Dental disease is largely preventable, yet it is one of the most common conditions that affects domestic cats. Cornell University’s Feline Health Center reports that 50-90% of cats experience some form of periodontal disease by the age of four. Perhaps this is because cats are infamous for resisting many of the techniques we have to take care of their oral health. Or maybe it is because cat parents aren’t aware that their cat needs to have an at-home dental care routine.
We’ve done the research and talked to veterinarians for you. Keep reading to learn about the importance of cat dental care and actionable advice on how you can help prevent your cat from getting dental disease.
Why Cat Dental Care Is So Important
Just like us, cats naturally accumulate bacteria and food debris on their teeth as they go about their daily lives. This sticky coating is called plaque, a complex biofilm that binds to the tooth surface. If plaque isn’t regularly removed, it causes inflammation of the gums, which is known as gingivitis.
The good news is that gingivitis is completely reversible with a thorough dental cleaning. The bad news is that untreated gingivitis can progress into irreversible destruction of oral tissue and bone. And it doesn’t stop there – dental disease is connected to kidney disease, liver disease, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious systemic conditions.
One of the best things cat owners can do for their kitty’s long term well-being is to take care of their cat’s dental health. “Dental problems seen in cats can be preventable with at-home care and routine exams of the mouth”, says veterinarian Tonya Cooksey, DVM.
Many owners are surprised to learn that cats, just like us, need at-home dental care to avoid periodontal disease (an umbrella that vets use to describe gum disease caused by plaque buildup). Keep reading to learn about actionable steps you can take to improve your cat’s oral hygiene and prevent dental issues.
The 5 Ways To Care For Your Cat’s Oral and Dental Health
“Yeah right!” It’s a sentiment echoed by many cat owners at the mere thought of getting inside of their kitty’s mouth. It’s true – many cats are notoriously difficult when it comes to their personal space. But even for the most challenging cats, we outline science-backed ways you can effectively take care of their dental health.
1. Brush Your Cat’s Teeth
Brushing your cat’s teeth is the single most effective thing you can do to remove plaque build up on their teeth. Remember, plaque is the root cause of many painful and costly dental issues. Veterinarians recommend daily brushing, but we know that is unrealistic for many cat parents. We recommend trying to brush their teeth at least twice a week – it’s easier than you might think.
If you know your cat won’t stand for you brushing their teeth, skip to #2. We understand that cat owners have to pick their battles, and preserving a trusting relationship is important.
Start When They Are A Kitten
From the moment you get your kitten, get them accustomed to having your fingers in their mouth. “When owners practice daily teeth brushing with kittens, it makes it part of a normal routine as they age,” explains Dr. Cooksey, DVM. Cats of owners who start this practice early (and maintain it) have a significantly lower chance of having dental problems.
Is your cat no longer a kitten? Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine offers a free four-week training program to help get your cat used to a daily brushing routine.
Have The Right Supplies
Home dental care kits that are especially designed for cats are widely available. Some cat toothbrushes have long handles that help get into the small space between a cat’s cheek and back teeth; others are a finger brush with rubber bristles. Both are effective at removing dental plaque, so it’s really up to your cat about which style they prefer.
Cat toothpaste can be a game changer for your cat’s teeth cleaning routine. They come in palatable flavors like seafood, chicken, or beef that make the brushing experience far more enjoyable for your cat. You should never use human toothpaste when brushing your cat’s teeth because its high levels of fluoride can make your cat very sick.
Get In A Comfortable Position
Sit on the floor or a couch with your cat in your lap and their back facing you. Gently tilt their head back and open their mouth wide enough to easily access their teeth. Make sure to take a lot of breaks and maintain a calm, comforting presence. You can also offer rewards like treats, praise, and pats to make the experience as positive as possible.
2. Take a Look!
Find a time when your cat is resting to calmly and gently pull their lips up to look inside their mouth. Or try to get a peek when they are playing with a toy. A quick look in your cat’s mouth is all you need.
Check that their teeth are clean and free of any chipping. Their gums should be pink, and their gum line (the place where the teeth and gums meet) should be free of any redness, swelling, or bleeding. Closely inspect the back of their mouth for any lesions, swelling, or ulcers, which may be a sign of stomatitis, a condition that affects about one in ten cats.
You’ll also want to smell their breath. Persistent bad breath can indicate that your cat has an infection or a serious underlying health problem, both of which require veterinary care. For example, certain health conditions like Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) can cause teeth to become infected or fall out.
3. Choose Kibble and Treats and Wisely
Wild cats naturally clean their teeth by tearing apart carcasses and chewing on bones, which knocks off plaque buildup on the tooth surface. But what about domestic cats who don’t regularly eat prey? Dr. Cooksey comments that “hard food or treats help scrape plaque and biofilm off the teeth.” But there is a very important caveat here – a cat must actually chew their food to get this benefit.
The size and shape of your cat’s kibble can make a significant difference for their dental health, as first noted by a study published in the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry over a decade ago. Dental diets and dental treats are designed to provide the abrasive action needed to remove plaque buildup on teeth. Your veterinarian can help you find the best options for your cat’s dental needs.
Nutrition Matters Too
A healthy diet is essential for your cat’s overall health, primarily because it feeds the billions of bacteria that live in your cat’s gut. These small but mighty organisms are responsible for numerous aspects of your cat’s health, from helping to digest their food to ensuring their immune system functions properly.
While it may seem that effects of inflammation caused by gum disease are localized to the mouth, they actually cause the whole body to go into a hyper-inflammatory state. The same is true for the gut – an imbalanced gut bacterial community leads to inflammation all over the body, in turn making the gums more susceptible to inflammation. Feeding your cat a balanced diet to support their beneficial gut bacteria helps prevent inflammation, a key factor for good dental health.
4. Attend Regular Oral Exams and Dental Cleanings
Cats need to attend regular oral checkup exams and professional dental cleanings just like we do. In a dental cleaning, your cat will be given general anesthesia, so they’ll be completely asleep. Your veterinarian will then remove plaque and tartar (hardened plaque), polish teeth, and inspect your cat’s mouth for any signs of dental disease.
Most dental disease occurs below the gum line where we can’t see it. That’s why professional cleanings and exams performed while your cat is asleep are so important; they can clean and look under the gums that would otherwise be too uncomfortable to do while your cat is awake. Teeth can appear healthy from the outside, but actually be dead or infected under the gumline.
If your veterinarian finds any dental problems during your cat’s oral examination, they may need to take x-rays to help with their diagnosis. It’s important to catch and treat periodontal disease early because it can cause tooth loss, damage tooth roots, and eat away at the jaw bone. Check your pet insurance policy to see what dental care is covered.
What About Anesthesia-Free Cleanings?
Some clinics offer anesthesia-free cleanings. While these procedures are great for cleaning the tooth surfaces and appear to be a more affordable option, they offer little additional benefit to at-home dental care. This is because in an anesthesia-free cleaning, they don’t clean or examine under the gums, where most dental disease occurs.
5. Maintain A Healthy Oral Microbiome
There is a diverse community of bacteria and other microorganisms that live inside your cat’s mouth, collectively called the oral microbiome. Regularly cleaning your cat’s teeth is important for addressing areas where bad bacteria (especially those linked to bad breath) thrive. But there are good bacteria in your cat’s mouth, too, which help prevent disease and plaque buildup.
It is important to feed the beneficial bacteria in your cat’s mouth to maintain good dental health. There are many supplements and water additives on the market that claim to help with this, but only a few have been scientifically proven to improve oral health. For example, KittyBiome Oral Cleanse Powder contains evidence-based ingredients that reduce levels of harmful E. coli bacteria and prevent plaque accumulation.
Signs That Your Cat May Be Experiencing Dental Problems
It’s important for cat parents to recognize the signs that their cat may be experiencing a dental problem. Dental disease is very common in cats, but it is reversible if caught early. If your cat shows any of these symptoms, we recommend that you take your cat to the veterinarian to be assessed and treated (if needed) for periodontal disease.
- Bad breath
- Hesitance to eat
- Bleeding in the mouth
- Discolored, cracked, loose, or chipped teeth
- Abnormal chewing
- Appears in pain and/or pawing around their mouth
- Soft swelling of the face under the eye (a common sign of a tooth root abscess in an upper molar)
Special Considerations for Cats with Missing Teeth
Some cats have missing teeth or no teeth at all, especially those of advanced age. The dental care techniques we mentioned above still hold true for cats with at least one tooth.
Places in the gums where teeth used to be are more prone to infection because bad bacteria grow really well in those pockets. For this reason, it’s still important to gently brush your cat’s gums to regularly clean out those pockets.
We encourage you to discuss the specialized needs of your cat’s dental and oral care with your veterinarian. They may recommend that you switch cat foods or increase the frequency of dental cleanings.
Maintaining your cat’s oral health is essential for their well-being regardless of how many teeth they have. Not sure where to start? Get in touch with us! We offer oral testing kits with customized lifestyle, dietary, and supplement recommendations that take the guesswork out of how to care for your cat’s oral and dental health.
Questions You Can Ask Your Veterinarian
- Can you show me how I should brush my cat’s teeth at home?
- Is the food I am feeding my cat effective at removing plaque?
- How often does my cat need to come in for dental cleanings?
- Is my cat’s dental cleaning similar to the kind I get at my dentist?
- When will my kitten have all her adult teeth?
- If my cat has to get teeth extracted during a dental cleaning, what are some things I should know about aftercare?