Cat teeth

It took a while, but we veterinarians have finally made some progress when it comes to helping people understand — and do something about — the importance of oral health for their dogs. The message is coming through loud and clear: Doggy-breath isn’t normal, and rotting teeth and gums are painful and life-shortening.

Getting Pets to Brush

After not much more than a single generation — of dogs, not people — we veterinarians now see dog owners who are happy to ask for more information on brushing, and who understand the importance of regular dental checkups and cleanings under anesthesia. To go from a universal response of “You’re kidding? You want me to brush my dog’s teeth?!” to questions about how to properly handle this chore (or at least an admission of feeling guilty about not doing it) is a real leap forward in wellness care, and our dogs are better for it.

But what about cats? I’ve seen the look of disbelief on cat owners’ faces at the recommendation that cats should have their teeth brushed too. This is a harder sell, not because people care less about their cats, but because they can’t imagine getting their cats to cooperate with hands-on dental care.

Yes, there are people who brush their cat’s teeth, and yes, it’s much easier to start with a kitten. But with patience, treats and praise, many adult cats can learn to tolerate — and even enjoy — the process that surrounds a gentle attention to teeth and gums. Besides: Pet-friendly toothpaste is yummy!

Good, Better, Best

It may be possible, but I know realistically that for many cat owners, brushing their pets’ teeth isn’t going to happen. Fortunately, I am a firm believer that something is better than nothing — what I call the “good, better, best” approach to dental care for cats.

  • Good: Rinses. Your veterinarian can recommend products that are added to drinking water to help reduce the formation of plaque. These have a two-fold advantage, since they’re also tasty enough to some cats to encourage more drinking: Many cats have a problem staying hydrated, and anything to get them to drink more will help. Other rinses spray directly into the mouth, which may be better tolerated than brushing.
  • Better: Edible toothbrushes. Talk to your veterinarian and take a look around. You’ll see a wide selection of foods and treats that combine good nutrition and great taste with an abrasive action designed to scrape teeth clean as your cat chews. In more severe cases, your veterinarian may suggest a therapeutic diet with proven ability to keep your cat’s teeth cleaner.
  • Best: Brushing with a pet-safe enzymatic toothpaste. Still the best, and even if you can manage it only a couple of times a week, your cat will be better off for your efforts. You can’t use human toothpaste, but pet toothpaste fortunately comes in several flavors, so your cat can pick his favorite. You don’t even need to use a toothbrush if your cat finds that intimidating; a finger brush or even some gauze wrapped around your finger will be fine.

The bottom line is this: Don’t give up. Talk to your veterinarian about all the options for your cat, starting with a complete dental examination and probably a cleaning under anesthesia to get you off to a good start. And then do what you can, because anything you can do is better than the misery of stomatitis and other dental problems for your cat.