Ah, the dreaded task of cleaning cats’ teeth. When most cat parents think about sticking a cat toothbrush into their kitty’s fanged mouth, they probably imagine ending up with deep, long scratches and gashes on their arms.
“Brushing your cat’s teeth is not for the faint of heart,” says veterinarian and pet chiropractor Laurie Coger, DVM, of The Healthy Dog Workshop.
And while scratches can certainly happen—especially if you approach this necessary part of pet health the wrong way—with the right technique and tools, you can learn how to brush your cat’s teeth, make at-home cleanings a pleasant experience for everyone and help make dental health upkeep a breeze.
Supplies for Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth
Dental products for cats are specially designed to remove plaque, which is the buildup of food and bacteria that collect on their teeth. If that buildup is not removed, it can cause tartar, gum inflammation, gingivitis and, eventually, periodontal disease—which is something you don’t want your pal to develop!
Before you begin brushing your cat’s teeth, you’ll need to gather all your tools and supplies. Below, we’ve created this handy shopping list of clean-mouth, cat dental care must-haves.
Because cats have tiny little mouths and teeth, look for a tiny brush sized just for cats, recommends Bert Gaddis, DVM, dipl. AVDC, who practices at Indian Springs Animal Clinic in Pelham, Alabama.
You can find special cat toothbrushes with single heads, double heads and even some that fit on the tip of your pinky finger. Dr. Gaddis says some clients have even used gauze, terry cloth and brushes that humans use to apply makeup.
Pet toothpaste come in flavors, like poultry and fish, that cats find irresistible. The toothpaste contains special enzymes that break down food and bacteria.
Can you use human toothpaste on cats? No. Do not use human toothpaste on your feline friend, because many brands contain fluoride, detergents and artificial sweeteners like xylitol that can be harmful to pets, Dr. Gaddis says.
You should also have some of your kitty’s favorite treats and toys on hand to reward them for a job well done.
How to Brush Cats’ Teeth: Step-by-Step Instructions
If you’ve asked yourself, “Should I brush my cat’s teeth?” The answer is a resounding yes! Good dental hygiene will result in a healthy, happy cat. The very first thing you’ll want to do is to prepare yourself and set the stage for a positive experience, says Dr. Coger.
“Cats often hate having their mouths messed with,” she says. “So, when brushing your cat’s teeth, it’s important to be organized and fast.”
1Practice lifting your cat's lips.
Start by lifting their lips for short periods of time. Introduce the activity during a calm, quiet time, like when you’re already cuddling and petting them on the couch.
Remember to watch your body language—and theirs. Speak in a soft, positive voice while you touch their mouth. Your cat takes cues from your body language and tone; if you sound stressed and project nervousness, they will reflect that.
Stop touching their mouth before they get fussy—even if that means you can only do it for a few seconds at first—to ensure they don’t associate the action with a negative experience. Over time, you’ll be able to build up their willingness to have their teeth cleaned.
2Introduce your cat to the toothbrushing supplies.
When your cat is accustomed to you handling their mouth, it’s time to show them the cat toothbrush and paste.
Find a comfortable, quiet place.
Let them sniff and paw at the toothbrush and its bristles, and give them a little lick of the toothpaste to introduce the flavor.
When they’re done examining everything, offer them a tasty treat or toy to help them associate these supplies with good things.
Place your cat in your lap, lift your cat’s lips, and use your toothbrush, finger brush or gauze to gently brush the cheek-facing surface of their teeth.
Start with just the large canine teeth in the front of their mouth, and end the session before your cat gets fussy, even if that means you've only brushed a couple of their teeth.
4Work up to a full cleaning.
5Reward your cat!
Be sure to reward your cat with treats, toys or praise. This teaches them that toothbrushing is a good thing—or, at least, that it's worth tolerating in order to get some goodies.
Now that wasn’t too bad, was it? This entire process will take time, so be patient and go at your cat’s pace. If you find your cat is unwilling to play along during one of the steps, go back in your training to when they felt comfortable and work with them again from there.
How Often Should You Brush Your Cat’s Teeth?
Daily brushing or brushing every other day is ideal, says Dr. Gaddis. The reason is because plaque takes about 48 to 72 hours to harden and calcify, when it turns to stubborn tartar. That tartar can only be removed by a veterinarian who’s skilled in feline dentistry.
Tartar irritates your pet’s gums and results in inflammation, called gingivitis, which triggers reddening of the gums and bad breath. Once the area under the gum line becomes diseased, the supporting tissue around your cat’s teeth becomes weak and inflamed. If untreated, this can lead to soft tissue and tooth loss, as well as bone damage.
A minute-long brush, however, should be plenty of time to remove any plaque buildup.
“Be content with a quick brush,” says Dr. Coger, who feels it’s important not to force brushing sessions on your cat. “It’s not worth it to damage your relationship with your cat.”
Tips and Troubleshooting for Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth
It’s no secret that cats can be difficult when it comes to oral hygiene. Fear not! Below, we’ve listed some expert tips and techniques that can help, courtesy of Drs. Coger and Gaddis.
- Take your feline friend in for a professional dental exam and cleaning at least once per year—even if you brush their teeth every day. It’s important to clean below the gumline, and only a veterinary dentist can do that.
- You can skip brushing the inside (tongue-side) of her teeth because most of the plaque builds up on the outside.
- To encourage your cat to open their mouth and let you touch their teeth, dip your finger in chicken broth, wet cat food or another enticing flavor.
- Check out the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website for information about the effectiveness of specific brands of cat (and dog) oral health products, including toothbrushes, toothpastes, chews, food and water additives.
Speaking of products besides a toothbrush and toothpaste, consider offering your cat some of these options. They’re not as effective as the mechanical action of a brush and paste, but they’re better than nothing, says Dr. Gaddis:
- Cat dental chews, like DentaLife Savory Salmon Flavor Dental Cat Treats, help to scrape off plaque from the surface of their teeth.
- Water additives, which simply mix with the water in your cat’s water bowl, contain enzymes that break down plaque. Some trusted options include Nylabone Advanced Oral Care Liquid, Oxyfresh Dog & Cat Oral Hygiene Solution and TropiClean Fresh Breath Water Additive.
- Food supplements and dental gels, like ProDen PlaqueOff Powder, contain special ingredients that are formulated to keep your cat’s mouth healthy between cleanings.
When it comes to brushing your cat’s teeth, make it a routine and stick to it. Your cat will reap the rewards of a healthy mouth, better overall health and a longer life with her most favorite human—you!
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