Most cats are meticulous groomers. However, one thing that is not included in their self-grooming routine is oral hygiene. That’s right, our kitties aren’t trying to impress anyone with their dazzling smiles, and, even if that mattered to them, nature didn’t give them the tools they need. That means that cleaning your cat’s teeth is up to you.
The first thing you may be asking yourself is, “Why should I clean my cat’s teeth?” Believe it or not, there are some very good reasons.
Why Clean Your Cat’s Teeth?
Cats in the wild don’t need to worry about dental hygiene because their diet does the job for them. The bones and skin that they chew on scrape the plaque off of their teeth before it has a chance to cause any problems. However, this is not the case for our kitties. Even though they are getting the nutrients they need from their kibble or canned cat food, these foods just don’t clean their teeth like a diet of raw mouse might, allowing plaque and tartar to build up.
Will a little tartar really hurt a cat? It can. Our kitties are at risk for many of the dental issues that we ourselves try to avoid (like gingivitis). And, like it can in humans, bacteria from periodontal disease can affect other organs in our cats and cause illness. Not to mention the discomfort they could experience from diseased gums or tooth decay.
The benefits of cleaning your cat’s teeth are clear. The next thing you may be wondering is, “Will I really be able to clean my cat’s teeth without requiring stitches?” You will, if you approach it the right way.
How to Clean Your Cat’s Teeth
Before beginning a tooth cleaning routine, it’s important to get the ok from your vet, since even kittens can have dental issues that need to be resolved before tooth brushing is advisable. Once the vet has given the OK, the only one left to worry about is your cat, who may be a little more difficult to convince!
No self-respecting cat is going to sit there with his mouth opened wide while you come at him with a toothbrush. The key to successfully cleaning your cat’s teeth is to break him in gradually. Wait until your kitty is in a calm, relaxed mood, and start by gently lifting his lips and massaging his teeth and gums for a few seconds with just your finger. Don’t try to give his whole mouth a rub down. You may only make contact with one or two teeth the first few times you try this. The important thing is to stop before he has a chance to become too annoyed. Follow this brief session with praise and a treat. As his tolerance for this experience increases, gradually increase the length of time that you spend.
After your cat has become used to having you touch his mouth, you can begin to introduce his toothbrush and toothpaste. Never use your own toothpaste to clean your cat’s teeth – it contains ingredients that would be harmful to your kitty if he swallowed it (which he is almost guaranteed to do). In addition, as much as minty fresh breath appeals to us cat parents, our feline friends prefer their own variety of kitty toothpaste, which is available in flavors such as poultry or beef.
To start with, you might want to just let your cat lick a small dab of the toothpaste off of your finger. If you have a finicky feline on your hands, you may have to try a few flavors before you find one that appeals.
Once you have found a toothpaste that works, all that’s left is finding the right toothbrush. Here again, it would be a mistake to use the same kind of brush that you use for yourself. The bristles would be too stiff and could damage your kitty’s delicate gums. Many cat parents find that using a finger brush meant for kitties is the easiest method. Others like to just use a small square of soft gauze.
Put a small dab of toothpaste on your cleaning tool of choice, and brush the teeth along the gum line. Work quickly, and stop before your cat shows signs of irritation. The more your cat enjoys this experience, the more likely he will be to allow you to continue brushing his teeth regularly in the future.
It may take weeks before your cat will tolerate having all of his teeth cleaned in one sitting, and sometimes, in spite of the best efforts of his parents, a cat just can’t get used to having his mouth handled. He may react by biting or scratching, or he may show other signs that the experience is just too stressful for him. The good news is that, even if this is the case with your kitty, you do not have to make the choice between sacrificing his teeth or your fingers. There are a few tooth cleaning options that don’t involve putting your fingers anywhere near his mouth. You may want to consider:
- Dental cat food and treats. Used regularly, these can help to scrub plaque off of your cat’s teeth and may reduce the risk of tartar buildup.
- Chew toys for cats. These are designed to scrape the plaque off of your cat’s teeth and are frequently filled with catnip to encourage chewing.
- Drinking water additives. These plaque removers are added directly to your kitty’s drinking water.
Whether you are able to brush your cat’s teeth or need to find other means to keep them as clean as possible, it is important to have his teeth checked yearly by his vet. This way, any potential problems can be discovered and treated early.
It may take some time and patience to find the routine of oral hygiene that works for your cat, but it’s worth the effort! If you stick with it, you will be giving him the best chance at continued oral health.