If you have a cat, you likely pay a lot of attention to making sure you’re feeding them the right food, using the right litter, and offering them lots of perches and toys to keep them entertained. But if you’re not focusing just as much on your cat’s teeth, vets say that is a big mistake. “Your cat’s mouth is the gateway to their health and comfort,” says veterinarian Liz Bales, who tells us more than half of cats suffer from dental disease. Just like with humans, when plaque builds up on cats’ teeth, it hardens into tartar, which can lead to cavities, gingivitis (gum inflammation), tooth abscesses, and even kidney and heart infections, since bacteria can migrate to different organs from the blood vessels in the mouth.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to care for your cat’s teeth to avoid illness — and expensive vet bills — down the road. As with your own teeth, “regular, daily dental brushing remains the gold standard to help reduce the bacteria in your cat’s mouth,” says Jamie Richardson, veterinarian and chief of staff at Small Door Veterinary. Along with regular veterinary examinations, at-home care can make a big difference in your cat’s oral health. As you can imagine, brushing a squirming cat’s teeth isn’t exactly an easy task, so we consulted with three vets to learn more about the best products and techniques for keeping your cat’s mouth clean and healthy.
Note: When Strategist writer Liza Corsillo reported on the best products for keeping dogs’ teeth clean, she mentioned looking for products with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval, calling it “the dog and cat equivalent of the ADA seal of approval.” While there are fewer products for cats than dogs that have been accepted by the VOHC, we’ve noted here which products both fit our vets’ recommendations and are VOHC-approved.
Best toothbrushes for cats
The type of toothbrush you use will depend on what your cat will tolerate. “Whichever brush you choose, make sure it can reach back teeth,” says Jessica Herman, a veterinarian with Fuzzy: The Pet Parent Company. Richardson recommends baby toothbrushes (like the one above) “as these have short, easy to control handles and soft bristles that won’t damage the delicate gingiva.”
Herman says some cats may prefer finger brushes, little rubber caps with bristles that fit over your finger, giving you better control. As for how to actually brush your cats’ teeth, she advises starting early (when your cat is a kitten if possible) and introducing the process gradually. “Start by allowing the cat just to taste the toothpaste from your finger or a dish. Then let them lick it off the brush. If they will allow it, start brushing the outside of the cheeks and lips (without toothpaste) so they become used to the sensation and see the brush as something pleasurable,” she says. It may take days or weeks — or longer, especially for older cats — so remember to be patient and work at your cat’s pace.
There are also toothbrushes designed for pets, like this one that comes in a small size that’s good for cats. No matter which brush you end up using, vets say not to lose heart as you try to build up to daily brushing — and that any brushing is better than none. As Richardson says, “While it is ideal to open your cat’s mouth and get the entire surface of the tooth, if you can only get the outsides of the teeth, this is the most important area where tartar accumulates.” She says one technique to try is starting to brush while your cat is asleep and in a very relaxed state.
Best toothpaste for cats
Because cats swallow their toothpaste it’s especially important to choose a non-toxic formula that’s specifically formulated for cats. In flavors like chicken or fish, these are designed to be appetizing to cats and can help make brushing easier. “You may need to try a few varieties to see which your cat prefers,” says Herman, so don’t be discouraged if your cat doesn’t take to the first variety you try. Richardson recommends Virbac, which makes a few different flavors, including this “poultry” one.
Best dental care food and treats for cats
If brushing just isn’t happening with your cat, you can try introducing food that’s designed for dental health. Richardson explains that Hill’s t/d Dental Care dry food (which is also VOHC-approved) has a unique-shaped kibble design that can “help mechanically break down tartar to help clean the teeth.” It’s a prescription-only food, though, so you’ll need your vet’s authorization to buy it.
For food that doesn’t require a prescription, Hill’s Science Diet line makes a VOHC-approved dry food that works through a similar mechanism. As Bales explains, “A dental diet is made with larger kibble size, which requires chewing and has fibers that scrape the teeth when chewed.”
If you’re happy with your cat’s food but want to add a treat that has some dental benefits, these are VOHC-approved. Bales estimates dental foods and treats can improve cats’ oral health by up to 20 percent. Just make sure you’re not overfeeding treats. As Herman says, “Many of these products have high caloric density and can cause increased weight gain for our feline friends,” which can lead to additional health problems. Treats should come with instructions on the correct feeding amount depending on your cat’s weight, and you can always ask your vet to be sure.
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