Dental care is an important part of cat care to prevent gum disease, a chronic disease that occurs when tartar deposits cause chronic infection and inflammation which destroy the supportive structures of the teeth. Studies have found between 50-90% of cats over four have gum disease.
Signs of gum disease include bad breath, red gums, drooling, bleeding gums, reluctance to eat hard food and loose teeth.
- A cat toothbrush or finger brush (if you can’t find either, a baby toothbrush can be used)
- Flavoured cat toothpaste (don’t use human toothpaste which is toxic and the taste is way too strong)
- A clicker (not essential, but helpful)
- Cat treats
When to start
Ideally, dental care will be initiated when the cat is still young, but cats of any age can be trained to accept dental care.
How to brush a cat’s teeth
Start slow and don’t force the cat to do anything he or she doesn’t want to do. The goal is to make it as stress-free and pleasant as possible. It may take several weeks before you can brush the teeth. Choose a treat to which the cat holds a high value; this can include cat treats, a small piece of cheese, tuna or cooked chicken breast.
Method one (cat toothbrush)
1) Apply a small amount of cat toothpaste to the cat’s toothbrush and let him lick it off. When he does, reward him. Continue with this for a few days to a week so that the cat associates the toothpaste with a reward. The goal of this step is to familiarise the cat with the toothpaste and toothbrush and associate them both with a positive experience.
Note: If the cat refuses to lick the toothbrush, apply the toothpaste to your finger for a few days before reintroducing the toothpaste on the brush.
2) The next step is to apply a small amount of toothpaste to the cat’s teeth by gently lifting the gum and rubbing it onto the upper canine or premolars. Immediately follow up with the cat’s favourite treat.
3) Apply a small amount of toothpaste to the brush which is held in your dominant hand. Lift the gum with the index finger of your non-dominant hand and gently rub it along the teeth. Be careful not to use too much pressure; the goal is to remove the sticky layer of tartar; excessive pressure can damage the gums. Make it short and sweet, don’t rush into a full dental clean. Angle the bristles at a 45-degree angle to the teeth and brush where the teeth meet the gum line.
Method two (finger brush)
1) Apply a small amount of toothpaste to the tip of your finger and allow the cat to lick it off. When he does, follow up with a treat. Continue for a few days.
2) Apply toothpaste to the finger and gently lift the gum, apply the toothpaste to the canine tooth. Follow up immediately with a treat.
3) Once the cat is comfortable having toothpaste applied to his teeth, move on to the final step. Apply toothpaste to the finger brush which is on your dominant hand, lift the gum with the index finger of your non-dominant hand and gently brush the teeth. Once again, you do not have to do a full dental clean, just a small area at a time until the cat becomes comfortable with it. Move the brush in small, circular movements.
The entire process can take several weeks, and it is important not to rush the cat or get angry. You will have more success if you let the cat decide the pace and constantly reinforce good behaviour with treats.
It can help to position the cat on a flat surface at hip height, so the cat’s rump is against your body, leaning over the cat, position your elbow behind the cat so that he or she can’t back up and escape.
Frequently asked questions
How often should I brush my cat’s teeth?
A cat’s teeth should be brushed once a day, if that is too much for you or the cat, two to three times a week is better than not brushing at all.
How long should I spend brushing my cat’s teeth?
Brushing should take no longer than one or two minutes.
How can I keep my cat’s teeth clean without brushing?
Brushing is ideal, but if you have a cat who really doesn’t like it, alternatives can include raw chicken wings or necks, enzymatic dental gels, water additives or a prescription diet designed for oral care (Hills t/d).
What happens if the cat has tartar on the teeth?
If plaque is not removed from the teeth, it hardens to become tartar, which is a cement-like deposit. Tartar can not be removed with brushing and will need to be removed by a veterinarian under anesthesia. A physical examination can only show the veterinarian what is going on with the visible portion of the tooth (crown), it is recommended that dental Xrays be performed to evaluate the teeth under the gumline.
Is wet food better than dry food for a cat’s teeth?
Cats may be more prone to the development of tartar on wet food, but dry food is not going to adequately remove tartar either which is why pet owners must play an active part in ensuring tartar doesn’t build up on the teeth with brushing or foods which promote tartar removal.
How can I keep my cat’s teeth healthy?
Daily brushing or feeding suitable food which removes plaque from the teeth as well as an annual veterinary examination which will include a thorough oral examination and where necessary, a veterinary scale and polish.
It is not always easy for pet owners to notice signs of dental pain in cats as they are expert at hiding pain. Even cats who are in pain may continue to eat as normal, which highlights the importance of regular oral check-ups and treatment where necessary.
How often should I replace my cat’s toothbrush?
Replace when it shows signs of wear and tear.