucky that you have provided a good home for her and at least she feels secure in the upstairs part of your home. In order to expand her horizons, it is important that you don’t try to coerce her into new situations, but rather make the circumstances conducive to her becoming a little more adventurous. Two techniques that you can use to help achieve this end are counter-conditioning and clicker training.

Counter-conditioning literally means conditioning an opposite response. For example, you could arrange for her to find delicious food treats at the top of the stairs, positioning these food treats progressively further down the stairs as days progress until she is finally receiving them on the ground floor.

The other technique, clicker training, is wonderfully explained on Karen Pryor’s website, www.clickertraining.com. Both you and your husband could get involved in this positive method of training to everyone’s benefit, including Flower’s.

In answer to your final question, there are some breeds that are quieter than others. The Chartreuse and Russian Blue cats, for example, are not big talkers, but these are relatively uncommon breeds and probably do not factor in your cat’s mix.

Nicholas Dodman, BVMS

Animal Behavior Clinic Director

Cummings School of

Veterinary Medicine at

Tufts University

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