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Cat Dental Care: How to Brush Your Cat's Teeth | BetterVet

Part of caring for your cat also involves taking care of their pearly whites. Dental disease is common in cats and most will need multiple dental cleanings under anesthesia with a vet during their lifetime, however at-home dental care (specifically brushing) is the best way to help maintain dental health between cleanings. If you can’t imagine your furry friend sitting quietly while you open their mouth and brush their teeth, you’re not alone. It can be a daunting task, however, with some training and lots of patience, your cat may surprise you. Here’s what you need to know! 

 

Why Should You Brush Your Cat’s Teeth? 

 More than 50% of cats over the age of three years have some form of dental disease. This can lead to oral pain, loss of teeth, and infection. It is also possible for bacteria from the mouth to spread to other major organs and affect your cat’s overall systemic health. This is why cat dental care is so critical. At home, Brushing is the best way to remove bacteria and plaque to help prevent tartar buildup, which in turn leads to infection and the inflammation of structures surrounding the teeth (periodontal disease). For best results, you should aim to brush your cat’s teeth at least three to four times per week or even daily, if possible, before plaque can harden into tartar. 

 

Brushing not only helps prevent dental disease, but it also allows you to examine your pet’s mouth for any new growths or changes. Teaching your cat to tolerate oral exams and brushing at home will also make it easier for your vet to examine their mouth during wellness visits or if there is a concern. 

 

Signs of Cat Dental Disease 

If your cat has dental disease you may notice some of the following signs: 

 

  • Reluctance or difficulty eating

  • Drooling

  • Halitosis (bad breath)

  • Discolored teeth 

  • Red, swollen, or bleeding gums 

  • Pawing at the mouth or rubbing the face

  • General signs of discomfort or changes in behavior 

  • Other - sneezing, discharge from eyes or nose, swelling of the face

As cats are great at hiding their illnesses, you may not notice any of these clinical signs despite the presence of advanced dental disease. However, often owners will be shocked by how much happier and energetic their cat seems after dental cleaning and treatment with their vet. If you have concerns about your cat’s oral health, schedule an appointment with your vet. 

 

Common Feline Dental Problems

There are several different types of dental issues common in cats, including: 

 

  • Plaque - a sticky film of bacteria that begins to form on the teeth within a few hours of eating.

  • Tartar (calculus) - When combined with saliva, plaque begins to harden into tartar within 24 hours. It is hard, rough, and can coat the teeth above and below the gums, and is not able to be removed with brushing alone.

  • Gingivitis - inflammation of the gums from contact with plaque and tartar.

  • Periodontal disease - inflammation and infection of the tissues surrounding the teeth, including the gums (gingiva), centrum (covering of the root surface), periodontal ligament (attaches the tooth to the underlying bone), and alveolar bone. As periodontal disease progresses, these supporting structures and bones are destroyed, which can lead to loose teeth, loss of teeth, and the spread of bacterial infection.

  • Feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions -  This extremely common issue in cats involves the destruction of the tooth causing a painful hole, which requires extraction (removal) of the tooth. 

  • Fractured teeth, which can be painful.

  • Oral masses - Benign or cancerous growths can occur in the mouth, on the gums, or under the tongue. Cats can also get sores and ulcers in their mouth for a variety of reasons. 

 

What You’ll Need to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth

Your cat should be evaluated by a veterinarian before starting a brushing routine. If your cat has any outstanding dental issues, like a resorptive lesion, brushing will be painful which will lead to a long-term aversion to maintaining their dental hygiene. Before you are ready to start brushing your cat’s teeth you will need the following: 

 

  • A soft feline-friendly toothbrush or gauze square - you may use a small veterinary toothbrush, baby toothbrush, or your finger. A Q-tip or piece of gauze wrapped around your finger is highly recommended for getting your pet used to having their teeth brushed, or may be used long-term if you and your cat prefer this method. 

  • A tasty flavored toothpaste made for cats.

  • Other soft flavored treats such as ChuruChuro, tuna juice, or baby food, if your cat is hesitant to try the toothpaste at first.

 

How to Teach Your Cat to Have Their Teeth Brushed 

Cats are smart and independent creatures, and contrary to some popular beliefs, they can be trained. Putting in the time and effort to make teeth brushing part of your daily routine and not a stressful chore will be worth it for both of you in the long run. A training program (like this one from renowned veterinary behaviorist Dr. Sophia Yin’s website, may look something like this: 

 

  • Start by deciding on a consistent time and place to brush your cat’s teeth that makes sense with your schedule, so that you remember to stay on track and do not catch your cat off guard. This will become a new routine for both of you. Repeat each step below for multiple days until your cat feels comfortable (readily approaches, enjoys licking the toothpaste or treat, and does not pull their head away). 

  • Wrap a piece of gauze around your finger and put a small amount of kitty toothpaste (or a treat of your choice) on the gauze, and let your cat lick it off. Repeat for multiple days until your cat readily approaches and licks the toothpaste. 

  • Next, try sliding your gauze-covered finger with toothpaste under their upper lip before allowing them to lick the rest off. Repeat for multiple days. 

  • Next, move your finger further back along the outer side of their teeth and begin to practice small brushing movements. Repeat for multiple days. 

  • Repeat with the lower teeth.

  • Slowly work your way up to brushing both the top and bottom teeth on both sides of their mouth. 

  • When you and your cat both feel comfortable, you may consider transitioning to a toothbrush and a veterinary toothpaste if you have not been already using one. 

 

Be sure to go at your cat’s pace. The important thing is to be consistent and establish a long-term habit that you can both enjoy. If your cat shows signs of discomfort such as moving their head away, stopping the licking the toothpaste, or running away, go back to the previous step and move at a slower pace. 

 

How to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth

Once you and your cat have completed the training process and they are comfortable with your new routine of having their teeth brushed, the following is recommended for optimal cat dental health:

 

  • Apply a small amount of pet-safe toothpaste to your brush or a gauze square wrapped around your finger.

  • Slide your gauze-covered finger or brush between their lips and teeth, keeping the mouth closed.

  • Gently clean the outsides of the upper and lower teeth, focusing on the large cheek teeth (premolars and molars) and canine teeth, before repeating on the other side. 

  • Brush daily if possible, but a minimum of three or four times per week.

  • Brush for approximately 30 seconds on each side of the mouth. 

If Brushing Isn’t Possible 

Some cats may just not tolerate daily brushing. If that’s the case there are still ways that you can help support their oral health at home, including a prescription dental diet, chews, and water additives. To find the best options for at-home cat dental care, ask your vet and look for products that are approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you use human toothpaste to brush a cat’s teeth? 

No, the ingredients in human toothpaste are not meant to be swallowed. Some human toothpaste contains xylitol which is toxic to dogs (less so to cats). Baking soda is also not recommended as it has an unpleasant taste and can be toxic. 

 

Will feeding dry vs. canned food help with dental health? 

The only diets that have been proven to help with dental health are prescription veterinary dental diets. The kibble sizes are larger and designed to help scrub the surface of the teeth when chewed. This can be a great option for cats who do not tolerate brushing. 

 

Is there any risk to brushing your cat’s teeth at home? 

Cats have a large number of bacteria in their mouths. It is important to wash your hands as well as the toothbrush when you are finished. Use one toothbrush per cat. If you do not feel that you can safely brush your cat’s teeth without the risk of getting scratched or bitten then opt for other types of at-home dental care instead. 

 

What about anesthesia-free dental cleanings or having a groomer brush your cat’s teeth? 

These types of cleaning are not beneficial, nor are they well tolerated by our fur babies. To thoroughly clean the teeth above and below the gum line and take dental x-rays to assess oral health, a pet must be under general anesthesia in a veterinary clinic. Occasionally having a groomer brush your cat’s teeth will be incredibly stressful and is also unlikely to make a sufficient impact, as brushing must occur more frequently to help remove plaque.