“I’m so happy to see how well Cali is doing,” I told Mrs. vonDohlen at her kitten’s 12-week health check, “but how is the tooth brushing coming at home?”
This is a standard question in my hospital with every patient that comes through the door. Much like people, animals really do need dental care. Although often overlooked, dental disease contributes to significant disease and pain in our family pets. Did you know that by the age of only 3 years, more than half of cats are already showing signs of tooth resorption (also called cavities, root resorptions, neck lesions and cervical line lesions)? Affected teeth will slowly (and painfully) erode — and the teeth absorb into the body, disappearing entirely!
The Serious Problem Of Dental Disease In Cats
Many veterinarians believe that infection and disease in the mouth contributes to health problems elsewhere in the body. How does this happen? The culprit is periodontal disease, which starts as an invisible protein layer on the surface of the tooth. Bacteria attach to this layer on the tooth, called plaque. Over time, this layer thickens as bacteria die and more bacteria are added, and this becomes calculus. At this stage, the gum tissue becomes involved, because the bacteria produce toxins that injure the tissue. With time, periodontal disease progresses and begins to affect the bone surrounding the tooth, making it loose and painful. This advanced infection allows the release of debris, bacteria and toxins into the bloodstream, with the potential of affecting the liver, heart, lungs and kidneys. Clearly this is a bad thing!
Teeth Brushing Is Key To Preventing Dental Disease
So, what can we do to prevent this from happening?
Despite all of the marketing about special treats, toys and foods, the best bet is still old-fashioned tooth brushing. In most instances, this isn’t as difficult as it sounds — and we will walk you through it!
1. Start Small
First off, get your kitten very used to having you pet, scratch and handle her head and face. Most cats like that, right? Well, that is the cornerstone to brushing teeth! If your kitten is an ace at allowing her cheeks to be scratched, you’ll be golden in brushing those teeth — they sit right under the cheek!
2. Know That It’s Not All Or Nothing
Next, realize that you don’t have to brush ALL of the surfaces of the teeth, nor do you have to floss. Cats tend to accumulate plaque on the outer side (touching the cheek) of the upper back teeth. If you are able to brush from the canine teeth (the big fang teeth in the front) to the back, on the cheek side only of the top teeth, you have completed the majority of the battle. Now, it is nice to be able to brush the bottom teeth as well as the teeny incisors (between the fang teeth), but that can be a long-term goal. Start small, and aim for the most important teeth — top teeth, fangs to the back. Doesn’t that already seem more reasonable?
3. Set Up Your Supplies
Once you have your plan, it is time to gather your supplies. Here, you can be as fancy or as simple as you want. There are a couple of “don’ts” in this list. Don’t use human toothpaste in any form. Just as you wouldn’t like to brush your teeth with tuna-favored paste, cats are not fans of spearmint. On top of that, the fluoride in toothpaste is a toxin if swallowed, which is why we rinse and spit. No matter how hard you try, I don’t think you’ll convince your kitten to do that — so the better idea is to use a toothpaste designed for pets.
4. Choose The Brush
Next, choose your brushing implement. There are many, many choices on the market. In general, most people find that a small-sized, soft-bristled veterinary (or child’s) toothbrush works well, but there are also fingerbrushes on the market that can be quite effective. Other people prefer dental wipes, or small pieces of gauze wrapped over their fingers. Remember, the idea is to get in the mouth on a regular basis and remove the soft plaque and bacteria as they accumulate, not to get in there and scrape away hunks of tartar. It has to be easy enough and manageable enough for you to use regularly — and scaled in size to your pet. The brush for a Great Dane is not going to be the same one you use for a kitten. Personally, in a kitten, I prefer a dental wipe or small fingerbrush — my hands are small and I can manipulate these easily. But what you use needs to work for you and your cat! The goal here is the gentle wiping action, performed regularly. The bristles on a true brush are an added benefit, but are not absolutely necessary.
5. Acclimate Your Kitten To Brushing
So how do you teach your kitten to be OK with brushing? Slow and steady wins the race. Do not force your kitten into brushing, or do anything to make it a less-than-pleasurable experience. The goal is to do this regularly for the next 20 years — and if your cat runs the other way every time you get the supplies out, how well do you really think that is going to pan out?
I usually try to convince my kittens to cooperate with a daily “love session.” This means after we’ve had playtime, wrestle time, run-and-chase time and climb the curtain time — we settle down and snuggle for a while. Initially, I start with just lap sitting and friendly scratches, particularly around the head and neck. We keep these sessions short and comfortable — if the kitten wants to leave at any time, that is fine by me. Most kittens find this very enjoyable, and many fall asleep right on my lap — which is fine, too.
Once a kitten is comfortable with cheek petting, I change things up by starting to scratch her cheeks, and then slowly roll my finger under her lip and against the outside portion of her teeth — all while continuing the gentle motion and emphasizing the stroke away from the gumline. Once you can do this, you’ve made it. You are brushing her teeth!
I continue this on a daily basis, until it, too, is something the kitten accepts just as readily as cheek scratches. At that point, adding the wipe, brush or fingerbrush starts to bring the whole picture together. Even “dry brushing” (without the paste) will markedly reduce plaque accumulation — which is the goal. This is when you can add in a pet toothpaste. Products with chicken, tuna and malt flavors are readily available and sometimes popular with pets.
If you see blood when you brush your kitten’s teeth, it may be time for a trip to the veterinarian. The cause might just be that you are brushing a little too vigorously, but like us – “pink in the sink” may mean gingivitis — something you want to catch sooner, rather than later.
Getting Into A Routine For Cat Dental Health
How often do you need to repeat this routine? Well, the best-case scenario is daily — if you can. However, even if you are able to brush three times a week, you are likely going to be able to help maintain healthy teeth. This is the exact process you can use throughout the life of your cat! And, it doesn’t have to take long — a few minutes, at most, could contribute to a lifetime of pain-free oral health for your new companion.
So what if Fluffy turns out to have some Cujo genes in her and tooth brushing isn’t going to happen? Plan B would be to coordinate with your veterinarian. Using dental health treats, toys, and additives may help slow the inevitable progression of dental disease. The Veterinary Oral Health Council gives seals to products it approves.
Your veterinarian should assess your pet’s teeth with every visit, and keep you updated about the development of any tooth-related concerns. As important as it is, regular tooth brushing is not a substitute for professional dental care, which will be needed throughout the life of your cat. Think about us — we brush daily and go to the dentist twice a year for cleanings. Although most cats won’t need a cleaning twice a year, the time will come when they do need some “routine preventive maintenance.” Don’t wait until your cat has advanced periodontal disease to address it!
So, to wrap up our story, Mrs. vonDohlen was already able to massage the teeth and gums during her daily snuggle session with Cali, and was getting ready to start using her fingerbrush. In fact, Cali liked it so much she was starting to demand lap time! How wonderful when the patient is not only cooperating — but asking for — something that will lead to many years of a pain-free, healthy mouth!