Our pets are living longer, and that means dental care is more important now than it ever was.
Dental disease, which includes calculus buildup and gingivitis, is one of the most prevalent diseases in cats and dogs. It can also cause a number of systemic diseases, such as when bacteria from from a dirty mouth get into the bloodstream with the potential to damage the heart or kidneys.
We have learned that our pets’ teeth need, in an ideal world, as much care as our own teeth require.
Keeping your cat’s mouth and teeth healthy can be as simple as having regular dental checkups with your veterinarian and brushing your cat’s teeth at home.
At-Home Dental Care for Your Cat
Human standards are being applied to pets’ oral care in today’s veterinary world.
- Brush your cat’s teeth once per day.
- Get your cat a dental checkup at least once a year.
The above guidance is the gold standard. Although some people actually do this, most cannot or do not. In fact, research shows that only 2% of cats get their teeth brushed daily. You can do better than that!
So, please consider at the very least brushing your cat’s teeth 2 or 3 times per week, and using other products to help reduce plaque buildup.
Again, though, once a day is best. Make it a daily routine: For example, after you clear away the dinner dishes, clean the cat’s teeth. Having a routine makes it less likely the brushing gets skipped.
How to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth
First, buy a cat-friendly toothbrush. These brushes are typically smaller, softer and more flexible than dog toothbrushes. You can also use a soft, rubber brush that fits over your first finger if that is more comfortable for you.
You’ll also need to buy some cat-friendly toothpaste. Manufacturers know that cats love the smell and taste of fish, so they flavor the toothpaste with either fish or chicken to make it more palatable for your cat.
Never use human toothpaste with your pet, because it contains chemicals that may be harmful to their digestive system.
Also, consider wearing gloves in case your nervous kitty tries to bite. Unfortunately, serious infections can result from cat bites that people think are minor, even days after the original attack. Why is a cat bite so bad? Strange bacteria in a cat’s mouth and the deep penetration of needle-like teeth deep are reasons to be wary.
Instructions for Brushing a Cat’s Teeth
- Hold your cat on a towel in your lap and let them get comfortable. You may find it helpful to have someone hold the cat to keep them still so you can concentrate on the toothbrushing.
- Once the cat is relaxed, offer a little dab of flavored cat-safe toothpaste to sample from your finger. Do not use human toothpaste — it is toxic to your cat.
- Apply some of the toothpaste to a cat toothbrush or a finger brush designed for cats’ teeth. Cat toothpaste placed on gauze or a soft cloth and rubbed on the teeth is acceptable, too. The toothpaste is not even required, at least the first few times you try this — you could simply apply a little chicken broth or canned tuna water to a Q-tip and use that as a toothbrush for now. Your vet or vet tech can demonstrate these techniques.
- Tilt the cat’s head back about 45 degrees, then gently lift up the top lips so you can see the outside surfaces of the gums and teeth. Do not pry the mouth open. You are just brushing the outside of the teeth.
- Using gentle, back-and-forth motions, begin cleaning the upper teeth, especially at the gum line. Again, do not attempt to clean the inside surfaces of the teeth — instead, focus on the outside (cheek-facing) areas, where your cleaning is much less stressful for the cat and there is less risk of a cat bite.
- Be sure to clean the back upper molars and canines, where tartar tends to build up more heavily.
- Now hold the bottom lip and clean the sides of the lower teeth and gums.
Brush for about 30 seconds per side.
You do not need to rinse your cat’s mouth with anything because the toothpaste is made to be eaten — there are no chemicals that can hurt your pet. Allow your cat access to their water bowl once you’re finished.
A Few More Toothbrushing Tips
Brushing your cat’s teeth is essential if you want to keep their mouth as disease-free as possible. Here are a few more tips for toothbrushing success:
- Start early. Getting a kitten used to toothbrushing and nail clipping is easier than trying to do this with an older cat. Before you attempt to brush the teeth, have a few periodic sessions of simply lifting the cat’s lips for a couple of minutes at a time, to get them used to you poking around their mouth. Progress to once-a-week dental care to help prevent plaque accumulation and acclimate your kitten to having you in and around their mouth. Then aim for a few times a week.
- Choose a calm time. If children are running around the home, right now is not a good time to brush your cat’s teeth. Your cat should be as comfortable as possible.
- Designate a well-lit area. You need to be able to see what you’re doing.
- Get into a routine. Leave your pet-friendly toothpaste near the cat food or treats to remind yourself of this routine task. Find a special reward to give your cat after each toothbrush session.
- If at first you don’t succeed, try another routine. Some cats will not tolerate toothbrushing, or the practice is so stressful that it upsets the bond you have with your cat. Try using a finger brush, or applying a rinse or a gel with your finger.
“Do not worry about brushing the tips or insides of the teeth unless your cat is very cooperative,” say Drs. Lorraine Hiscox, DVM, FAVD, Dip. AVDC, and Jan Bellows, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, ABVP. They explain that “most periodontal damage occur on the outer surfaces of the teeth, and this is where you should direct your efforts.”
Pick up some helpful tips from this vet’s video on brushing cats’ teeth:
How often do I need to brush my cat’s teeth?
Brushing once a day is the best way to ensure your cat’s mouth stays as disease-free as possible. However, even brushing 2 or 3 times a week will cut down on the buildup of bacteria.
If you have kitten, begin brushing now while they are still little. Not only will it help to acclimate them to the process of brushing, but starting early can also keep them from having dental issues as they get older.
What should I do if my cat won’t let me brush their teeth?
If they resist sitting in your lap for the brushing, you may need to resort to wrapping them in a towel like a burrito to accomplish the job. We don’t recommend this if you cat is old or has any health issues, as you don’t want to over-stress them.
If wrapping is not an option, try just brushing only 2 or 3 teeth per session until you get them all cleaned, spreading out the process over a couple of days.
Why can’t cats use human toothpaste?
Cats and dogs don’t rinse and spit — they swallow. This means toothpaste becomes food. And human toothpaste contains fluoride, which is hazardous when swallowed. Therefore, pets can’t use human toothpaste.
Around 5–10 mg/kg of fluoride is fatal to a cat. For a slightly-above-average, 5 kg cat, this means 25 mg of fluoride could kill, with a much lower dose of 5 mg being enough to cause clinical signs of illness.
When you cover the toothbrush head with a strip of human toothpaste, this contains about 2.5 mg of fluoride, so 2 brush-loads and your cat is in trouble. (Note that toothpastes vary widely in fluoride content, so 2 brush-loads is just a rough estimate. It could actually take even less than this for toxic levels.)
The bottom line? Stick to pet toothpaste.
Yes, a good pet toothpaste is more costly than a human one, but we hope you can now see why. There is much more than meets the eye to that bland-looking tube. There’s a whole load of science that went into making it safe and effective for your pet.
Pet toothpastes taste just great (to pets). When you use a great-tasting pet toothpaste, most pets become eager to incorporate teeth brushing into their daily routine because they think you’re rubbing delicious spreadable meat around inside their mouth.
Can I just brush my cat’s teeth with plain water?
We do not recommend it. Brushing without toothpaste and just water is of some benefit because it rubs away food debris. However, the benefits pretty much end there.
If your cat has infected gums, then brushing alone could make matters worse as you catch the gums, make them bleed and give bacteria an entry point into circulation.
What else, besides toothbrushing, can I use to help reduce tartar buildup in my cat?
- Water additives: Products like cat::ESSENTIAL healthymouth are added to a cat’s water dish to retard plaque, which in turn keep periodontal disease and bad breath in check.
- Dental diets: When fed exclusively, these cat foods are proven to keep plaque and tartar under control. Examples that have received the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval include Hill’s Prescription Diet t/d Feline and Royal Canine Feline Dental Diet. Check out the VOHC list for yourself. There are many choices. If brushing is impossible or if your cat has above-average plaque accumulation, try a dental diet. It won’t prevent dental disease, but it may slow disease development. Take care starting a dental diet if your cat already has a bad mouth. Crunching down on a dental diet when the gums are already sore and bleeding could theoretically help bacteria get into the bloodstream.
- Dental cat treats: These products are worth the money, as part of the bigger picture. They are an aid to dental health, but not the whole answer. Many are highly palatable to cats. Examples include Feline Greenies and Whiskas Dentabites.
Please don’t be cynical and think your vet is “pushing” dental procedures or products. You are probably just hearing more and more about your pet’s oral health because we know so much more about how to keep a pet’s mouth healthy.
Many of the VOHC products, by the way, are over-the-counter and do not have to be purchased from your vet.
Brushing your cat’s teeth can help keep them happy and healthy — but you’ll still need to see your vet for regular dental checkups and possible cleanings.
Watch Out for This Sign of Trouble: Really Stinky Breath (Halitosis)
The word “halitosis” refers to bad breath, but this is about much more than fishy breath — this is an offensive smell caused by disease.
Periodontal disease (plaque buildup and bacteria) is the No. 1 reason your cat’s mouth smells horrible. Occasionally, though, “bad breath” may be caused by gastric odors or metabolic disease. Discuss this with your vet.
A smelly mouth is not a healthy mouth. Periodontal disease causes odor. And periodontal disease — which is not always visible to the naked eye — should be professionally treated and followed up with home care.
Signs of Problems
The most obvious symptom of halitosis in a cat is bad breath, the sort that makes you turn away when your cat breathes on you.
But other signs include pain when the cat eats, such that it makes them cautious about eating — which may lead to weight loss. If the mouth is very inflamed, the cat may drool blood-tinged saliva. They may also be too sore to groom, so their coat becomes unkempt, dull and matted.
When the cat does manage to groom, their coat may start to smell unpleasant because they are spreading smelly saliva all over the fur. Some cats show slightly bizarre signs, such as gulping a lot or coughing.
Possible Causes of Bad Breath in a Cat
- Dental calculus: Soft, sticky foods build up on the teeth and become mineralized by phosphate and calcium in saliva. These hard deposits are called tartar. It pushes on the gums, causing inflammation. Food gets trapped between the teeth, which also causes inflammation and a bad smell.
- Gingivitis or stomatitis: This is inflammation of the gums, usually where the teeth meet the gums, but it can happen anywhere along the gum line, even in the absence of teeth. This is a complex condition with many possible causes, such as a suppressed immune system, viral infection or dirty teeth that harbor high levels of bacteria.
- Oral cancer: Cancerous lumps can grow rapidly, becoming ulcerated and infected, leading to a bad smell.
- Tongue lacerations or ulcers: Some cats cut their tongues on tin cans and a nasty infection can result, but happily, these usually respond well to a little TLC, a soft diet and a course of antibiotics.
- Oral foreign body: The most common oral foreign body is a grass blade. The cat chews grass, but instead of getting cleanly swallowed, the grass blade gets diverted to the back of the throat, where it becomes lodged and traps food.
The cause of bad breath in a cat can usually be identified by a vet after a thorough inspection of the mouth. However, if the mouth is very painful, a general anesthetic may be necessary to allow a full oral exam, especially right to the back of the throat.
An anesthetic has the added advantage of enabling further investigation at the same time as the exam, such as dental X-rays or a biopsy of any suspicious lumps and bumps, should they be indicated.
Treating a Cat With Halitosis
A course of an antibiotic effective against the common bacteria found in the mouth helps get rid of the smell.
However, a thorough investigation may reveal an underlying problem that needs remediation, such as removing grass blades from the back of the throat, cleaning teeth or instigating treatments for gingivitis or stomatitis.
Good oral hygiene plays an important role in decreasing the chances of dental disease and gingivitis.
The gold-standard is daily tooth brushing, but if your cat is not keen on this idea, try feeding a little kibble with teeth-cleaning properties.
Keep in mind these 3 points:
- Dental care at home is prevention, not treatment.
- Brushing your cat’s teeth and gums that already have disease can be painful. Brushing or placing topical gels or sprays on painful gums is not helpful and can hurt. We have to get that mouth back in shape first.
- Applying toothpastes and gels on top of a layer of tartar and plaque is not very useful. Imagine a brick wall that’s been covered with plaster and you want to get to the brick. If you apply some paint to the plaster, will it do anything for the bricks? Of course not. This is the same as brushing your cat’s teeth on top of a layer of plaque. You’re not getting anywhere near the brick!
What to Expect During a Dental Exam for Your Cat
Here is a quick overview of what will happen during your cat’s dental exam:
- Your vet may request a blood screen to detect any signs of systemic organ problems before placing the cat under anesthesia for the dental cleaning, especially if your cat is a senior or has some other diagnosed illness.
- After the cat is anesthetized, a veterinary technician takes X-rays of the teeth to determine if there are any pockets or abscesses around the tooth roots, and to look for any bone deterioration.
- The vet tech scrapes the teeth free of any plaque and cleans them with a high-powered, ultrasonic water pick. The water pick vibrates at such a high rate of speed that any hard calculus formed on the teeth is easily broken up and removed. After the initial cleaning, the technician scrapes and probes underneath the gum line, looking for any deep pockets of infection.
- If any of the teeth need to be pulled because they are broken or the roots are no longer holding the teeth in place, the vet steps in to perform this part of the procedure. The vet may also inject any needed antibiotics into the gum cavity, and suture the hole closed if it is too large to heal on its own.
- Once your cat’s teeth are polished and the mouth is rinsed with a disinfectant wash, they are allowed to awaken from the anesthesia, and you should be able to take them home the same day. Typically, the vet prescribes antibiotics to clear up any remaining bacterial infection.
Be sure to see our expert guide to pet dental exams — we walk you step-by-step through what to expect during the initial oral exam, the subsequent dental procedure (if one is required) and caring for the patient once you get back home.
Final Thoughts on Taking Good Care of Your Cat’s Teeth
Veterinarians are seeing major improvements not only in patients’ mouths but in our own pets as well.
When you begin your dental care routine, ask yourself what you are willing to do at home in terms of dental care and stick to that commitment. If you are going to brush only occasionally, find other tartar control products your cat likes.
Think about your own 6-month checkup with your dental hygienist. When you haven’t gone near a piece of dental floss since your last cleaning, you know that look on your hygienist’s face. Don’t try to pull the floss over her eyes. You can’t fool your vet either.
Thanks to all you responsible pet parents out there, and good luck with your pet dental endeavors.
- “Pet Dental Care.” American Veterinary Medical Association. https://www.avma.org/resources-tools/pet-owners/petcare/pet-dental-care.
- Hiscox, Lorraine, DVM, FAVD, Dip. AVDC, and Jan Bellows, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, ABVP. “Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth.” VCA Hospitals. 2020. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/brushing-teeth-in-cats.
- “Cat Dental Care: How Do I Brush My Cat’s Teeth?” Banfield Pet Hospital. https://www.banfield.com/pet-healthcare/additional-resources/article-library/dental/do-i-need-to-brush-my-cat-s-teeth.
- Blakley, Barry R., DVM, PhD. “Overview of Fluoride Poisoning (Fluorosis).” Merck Veterinary Manual. December 2013. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/toxicology/fluoride-poisoning/overview-of-fluoride-poisoning.
- Myers, Wendy S. “7 Phrases That Can Kill Dental Compliance.” Veterinary Practice News. May 17, 2016. https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/7-phrases-that-can-kill-dental-compliance/.
- “VOHC Accepted Products for Cats.” Veterinary Oral Health Council. March 2020. http://www.vohc.org/VOHCAcceptedProductsTable_Cats.pdf.
- Withrow, Stephen, DVM, DACVS, DACVIM, et al. Withrow and MacEwen’s Small Animal Clinical Oncology, 5th edition. Saunders. 2012.
- Wills, Josephine, and Alice Wolf, eds. Handbook of Feline Medicine. Pergamon Press. 1993.
- Gorrel, Cecilia, Vet MB, DDS, MRCVS, Hon FAVD, Dipl EVDC. “Periodontal Disease and Diet in Domestic Pets.” Journal of Nutrition 128, no. 12 (December 1998): 2712S–2714S. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9868248/.
- Holmstrom, Steven, DVM. Veterinary Dentistry: A Team Approach, 3rd edition. Saunders. 2019.