Having had the pleasure of owning several cats over the years, I can appreciate how challenging effective oral hygiene can be! It takes an extremely good natured, and well-trained cat, to tolerate tooth brushing. Thankfully, there are many other options in addition to brushing, to compliment oral care in cats.
Kittens have 26 teeth which are fully erupted by 6-8 weeks of age. The baby teeth fall out around 4-6 months of age, as the adult teeth erupt. Adult cats have 30 teeth, which then ideally need to be maintained in good condition for the rest of their lives!
It is valuable to establish a tooth cleaning routine as a kitten. You can use a finger cot or gauze to rub along a kitten’s gum line. This will get the cat used to the feeling of being in their mouth, and still effectively remove plaque (the bacteria laden slime that builds up daily on teeth.). You could also dip your finger in tuna water and rub along the gums. Eventually, you can try and work your way up to using a toothbrush or a finger brush with bristles on it. Toothpaste is optional, as the majority of the results are seen from the mechanical action of the bristles. There are, however, enzymatic cleaners in the toothpaste, and also flavours that may make the process more appealing. Do not use human toothpaste, as there is fluoride and other detergents in it that make it unsafe to swallow.
One tooth brushing technique that is fairly effective is to cradle the cat from behind, cup his chin, lift the lip to clean the teeth, using either gauze on a finger or a toothbrush. My preference is the very small children toothbrushes available, for ages 2-5. These will have firm bristles but still have a small head.
Dental diets are another excellent tool in maintaining a healthy mouth. I think they are the perfect adult cat maintenance diet and have used them with all of my cats! They not only are equivalent to brushing a couple times a week, but they are formulated to maintain a healthy urinary tract and are reasonable in calories. Different dental diets work by different mechanisms. They generally are larger in size, so there is a mechanical shearing action that cleans the teeth when the cat bites into a kibble. Some also contain ingredients that mix with the saliva to decrease the formation of tartar. When looking for a quality dental diet, look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval. This VOHC seal also applies to all the other products discussed below.
Water additives, such as “Healthy Mouth”, are another option to help decrease the plaque that builds up daily on the teeth, thus decreasing the amount of tartar that hardens onto the teeth. We are happy to provide our clients with a sample of Healthy Mouth, to see if their cats tolerate it in the drinking water. There are omega 3 fatty acids and fish flavouring in this product, so the majority of cats love it.
Oral gels or sprays are other options for those who feel they cannot brush teeth. These products are easily applied to the gums by using a fingertip, or q tip. These gels act to decrease the plaque that builds up on the teeth. As with brushing, the goal is to apply the gel daily to the gums.
There are a variety of dental treats available on the market. These encourage chewing and may have ingredients that mix with saliva to block the formation of tartar. One should be cautious with the amount of treats fed, as they contribute to the total daily caloric intake.
Dental disease in cats begins when bacteria colonize the mouth, and a plaque biofilm is formed. Over time, this plaque mineralizes, and hardens into tartar. The bacterial population builds up and leads to inflammation of the overlying gingiva. It’s this gingival inflammation that leads to gum recession, supporting bone loss and tooth mobility.
Signs of dental disease in your cat can include: bad breath, chewing only on one side of the mouth, dropping food, bleeding from the mouth, sneezing, pawing at the face/mouth, facial swelling, or grinding the teeth. If any of these signs are present, you are strongly encouraged to have your cat examined by a licensed veterinarian. Home dental care is only sufficient before any of these signs are present. Only professional dental therapy can properly treat more advanced stages of dental disease.
A dental exam is initially performed in the awake cat to provide an estimate. Anesthesia is required to allow for complete examination of a cat’s mouth. This exam includes dental charting, probing around each tooth to look for pockets or tooth defects, and oral x-rays (to look at the bone surrounding the teeth and the roots). Once a complete individualized assessment of the mouth is made, dental scaling, polishing, fluoride, and surgical extraction of any diseased teeth is performed.
Please feel free to call our clinic with any feline oral care questions, or book an appointment during our dental health months for a complimentary oral exam performed by one of our licensed technicians.
Written by Dr Katherine Takacs DVM