6 Ways to Keep Cats Teeth Clean (With & Without Brushing)
Welcome to our article on how to keep cats teeth clean and healthy. Topics covered include:
- Why it's important to keep your cat's teeth clean
- Why a veterinary visit is essential before starting home dental care
- How to choose teeth cleaning products that are scientifically proven to be effective
- Six ways to care for your cat's teeth and keep them clean
Why Keeping Your Cat's Teeth Clean Is Important
It's important to keep your cat's teeth clean to prevent periodontal disease. Home dental care should be considered for kittens, adults, and senior cats.
What Is Periodontal Disease?
Periodontal disease is the progressive inflammation and destruction of structures surrounding the teeth (peri- "around" and -dontal "tooth"), including the gums, ligaments, and bone.
What Causes Periodontal Disease?
The cause of periodontal disease is plaque, an invisible slime that forms on the surface of the tooth and is comprised of saliva, bacteria, and food substances.
When plaque extends into the gingival sulcus (a natural tiny space surrounding the tooth where it meets the gums), it triggers gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), causing them to appear red and swollen.
With good oral hygiene and daily brushing to remove plaque, gingivitis is reversible. However, if left untreated, it may progress to periodontitis.
If gingivitis worsens, as the gum tissues swell, they lose their ability to attach tightly to the tooth's surface, and the tiny gingival sulcus expands to form deeper pockets between the tooth and the gum.
Plaque can now enter these pockets and both the bacteria and resulting inflammation continue to damage and destroy the structures surrounding the tooth, including the gums, bone, and ligaments (attachments to the tooth), causing a receding gumline, bone loss, and loose, painful teeth.
What Are the Effects of Periodontal Disease?
- Continuous pain and discomfort (if you have ever had sore gums or toothache, you will understand)
- Bad breath (halitosis)
- Receding gum line (gingival recession)
- Loss of teeth
- Infection of the bone (osteomyelitis)
- Jaw fractures due to bone loss
- Connections between the oral and nasal cavities due to bone loss (oro-nasal fistulas)
- An increased risk of chronic kidney disease1 and widespread inflammation throughout the body2 (more studies are needed to understand how periodontal disease and the large amount of bacteria present in the mouth affects other organs in cats)
Vet Check Before Starting Home Oral Care
Home care should only be started in a mouth that is disease-free and pain-free. Home care helps prevent gingivitis and periodontitis and is not a treatment for established dental disease. Also, starting home care, such as teeth brushing or dental diets that promote chewing, will be uncomfortable in a mouth that already has established disease.
Before beginning your cat's dental home care, consult your veterinarian to check for signs of dental disease, such as significant inflammation, receding gums, tooth root exposure, tartar, broken teeth, and resorptive lesions (painful erosions on the tooth surface). If they currently have dental disease and a painful mouth, it will need to be treated first, otherwise, your cat will resent you manipulating their mouth, and dental home care will likely be distressing and unsuccessful.
General anesthesia is often required to diagnose and address dental disease so that each tooth can be inspected, radiographs can be taken to check for disease above and below the gum line, the teeth can be thoroughly cleaned above and below the gum line, and appropriate treatment can be performed, often involving extractions of diseased teeth. Once everything has healed, home care can commence with clean teeth, healthy gums, and a pain-free mouth.
Even with at-home dental care, once-a-year veterinary checkups are still advisable, sooner if you notice your cat has bad breath, pain when brushing, loose teeth, inflammation, gum recession, broken teeth, pink-red raised spots on the teeth (resorptive lesions), or growths or swelling in or around the mouth. Similar to how we brush our teeth twice a day and floss daily but still go to the dentist for a professional cleaning every 6 months, even with daily home care, your cat may still need professional dental treatments. However, the intervals between dental treatments will likely be significantly extended.
What Is a VOHC Accepted Product?
To keep your cat's teeth clean and healthy, products that have been accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) are recommended. For a product to receive the VOHC seal of acceptance, it must undergo rigorous testing and submit evidence to prove it is safe and effective at slowing plaque and/or tartar formation.
Unfortunately, many products on the market have no science to back the claims made by the manufacturer, so be wary if purchasing a product that doesn't have a VOHC seal of acceptance.
6 Ways to Keep Your Cat's Teeth Clean
1. Pet Toothbrushes for Optimal Dental Care
The gold standard to control plaque and prevent periodontal disease in cats is daily tooth brushing. The mechanical action of the bristles effectively removes plaque from the tooth surface and along the gum line (where the tooth and gum meet).
Since plaque forms again within 24 hours, once-a-day brushing is recommended for the best results. Every other day may still be helpful, but less than this will likely be of little benefit.
A small, soft-bristled, cat-sized toothbrush should be used, either one specifically made for cats or a baby toothbrush. A small amount of bleeding may be normal initially, but if you are concerned, contact your vet.
Toothpaste is optional since it is the brushing that removes the plaque. However, using flavored toothpaste that appeals to your cat may help improve acceptance. Press the toothpaste into the bristles to keep it on the brush and prevent it from being licked off immediately. Alternatively, the toothbrush can be moistened with water alone.
Since cats cannot rinse and spit, never use human toothpaste, which can be toxic when swallowed long-term.
2. Teeth Cleaning With Q-Tips (Cotton Swabs)
Although using a toothbrush is the gold standard for keeping teeth clean and removing plaque from the gingival sulcus, if it is too challenging, a Q-tip (or cotton swab) can be used instead.3 Its smaller size can make it more readily accepted by your cat, and easier to see where you are cleaning as well as reach the back teeth. The Q-tip is abrasive enough to remove plaque when rubbed on the tooth surface and along the gum line (where the teeth and gums meet).
Follow the above steps to slowly introduce teeth cleaning to your cat by first ensuring they are comfortable with their mouth, lips, teeth, and gums being touched before using a cotton swab. Some cats enjoy the cotton swab being rubbed on their muzzle and used as a chin scratcher before gently lifting their lips to clean their teeth.
It's not necessary to use toothpaste, although some cats like it if the cotton swab is dipped in tuna water. Afterward, they can drink the remaining tuna water as a treat. However, this is an optional step and a dry cotton swab can be used.
3. No Brush Dental Wipes to Maintain Oral Health
If your cat doesn't accept a toothbrush or Q-tip, they may be more amenable to a dental wipe, which can be wrapped around an index finger and rubbed along their teeth, including the gum line, to remove plaque. Like tooth brushing, dental wipes should be used daily.
Slowly introduce dental wipes to your cat, similar to the steps described above for how you would brush their teeth. First, get them used to having their muzzle gently rubbed, then their lips gently pulled apart to expose their teeth, then their teeth and gums rubbed with your finger, before finally introducing rubbing their teeth and gum line with a wipe.
4. Keeping Cat Teeth Healthy With Dental Diets
Not all dry food diets are beneficial for teeth. To help keep your cat's teeth clean, dental diets can be fed that are specifically formulated for plaque and tartar control. The kibbles tend to be large, textured, and contain a matrix of fibers that promote chewing and act like a toothbrush. Therefore, dental diets predominately help reduce plaque and tartar on the back teeth (premolars and molars), which are used for chewing, crushing, and grinding food.
We recommend using our cat food calculator to ensure your cat is fed the correct amount of dental diet.
5. Dental Treats to Support Tooth and Gum Health
Cat treats to support dental health will never be as effective as brushing the teeth but can be used alongside brushing or as a simple way to help promote oral health in a cat that won't tolerate any hands-on teeth cleaning.
6. Food and Water Additives for Cats
Supplements added to food and water can be a simple and alternative way to keep your cat's teeth healthy. PlaqueOff Powder for cats contains a natural seaweed that has been shown in clinical trials to reduce plaque and tartar, and improve bad breath. It can be sprinkled onto the food and most cats enjoy the taste. The results are usually seen in 3 to 8 weeks, with daily use.
HealthyMouth Water Additive for cats is a 100% natural formulation that has been clinically proven to help reduce plaque in cats. It can be added directly to their water each day or diluted and poured over their food.
Frequently Asked Questions
At What Age Should I Start Brushing My Kitten's Teeth?
Once you adopt your new kitten from around 8-12 weeks of age, it's a good idea to get them used to having their mouth, lips, teeth, and gums touched. Always be gentle and start with short sessions, gradually increasing the duration as they get more comfortable. You should get your kitten used to the following:
- Gently touching and rubbing their muzzle, lips, and around their mouth.
- Gently pulling their lips apart to expose their teeth.
- Gently retracting their cheeks to expose their back teeth.
- Rubbing your finger on their teeth and their gums.
The main goal is to make sure your kitten is at ease with their mouth and teeth being handled. You can use a soft toothbrush and very gently brush their teeth so they become accustomed to the sensation of a toothbrush. However, it's important to remember that they will be losing their baby teeth and growing their adult teeth, which can be uncomfortable and make brushing unpleasant.
Most cats are spayed or castrated at around 6 months, at which point they usually have all their adult teeth. While under general anesthesia, you can ask your vet to examine their mouth. If everything is healthy and there are no signs of dental issues or pain, you can initiate daily brushing as described above, which they should readily accept as you have been preparing them since a kitten.
How Do Cats Clean Their Teeth in the Wild?
In the wild, chewing on their prey's tough hides and the fibrous organs would help remove plaque and keep a cat's teeth clean. However, wild cats can still suffer from broken teeth and painful dental disease, especially below the gum line. They also have a much shorter lifespan than domestic cats (2-3 years rather than 15-18 years on average), so their teeth do not need to stay healthy for as long as our pets.
How to Clean a Cat's Teeth Without Brushing?
If your cat doesn't accept a toothbrush, you may find it easier to clean their teeth with a Q-tip (cotton swab) or dental wipe. Dental diets, dental treats, and food and water additives can also be used to support oral health. You should always opt for products accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council that have proven their efficacy, but be aware they may not be as effective as brushing the teeth.
Why Is My Cat's Dental Procedure for Cleaning and Extractions Expensive?
Much preparation and expertise goes into performing a dental procedure on a cat. As well as a veterinary surgeon performing the procedure, there will also be at least one veterinary nurse monitoring and assisting. Each tooth is individually examined and charted, full mouth radiographs are taken to check for disease above and below the gum line, and extractions can be complex.
A cat dental usually involves:
- An initial consultaion
- A full physical examination
- Pre-anesthetic bloodwork
- Intravenous catheter
- Intravenous fluid therapy
- Anesthetic drugs
- Local anesthetic blocks
- Sterile surgical tools
- Monitoring equipment
- Dental machine
- Full mouth X-rays
- Oral examination and charting
- Scale and polish
Can a Cat's Teeth Be Cleaned Without General Anesthesia?
While anesthesia-free dental cleanings are available for pets, they are generally not recommended. It is impossible to thoroughly examine every side of each tooth, check for disease below the gum line, take dental X-rays, efficiently clean each tooth above and below the gum line, and perform any treatment in an awake cat.
Restraining a cat to clean their teeth could also be highly distressing and painful. By the end of the procedure, their teeth may look white and clean, but there could still be significant, painful disease below the gum line. In addition, Simply removing tartar does not prevent periodontal disease since it is plaque that needs to be removed at and below the gum line.
Although anesthesia is not risk-free, with careful selection of drugs, close monitoring of vitals, fluid therapy, and heat support, the risks are very low in healthy animals. If your cat requires a dental, but you are worried, discuss the issue with your vet so they can explain if a dental would be beneficial and the protocols they have in place to minimize risks. Like all owners, I was concerned about my cat having general anesthesia, but she had developed bad breath, and after several extractions of diseased and painful teeth, she was a much, much happier cat. I also felt much happier knowing a healthy mouth is good for her long-term overall health.
For more information, read the American Dental Veterinary College's (AVDC) Positional Statement on anesthesia-free dental cleaning.
- Trevejo RT, Lefebvre SL, Yang M, Rhoads C, Goldstein G, Lund EM. Survival analysis to evaluate associations between periodontal disease and the risk of development of chronic azotemic kidney disease in cats evaluated at primary care veterinary hospitals. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2018 Mar 15;252(6):710-720.
- Cave NJ, Bridges JP, Thomas DG. Systemic effects of periodontal disease in cats. Vet Q. 2012;32(3-4):131-44. Epub 2012 Nov 29.
- Bellows, J. (2022) Feline dentistry. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.