Oral hygiene is a priority for most pet owners. We brush our teeth twice a day to minimize the risk of cavities and gum disease. But even though dental care is part of our everyday routine, a lot of pet owners fail to keep up with their cat’s oral hygiene. If you own a cat, you’ve probably noticed its stinky “tuna breath” and wondered if there was something to be done about it. As it turns out, there is! You can—and should—brush your cat’s teeth just like you brush your own.
The thought of brushing a cat’s teeth often strikes fear into pet parents’ hearts. However, cat dental care is absolutely possible as long as you put in the time, effort and patience required. With oral infections, tooth problems and gum diseases quickly becoming some of the most common problems in cats, it’s important to implement good brushing habits for your feline friend.
Why you should brush your cat’s teeth
Adult cats have 30 teeth they use to eat and pick up toys. Feral cats keep their teeth clean by gnawing on sticks and bones from their prey, but domesticated cats who live inside lack access to the things that would keep their teeth clean in the wild. This means the responsibility to clean their teeth falls on you, the cat owner. Brushing your cat’s teeth is one of the best ways you can ensure your cat lives a healthy and comfortable life.
There are numerous benefits to brushing your cat’s teeth regularly. Most importantly, good dental hygiene can minimize the risk of dental disease. Without regular brushing, plaque will build up on your cat’s teeth and around their gums. Plaque hardens into tartar over time and becomes much harder to remove with at-home care. Brushing your cat’s teeth clears away plaque before tartar can accumulate and cause tooth decay, gum recession and severe periodontal disease.
Periodontal disease can be quite painful for cats. They might struggle to eat normally or stop playing with toys because of tooth pain. If left untreated, oral infections and dental disease can actually spread bacteria to other parts of your cat’s body. This can potentially lead to other health problems like eye infections and throat problems or even heart, liver and kidney disease, which can shorten your cat’s life.
Getting into a tooth-brushing habit also gives you the opportunity to check your cat’s teeth and gums regularly. Because cats hide their pain well, you might not realize anything is wrong with their teeth until you really go looking!
Here are some common signs of poor dental hygiene in cats:
- Consistently foul breath
- Red, inflamed gums
- Pale gums
- Bleeding gums
- Yellow/brown tartar buildup
- Tooth loss
- Refusal to eat
Dental surgery or medication to stop infections can add up over time for parents, too. Brushing your cat’s teeth at home can help you save money over your cat’s lifetime.
How to brush your cat’s teeth
Brushing your cat’s teeth may seem impossible, but with some patience and determination, it can easily become a daily routine for both of you. It is much easier to train a kitten to get used to this and formulate a lifelong habit. However, hope is not lost if you have an older cat; it just might take some more patience and rewarding.
To start, get a specially designed cat toothbrush or a finger brush. These will usually be smaller and more flexible to make the process more comfortable inside your cat’s mouth. You’ll also need to pick up some cat toothpaste, which is usually fish or chicken flavored so cats will love the taste. Never use human toothpaste on pets because it can make them very sick!
Initially, your cat might resist and make it nearly impossible to get near their teeth. If this happens, take the steps slowly. Touch their lips and gums to get them used to having their lips pulled back to expose the teeth. Get your cat used to the taste of the toothpaste by letting them lick it off your finger, then off the toothbrush. Introduce these steps one at a time until your cat eventually sits still long enough for you to get a good brush in.
Once your cat is comfortable, hold them in your lap and get them relaxed with pets and soft encouragement. If they resist, it might help to wrap your cat up in a towel or blanket. Lift one side of their lip and begin brushing softly, making sure to loosen food particles that are near the gum line. Repeat this step on the other side, then on the bottom teeth. Take breaks as needed.
Once you’ve brushed the entire mouth, you can reward your cat if they are still in training, or just let your cat go. To make it even easier for you, cats don’t need to rinse after brushing because the toothpaste won’t hurt them. However, your cat might want to drink some water after to wash the food particles and toothpaste down.
Ideally, you should brush your cat’s teeth daily. If that’s not possible, try for once or a few times a week.
More feline oral hygiene tips
Aside from brushing, there are also other things you can do to promote good dental hygiene in your cat. Specialty cat foods are formulated with nutrients that promote healthy teeth and gums and help minimize plaque buildup. If your cat has begun showing signs of dental disease, ask your vet if this kind of food might be beneficial.
Dental toys are more common for dogs, but some have been designed for cats, too. These items help knock plaque off the teeth to reduce tartar accumulation. You can also add an oral hygiene supplement or dental treats to your cat’s daily routine.
On top of at-home care, you should visit the vet once a year to have them check for signs of dental disease. This is typically done during your cat’s routine checkup. If a lot of tartar has built up or your vet suspects tooth decay, they may want to put your cat under anesthesia to do a professional cleaning and X-rays to ensure the teeth are healthy.
Cat dental hygiene starts with building healthy habits at home. Once the routine has been established, brushing your cat’s teeth should be quick and easy for both of you every day. Don’t let your cat’s oral hygiene fall to the wayside—their teeth and gums (and your nose!) will thank you.
Editor’s note: This blog was originally published in September 2018. It has been updated to include more relevant and comprehensive information.