Cat teeth cleaning seems like it would be about as (un)successful as cat herding, but with the right tools and a little patience, brushing your cat’s teeth can be an easy addition to your cat care routine.
Cats are undeniably alien weirdos, but they have plenty in common with us equally strange humans: namely, their teeth and gums accumulate plaque and tartar just like ours. (Imagine brushing your teeth once a year—or not at all.) This can lead to gingivitis, periodontal disease, behavioral issues, and hefty vet bills.
Proper diet, regular veterinary visits, exercise, and regular at-home dental health care will keep your feline happy and healthy for many years to come. Here’s where to start.
Your Tabby’s Teeth: The Basics
Poor hygiene naturally leads to dental issues like gingivitis as plaque, a soft bacterial film, harbors and builds up bacteria on teeth’s surface. If not regularly removed, plaque migrates below the gum line and causes inflammation.
Gingivitis progresses in stages. Periodontal disease occurs when the tissues that attach the teeth to the gums and bone are weakened by excess plaque and bacteria. That can then lead to severe tooth decay and resorption, in which the tooth structure breaks down completely and results in tooth loss.
According to the Cornell Feline Health Center, between 50 and 90% of cats older than four years of age suffer from some form of dental disease. Of course, our angel fur children are perfect in every way, but that whopping statistic proves how prevalent this problem truly is.
More Than Polishing Their Pearly Whites
Keeping up with your kitty’s chompers is more than making sure their breath doesn’t stink and that they get to keep all of their teeth. Oral health directly correlates to cats’ overall health, and keeping tabs on the former allows better supervision of the latter.
A lack of regular cleaning can cause tooth and gum diseases like gingivitis, but it can also indicate several infectious or systemic diseases, including feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus, feline calicivirus, and severe kidney disease.
Dental problems can lead to organ damage once bacteria from infected tooth roots and gums gain access to the bloodstream. This can affect the nervous system, heart, kidneys, and liver. Pain and discomfort can also lead to behavioral issues in multiple cat households.
How to Read Cat Cues
Any cat parent who has ever tried to go to the bathroom with the door closed for longer than one minute knows that cats can be very communicative when they want to be. But when it comes to dental issues, cats tend to keep pain and discomfort to themselves.
Dental issues and the subsequent pain and discomfort develop slowly over time, and cats tend to adapt. The most noticeable sign of tooth or gum disease is bad breath. So, next time they’re meow-screaming two inches above your sleeping face at 3am, you can check that out.
In severe cases, cats might show the following symptoms: pawing at the mouth, drooling, loss of appetite, red or swollen gums, loose or broken teeth, blood in the saliva or nasal discharge, or lesions in the mouth.
Doing the Impossible: Cleaning Cats’ Teeth at Home
Regular veterinary check-ups are a necessary and unavoidable expense. Extra visits for dental-related symptoms, tooth extractions, and expensive post-op medicines and check-ups, however, can and should be avoided with regular cleanings at home.
The single most effective way to remove plaque and tartar build-up is through daily tooth brushing. The mechanical effects of brushing easily disrupt plaque. But we feel your apprehension from here, and as parents of wild-at-heart felines ourselves, we understand the concern.
There are several reasons why a cat would be averse to at-home teeth cleanings. Severe dental disease can cause pain and discomfort. Past trauma can make them defensive and skittish. Older and/or aggressive cats’ teeth might be best left to the professionals for the cat’s and your safety.
You know your cat best, and if brushing your cat’s teeth is not a viable option, these dental care products offer easy solutions.
Brushing Alternatives: Wipes, Rinses, Treats, and Kibble
Late-stage dental disease can cause gums to become sore and tender. A dental cleansing wipe wrapped around the finger is a gentler alternative to remove plaque build-up effectively. Your cat might also be more receptive to your finger than a foreign plastic object.
We recommend MAXIGUARD’s Dental Cleansing Wipes for Animals, some of the only dental wipes on the market that don’t contain peppermint oil. (We might enjoy a minty fresh mouth, but peppermint oil in high amounts is extremely toxic to feline friends. If you choose to go with a different brand, proceed with caution and consider consulting with your veterinarian first.)
If you’ve ever given oral medication to your cat before, they might be more receptive to an oral rinse, as it’s administered similarly. Chlorhexidine oral rinses are applied by squirting a small amount inside the cheek on each side of the mouth. Many cats object to the flavor of this product, but some don’t—and didn’t our moms say something about “it’s medicine, it’s not supposed to taste good”?
Finally, water additives, specially-formulated kibble, and dental treats can also be used to facilitate the breakdown of plaque and tartar on the teeth of stubborn, skittish, or otherwise wily cats. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has a list of approved food and dental treats on their website. Some antibiotics can alter the efficacy of these products.
How to Brush Cats’ Teeth: The Tools
Brushing your cat’s teeth safely and effectively requires the right tools. Human toothpaste contains detergents and other ingredients unsafe for cats, and human (even baby) toothbrushes are too big for a cat’s mouth.
The Veterinary Centers of America recommend using a soft-bristled, 45-degree-angled toothbrush. The vet-approved brand Virbac offers a variety of options, including a single-ended toothbrush, finger brush, and mini-toothbrush. For multiple cat households, each cat needs its own designated toothbrush.
As we mentioned before, minty toothpaste might be great for us, but not so much for Fluffy. When picking out a cat toothpaste, opt for flavors like chicken or seafood. Try starting with a toothpaste flavor that most closely resembles their favorite food or treats.
How to Brush Cats’ Teeth: The Process
Socializing cats to at-home teeth cleanings is best done when they’re a kitten, but don’t be disheartened if your cat is past its precious potbelly phase! The name of the game here is patience.
The VCA outlines an effective way of warming your cat up to the idea of getting their chompers cleaned. Let your cat sniff and taste the toothpaste on your finger, then on the toothbrush you plan to use, until finally placing the brush with toothpaste in your cat’s mouth. If they seem relatively comfortable with this, you’re likely ready to move to the next step.
It’s important not to rush this process. Cats can sense impatience, and any signs of aggression or haste on your end will only impede the socialization process. Introduce these dental products when you have ample free time, the house is relatively calm, and they’ve recently eaten (a fed cat is a happy cat).
How to Brush Cats’ Teeth: The Act
Place toothbrush bristles at a 45-degree angle where the cat’s gums and teeth meet. Use a gentle oval pattern, covering three to four teeth at a time. Move the bristles around the teeth for optimal plaque removal.
Complete 10 short oval motions before moving onto another spot. The outside upper teeth do the most chewing and are the most prone to dental issues, so be sure to pay special attention to this area.
If you’re more of a visual learner or are experiencing some cat-care anxiety, the Pet Health Network offers a helpful how-to video on Youtube.
Healthy Mouth, Healthy Cat, Happy House
Owning a cat certainly involves a lot of cuddles, play, and general cuteness time, but it also requires the same diligent care we extend to ourselves and our human loved ones. Daily at-home dental care should be done in coordination with regular veterinary check-ups.
The VCA Hospitals, International Cat Care Organization, American Association of Feline Practitioners, and the Cornell Feline Health Center are excellent online resources for cat care tips, tricks, and troubleshooting.