Cat Dental Care – How to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth

Written by Small Door's medical experts

Regular brushing of your cat’s teeth is an important habit to incorporate into your daily care routine. At-home dental hygiene can help minimize the accumulation of plaque and tartar, which can also prevent your cat from developing systemic infections caused by the bacteria harbored in the mouth. While it may seem like a daunting task, read on to learn how to acclimate your cat to toothbrushing.

In this article: 

Do you have to brush your cat’s teeth? 

Yes. It’s prudent to brush your cat’s teeth at home to clear away bacteria that can lead to disease in your cat’s mouth and body. You’ll want to prevent the accumulation of plaque (sticky bacteria on the tooth) and tartar (yellow/brown deposits that form when plaque hardens).

Why should you brush your cat’s teeth?

Daily brushing at home can help reduce the number of bacteria in your cat’s mouth. This is important because if bacteria are not removed by the act of brushing them away, the bacteria will mineralize and harden into what is known as tartar. When tartar is covering a tooth, it causes erosion of the gums which then leads to infection, inflammation, tooth decay, and/or progressive bone loss. 

Also, oral bacteria can potentially enter your cat’s bloodstream and cause infection in other organs in the body, such as the heart, kidneys, or liver.  

When should you start brushing your cat’s teeth? 

As noted by a study in Veterinary Information Network (VIN), 85% of pets develop periodontal disease by the time they reach 3 years of age. Periodontal disease refers to problem areas, such as inflammation or infection around the gum, which can harm gum tissue and the bones of the teeth. Therefore, it is recommended to start brushing your cat’s teeth while they are kittens (as soon as 2 months of age). Touching your cat’s mouth and getting them used to being handled and brushed at a young age can set you up for success throughout your cat’s lifetime. 

What type of toothbrush and toothpaste should you use to brush your cat’s teeth?

Ask your veterinarian for recommendations of oral hygiene products that will most appropriately suit your cat’s needs. Additionally, a good resource to check out is the Veterinary Oral Health Council, which assesses veterinary dental products and approves the products that can provide plaque or tartar control. 

Can you use human toothpaste in cats? 

No, you cannot use human toothpaste in cats, as these contain ingredients that are toxic to cats. You should always use a pet-specific toothpaste. The veterinary dental healthcare brand Virbac makes several different flavors to suit your cat’s preferences, such as seafood and chicken. Also, never use any products containing xylitol or fluoride, as these are toxic to cats. 

Can you use baking soda to clean your cat’s teeth? 

No, baking soda cannot be used to brush your cat’s teeth, as the ingestion of this substance can be toxic. Only use a veterinary pet-specific toothpaste when brushing your cat’s teeth because other substances can be toxic to your cat. 

How to prepare your cat to accept tooth brushing

  • Introduce a small, pea-sized amount of toothpaste on your finger for your cat to sniff and lick. If they are not immediately interested in the toothpaste, you can dab a small amount onto their nose to encourage licking.

  • Try lifting your cat’s lip, looking at their teeth. This can help you become more familiar with your cat’s oral health, while also allowing your cat to get accustomed to having you touch their mouth. 

How to brush your cat’s teeth

  • When you first start brushing, you can try using a small square of gauze or a small piece of paper towel wrapped around your finger as the “brush.” Using this material, gently rub the outside of your cat’s teeth (this is where most of the tartar tends to form).

  • Once your cat has become acclimated to toothpaste and having you touch their face and mouth, you can try transitioning from using cloth material to a pet-specific toothbrush, fingerbrush, or human baby toothbrush (these work well because they have a short, easy-to-control handle and soft bristles). 

  • Start by using slow, gentle strokes, focusing on the outside of your cat’s teeth. Never force your cat’s mouth open. Do not press hard – it is not the force but the friction that will help clean away the bacteria. Applying gentle pressure will also ensure you will not damage the delicate gingiva, or gum tissue. 

  • If your cat exhibits any signs of anxiety, stop cleaning and allow them to have a break. It is OK if you are only able to brush a few teeth in the beginning – the process of getting a cat used to brushing can be a marathon, not a sprint. 

  • Offer a treat to your cat once brushing is finished as a reward to reinforce good behavior and their tolerance of the brushing.

How often should you brush your cat’s teeth? 

If possible, brushing your cat’s teeth daily will provide the most optimal dental hygiene results. If they are not amenable to this, a goal of brushing three times weekly can still be beneficial. It takes plaque three days of sitting on the tooth surface before it will turn into a hard material called calculus, which cannot be removed by a toothbrush, as the Merck Veterinary Manual states. Calculus requires professional cleaning for removal. 

How much time should you spend brushing your cat’s teeth? 

A few minutes each day is suitable for daily brushing of your cat’s teeth. 

Supplementary home care dental techniques for cats

Your veterinarian may also recommend supplementary home care options, depending on your cat’s health and willingness to allow for toothbrushing at home. 

Do dental diets for cats work? 

Dental diets may be used as a supplement to a home dental hygiene program, but it will not prevent dental disease when used alone. However, when home brushing is not an option for a cat, dental diets (such as Hill’s t/d) can be helpful. Dental diets work by utilizing a unique dry kibble size, shape, and texture, which mechanically break down tartar on the teeth. In addition, feline Greenies, a crunchy chew helpful for removing plaque, has been approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council.

Do dental treats for cats work? 

According to VIN, chewing properly on an effective dental treat can help to reduce plaque by up to 69%. Dental chews should be used daily for optimal effects, but note that they are not a substitute for tooth brushing. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend dental treats that are most suitable for your cat. 

Do dental rinses and water additives work? 

Oral rinses and water additives can help cats with tender or sensitive gums who do not tolerate brushing at home. However, these products are not able to mechanically break up tartar and plaque, and they will not be able to remove food particles from in between the teeth. Check with your veterinarian before using a rinse or additive to make sure it is nontoxic and safe for your cat, as some ingredients such as xylitol and fluoride may be harmful to cats. 

Do cats need veterinary dental cleanings if you clean their teeth at home? 

Yes, even with brushing at home, cats still need a professional dental cleaning, ideally every 6 to 12 months. Like humans, while daily brushing can be helpful in preventing dental disease, a regular thorough cleaning at the dentist keeps teeth and gums healthy. 

Summary of how to brush your cat’s teeth 

Creating a daily habit of brushing your cat’s teeth can take time and perseverance, as it can be a slow process for some cats to become acclimated to the process. Be patient and try following the steps outlined above. Once established, a daily home dental hygiene routine will help minimize the progression of dental disease and keep your cat happy and healthy.

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