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A guide to cat dental care
Establishing a good dental maintenance routine for your cat from an early age is vital for their ongoing health and happiness. Not only will it prevent your cat from developing diseases like gingivitis, it will also keep their breath smelling fresh.
Why is cat dental care important?
In the wild, cats would usually clean their teeth by chewing on bones or grass, but domestic cats often don’t have a suitable replacement for this.1 Additionally, animals aren’t able to verbally communicate to tell us they’re in pain or feeling sick. This makes it especially important to develop preventative rather than reactive health routines when it comes to your pets, especially with their oral health care.
It’s also important to regularly check the state of your cat’s teeth and gums to make sure they’re always looking healthy.
Teeth and gum problems occur in eight out of ten cats over the age of three. This is because cats tend to accumulate bacteria, debris and plaque from the food they eat on the outside of their teeth (Read what cats eat). Over time, this coating of germs hardens to form tartar, which can irritate their gums and eventually cause gingivitis and even tooth loss.2 In severe cases, the tartar scale can become so extreme that it’s irreversible, and cats often need to have teeth removed to get rid of the pain.3
Pain and inflammation in a cat’s mouth can make it hard for them to eat or drink, and the bacteria can even enter their bloodstream, damaging their kidneys and other vital organs.2
This progressive destruction of gums, teeth and the structures that hold teeth in place is called ‘periodontal disease’ and is the most common disease of adult cats and dogs. The good news is that periodontal disease is largely preventable.4 To protect your cat’s oral (and overall) health, there are a few things you need to do. These involve both regular home and annual veterinary dental care.
How can I check the health of my cat’s mouth?
Although your feline may not particularly enjoy the experience, it’s important to regularly check the health of your cat’s mouth. If your pet becomes very distressed or you find it difficult to examine their mouth safely, you can take them to a vet to be checked.
A healthy cat’s teeth should be clean, white, and free of any chipping. Their gums shouldn’t have any sores or lesions, and should be pink and healthy without any redness, swelling or bleeding.
You should also check the back of your cat’s mouth for ulcers, swelling, lesions or foreign bumps, and the inside of their mouth for foreign objects, such as string. Any abnormal findings should be assessed as soon as possible by a vet.
Your cat’s breath shouldn’t have a foul odour. If it does, this can be a sign of infection either in their mouth or somewhere else in their body, so you should take them to a vet for a checkup if you notice a change in the smell of their breath within a relatively short time frame. Persistent bad breath can indicate severe periodontal disease that will require treatment.
It is also important to be alert to any other signs that could indicate dental disease, such as drooling, difficulty swallowing, pawing at the face, or changes to your cat’s eating patterns or weight.
How to keep your cat’s teeth clean
Daily (or at least twice weekly) brushing is the key to keeping your cat’s teeth and gums healthy.5 Adult cats can be pretty resistant to having their teeth cleaned, so it’s a good idea to get them used to this process and to having your fingers in their mouth from when they’re kittens. Use a finger cot (a single ‘glove finger’ that can be used when a full-handed glove is not required) or a piece of gauze covered in toothpaste made for cats to ease your kitten into the experience. Covering your finger in the water from a can of tuna will also make the experience more pleasant for them.1
For your cat’s regular teeth cleaning routine, it’s important to make sure you have all the right equipment. Complete dental kits can be purchased from veterinary clinics and pet stores. Cats should never, under any circumstances, have their teeth cleaned with human toothpaste. The high levels of fluoride often found in human toothpaste can make your cat severely ill if ingested, and as you’re limited when it comes to controlling how much of the toothpaste they swallow, it’s important to avoid this.1 Fluoride-free toothpaste designed for cats is readily available and is often flavoured with beef or chicken.
You can brush your cat’s teeth with either sterile gauze strips or a rubber toothbrush or finger brush that’s especially designed for cats. Cradle them from behind so they feel comforted and supported, gently tilt their head back, and lift up their chin to open their mouths and make it easy for you to access their teeth.1 Never use dental floss. It’s a common household item that poses a severe danger to cats due to the risk of swallowing and intestinal damage.
How to keep your cat’s mouth clean
Looking after your cat’s dental care is about more than just their teeth. The decay of the tooth usually starts with irritated or inflamed gums, so gums need to be looked after as well. After you’ve finished brushing your cat’s teeth, give the gums a massage to accelerate their healing and strengthen them. This will also reduce the risk of gum issues later down the track by stimulating blood flow to the area.1
There are a number of products you can purchase to maintain the overall health of your cat’s mouth. Your veterinarian can recommend specially formulated treats for your cat that will help to remove plaque, control tartar buildup and freshen your cat’s breath. Many of these will contain ingredients that are great for your cat’s overall health as well, such as Vitamin E, selenium, taurine, and antiseptics that fight the bacteria in your cat’s mouth.5
You can also buy dental sprays from your veterinarian that are easy to spray into your cat’s mouth once a day to control their plaque and tartar levels. There is also a role for specially formulated dental diets for cats, as recommended by your vet. Water additives are another option, but it’s important here to make sure your cat doesn’t stop drinking their water due to the unfamiliar taste.5
There are multiple and easy options for keeping your cat’s entire mouth healthy. However, if your efforts are futile because your cat resists, you can always schedule them in for an annual professional cleaning at a veterinary clinic. In fact, because periodontal disease develops slowly under the gum line even while teeth appear white, it can only be prevented and identified by regular veterinary dental cleanings, so these are strongly recommended.
Dental cleanings are performed under general anaesthesia, allowing your veterinarian to remove plaque and calculus, polish the teeth and conduct a comprehensive oral examination that includes inspecting under the gums. It also provides the opportunity for your veterinarian to clean under the gums to remove bacteria and to conduct any other procedures, such as x-rays to diagnose dental disease.4 You should note that older cats may need their teeth cleaned more frequently.5
Simple steps for maintaining your cat’s oral health
When it comes to cat dental care, some human intervention is definitely required. Fortunately, it’s easy to take a few simple steps to take care of your cat’s mouth, as long as you get them used to having their teeth cleaned early on in life. Your veterinarian will also be able to recommend and provide you with a variety of products that will keep their teeth and gums in tip-top shape and perform annual professional cleaning to prevent the onset of dental disease.
Rosemary Elliott, BVSc (hons) MPsych (clin) BA (hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare). Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics. Rosemary co-founded Sentient, The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics, in 2011 and is their current President. She is a member of the Australian and New Zealand College of Veterinary Scientists (Animal Welfare) and promotes animal welfare through advocacy, writing, research and presentations.