How to Keep Your Cats Teeth Clean: 6 Strategies for Success
Good oral health is vital for good body health. If you’ve ever wondered how to keep your cats teeth clean (and how to keep a cats teeth clean without brushing!) then I’ve got the answer for you. Using a few of the strategies I’ll discuss today will help keep gingivitis at bay, reduce tartar and ensure your cat’s mouth remains as clean and healthy as possible.
In #DrAlexAnswers, I answer any dog or cat health related questions you might have. If there is something you’re struggling with. If you’ve always wondered what the best way to keep your companion healthy is. If they are ill and you’re not quite clear about something just let me know. Make sure you include #DrAlexAnswers in your question too!
How do you keep your cats teeth healthy?
For my very first #DrAlexAnswers question, I had a message in reply to my newsletter from Bridgette who has been a great supported of Our Pets Health from near the very beginning and she asked:
“I would like you to cover how to keep your cats teeth healthy, I know you can brush them but that's not always easy, is there anything to help clean the teeth like a dog can have a raw bone which does a brilliant job but what can you give cats? Some medications can cause yellowing of the teeth, can this be put right?”
Brushing is best
Now that's a great question! And I'm a real big believer that healthy mouths, healthy teeth and gums is really important if we are going optimize the health of, not just our cats, but also our dogs. Brushing isn't easy, but I should say at this stage that brushing is absolutely the best thing that we can be doing. It is, though, the most labor-intensive and it is the hardest thing that we can do.
There are many strategies that we can use to start brushing our cat's teeth:
Start by introducing tooth brushing at a young age, as a kitten
Use pet specific, flavored toothpaste, like chicken, malt or even seafood!
Start using it as a treat, having our cat lick it off our finger.
Once they accept that, we can then use our finger, to gently manipulate their mouth, lift their lip and get them used to that sensation.
We can then wrap something like a little bit of gauze or flannel around our finger, put the toothpaste on that, and use that to rub their teeth.
And then finally, we can introduce a toothbrush (finger brushes are often best for cats).
But it does take a lot of time. It does take a lot of effort. Not all cats are going to accept that. And we really need to be doing it a minimum of three times a week, to give it the value that it needs, to happen. So if we are gonna be doing less than that, then we are probably not going to be getting the maximum benefit. Our cats also will be getting used to that as part of their daily routine, and it will become more and more of a battle.
Full disclosure, I don't brush my cat's teeth. I've got a lot on my plate and it's just something that I know that I wouldn't be able to do regularly, and so it's not something that's done with them. That's not to say I don't believe in it. Just realistically, I know it's hard work. And it's really not for every situation, and for every cat, either.
Some diets are better than others
Okay, so the next thing that we can use to keep our cat's teeth clean is specific dental diet. So, there are a number of diets out there that claim to be better for teeth. But there are a number that have actually been designed specifically, and proven, to help maintain good oral hygiene. Now, these diets (these are the varieties from Royal Canin and Hills), they have bigger sized kibbles, so that encourages our cats to chew them rather than swallowing them whole. These bigger sized biscuits, they encourage them to be chewed.
They've also got a very "sticky" and abrasive matrix. So that means that the tooth actually sinks into the biscuit, rather than the biscuit just shattering into lots of different pieces. So, the tooth sinks in and an abrasive kind of texture causes the tooth surface to be wiped clean, and for them to have the plaque and tartar removed. The food also stops calcium binding to the teeth, slowing down the formation of tartar in the first place.
Now, certainly in my experience with my patients who are on these diets, it does do a good job. It's not the be-all and end-all and it won't completely prevent cat's teeth developing plaque, tartar, and developing dental health issues. But it definitely does a very much better job than normal diets. That's certainly something to consider.
They are complete diets, meaning that they can be fed as the only thing that you feed your cat. But another way to use them would be to also use a handful every day as treats. So you obviously don't want to soak them or mix them in with the wet food because that's going to compromise their texture and their ability to clean your cats teeth. But we can maybe use them as a treat, or just use a handful at bedtime, or something like that.
Cat chews and toys
Okay. So, the third thing that we can do to keep a cats teeth clean is we can use dental chews or dental toys. This is something that can work very well in dogs. There are chews like Dentastix or VeggieDent. There's various different chews that are designed to be gnawed, and as they get gnawed, they scrape the teeth clean. There are also toys, and in cats' cases they can be filled either with food, or they sometimes have catnip in them, which encourages your cat to play with them and gnaw on them.
Now, if your cat is one who does spend time chewing on the dental treats, or they do spend time playing with the dental toys, then they can definitely help, and they can definitely just scrape those teeth a little bit clean.
In my experience, personally, I find that a lot of cats, they don't do that. So it might be something to try, especially if your cat does spend time chewing things. But very often I find that that's actually quite difficult to encourage cats to do. So, I'd love your thoughts. If your cat really goes to town on these and spend lots of time chewing, let me know what kind of toy or what kind of treat it is, in the comments down below. I'd really love to hear.
Gels and water additives
Okay, so the fourth thing that we can use to keep cats' teeth clean is, we can use oral gels or water additives. Now, these are things, in the case of oral gels, are something you dab into your cat's mouth, on their teeth or gums. Ideally, you'd rub it in but you don't have to. Just popping in and there is all that's needed. In the case of water additives you actually add the liquid to the water, and then when your cat has a drink it sloshes around their mouth. We tend to recommend something called Maxiguard Oral Gel. And that does seem to make a difference in just slowing down the formation of plaque into tartar. It reduces that tartar formation.
And so, what happens in normal dental disease is you get a film of plaque forming on the teeth. In a day or two that then, starts to develop into tartar. And that tartar is what you see when you see the kind of yellow brown deposits on the surface of your tooth. Once that's there, then that starts to cause problems with the gums. It starts to cause destruction of the bony socket. And that's when we get irreversible dental disease. So, if we are stopping the formation of tartar, then that's really going to help.
As for the water additives, again, cats can be quite fussy with what they drink. And I've actually got another video all about how to get your cat to drink more that discusses that very point. But I do find these water additives, they do add a little bit of a flavor, and so very often, I think our cats won't drink them. But again, it can be something for you to experiment with and see if it's appropriate for your cat.
These gels and water additives can work in a number of ways. They will either help clean their mouths, by reducing the bacterial load,. Or they will actually stop the chemical reaction of tartar formation.
So, these are certainly not the be-all and end-all. Ideally, they wouldn't be the only thing that they would use. The Maxiguard Oral Gel does seem to help. It does make a bit of a difference. I think it's important though not to overstate that. But despite this, these can be a very useful addition to any kind of dental hygiene dental home care strategy and if it’s the only thing your cat will accept they are better than doing nothing at all.
What about bones and dental health?
Okay, so in Bridget's question, she mentioned the fact that dogs will have bones and that will help clean their teeth. So what can we give cats? Well, I think giving dogs bones is maybe a topic for another day! We certainly see a lot of problems in the veterinary clinic with bone feeding. But that's not something I want to go into now.
We can give our cats bones. We can give them things like chicken wings, that kind of thing. So, small poultry, their bones aren't too dense. They're not too hard, and so our cats can crunch them up. And as well as the bone, the meat that surrounds them and the sinew may help clean their teeth. There is actually very little evidence that this raw approach is better for dental health.
Now, there are issues as well, with raw feeding as well as bone feeding. Many people will feed raw and they'll be very happy with it. And raw feeding is something that is a very touchy subject and again, not something I want to go into today. So, while it's not something that I would recommend, if you really want to feed something like that to your cat, then something like chicken wings would be the type of bone to consider. Bear in mind that it's not without risk and again, it's not something that I would personally recommend. It's certainly not something that I give to my own cats.
Regular checkups and dental procedures
Okay, with that out of the way, the final way to keep your cat's teeth clean is to have regular dental checkups, and oral checkups with your vet. So, we think of vaccination consultations as little more than giving vaccinations. Or we think of routine healthcare as giving worming and flea treatment and that kind of thing. But actually, a general check over of the whole body is very important. Checking over the mouth is one cornerstone of that clinical exam. What this allows us to do, it allows us to intervene at an early age, so when tartar is starting to form, or we're starting to get a little bit of gingivitis. We can then book a cat in for a full dental scale and polish, much like we would have at our dentist or hygienist.
So, unfortunately, we do need to anesthetize our patients for that. And that is a downside, and this does come with a cost. But ultimately, when a mouth is dirty, when the teeth are dirty, and there is some dental disease present, the best thing that we can do for our cat's teeth and for our cat's oral hygiene is to have a dental cleaning procedure, ideally before there's significant disease that will necessitate the removal of teeth.
Another thing to also mention is the fact that cats specifically, get a disease called oral resorptive lesions. And what this is, is that the tooth, for one reason or other that we don't fully understand (and it is something that we do see in our wild cat species as well), becomes damaged with the enamel on the outside becoming eroded and moth-eaten. And this process leaves the sensitive dentin and sensitive structures that are normally protected by that enamel exposed. This is really painful.
So, if you are able to closely examine your cat's mouth, what you'll see is little pockets and little erosions in that enamel surface. It will often be a little bit kind of pinky off white. And if you actually touch that, your cat will likely react quite badly because it really is painful. These feline oral resorptive lesions can develop in a clean mouth as well as a dirty mouth. They are another reason why regular health checks and regular oral dental checks at the vet is very important.
Does medication stain teeth?
Okay, and the last part of Bridget's question was about antibiotics and medication causing discoloration of the teeth. So, it's not really a problem that we see so much in our pets. Definitely Tetracyclines (Oxytetracycline and doxycycline) are antibiotics that if given to very young animals while their teeth are still developing will cause discolouration. So we often won't use those drugs in our young patients unless there is a real, kind of a real health risk to not giving them. But that yellowing is a permanent discoloration from within the tooth. It's not something that we can scrape clean, or we can change the color once that tooth's formed.
So, unfortunately, if the tooth is discolored because of some medication, then that's not something that's reversible. Equally, it's not something that's generally very severe or affects the function of that tooth (although in extreme cases the tooth can be damaged). So, it's often a cosmetic issue rather than anything more serious.
I hope that answers your question Bridgette, and if you’ve got a question about your dog or cat then just leave me a comment and I’ll try my best to give you my #DrAlexAnswers!
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