Just exactly what goes on in your cat’s mouth …

A cat’s mouth is a fascinating object of study. It’s a killing machine, filet knife and hairbrush, all in one. Here’s how it works.

Kittens are born without teeth and develop 26 deciduous, or baby, teeth, starting with the incisors and followed by the canines and premolars (molars don’t come in until adulthood). By the time a kitten is 7 months old, 30 adult teeth, including the missing molars, have made an appearance. But how do those teeth work?

Cats aren’t designed to chew. After killing their prey by biting or crushing the neck, spine or throat with their sharp fangs (known as canines), they tear off the meat with their carnassial teeth – long-bladed molars and premolars – swallow it (bones, feathers and all) and let their digestive juices go to work. Whatever isn’t digested exits the system.

The rough feline tongue is an equally important player in the cat’s mouth. Its sandpaper-like surface is perfect for scrubbing every bit of food off bones.

If you were to examine a cat’s tongue closely (folks, don’t try this at home), you would find that it’s covered with tiny, hooked barbs facing toward the throat. They’re called filiform papillae, and their job is to help hold prey in place while cats eat.

Cats also employ the tongue in the grooming process. Those same barbs effectively remove dead hairs and debris from the cat’s coat. If your cat has a few hairs out of place, the tongue serves as a convenient built-in hairbrush to, er, lick them into shape.

Notice that your cat licks herself clean right after a meal? Instinct tells her to remove food odors that might excite the interest of predators. If your cat licks you after you get out of the shower, she might be trying to restore your “normal” smell.

One drawback to the tongue’s design is that cats can’t spit things out. Because they face the throat, those hooks direct loosened fur (or anything else the cat swallows) down the hatch. Later it comes back up again in the form of a hairball (known scientifically as a trichobezoar).

You lean in to love on your cat and suddenly you jerk away, appalled. That breath! It smells like he’s been swigging tuna juice straight from the can. That stink can be from periodontal disease or from cat cavities, known as oral resorptive lesions. Veterinarians say that half of all cats have some type of dental disease by the time they are 4 years old. That doesn’t mean it’s normal. A cat whose breath smells is the victim of gum disease or some other health problem.

Brush your cat’s teeth daily, starting in kittenhood, to help prevent infection and nasty brown tartar buildup – which is not just ugly but also harbors bacteria. A professional dental cleaning under anesthesia will help to keep his teeth white and his mouth healthy.

Q: My bird’s poop looks more liquid than normal. Do birds get diarrhea? What should I do?

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A: Good question! If your parrot eats seeds, his normal fecal droppings probably are dark-colored with a dry, firm texture. If he eats a lot of greens, they may be softer and more of a green color.

A bird with diarrhea has watery droppings. You may notice that the feathers near his vent are stained, that he seems lethargic or has lost his appetite, or that he looks unusually fluffed up.

Birds can get diarrhea from a number of causes, including stress, a poor diet, intestinal parasites or an infection. A change in diet can cause diarrhea as well. So can fruits or vegetables that haven’t been washed to remove pesticides. Diarrhea can also be a sign of kidney, liver or pancreatic diseases.

Birds with diarrhea that doesn’t clear up within 24 hours need to be seen by the veterinarian so the problem can be diagnosed. Take your bird in right away if you see blood in the droppings or your bird is straining or seems to have abdominal pain. Otherwise, keep him warm and give him fluids to help him stay hydrated until he can be examined. You’ll need to take a fecal sample to your veterinarian for analysis. Bring the paper lining his cage so the veterinarian can check several samples.

If you have multiple birds, separate the one with diarrhea from the others. Disinfect the cage and everything in it with boiling water or a bird-safe cleanser. Wash hands thoroughly after handling the cage or the bird so you don’t spread disease.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton.