Cat Teeth Cleaning: Diet & Oral Health

On average, human beings brush their teeth twice a day. The reasons we do so are obvious. We know plaque builds up on our teeth, and we know tartar does the same. If left unchecked, both of those build ups will lead to tooth decay. That means, eventually, rotten and broken teeth. Nobody wants to walk around with dentures before their time! There’s also the smell to consider. Who wants to get too close to someone who has bad breath? Now consider everything we just said and think about your cat. Your cat eats foods which have largely similar contents to the foods you eat. Their teeth are prone to the exact same risks. Ever seen your furry friend brushing their teeth? Of course not, they don’t have opposable thumbs! And so today we’re going to be talking about cat teeth cleaning, and how it’s connected to your cat’s diet and oral health.

cat teeth cleaning

We dare you to poke your finger in there. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

There are more than just the hygienic benefits to think about when it comes to cat teeth cleaning. Your cat’s teeth are an important part of its identity. No matter how much of a lap cat your pet might be, it still thinks of itself as a hunter. Even a house cat likes to tell itself it could still stalk, kill and eat its own meals if it really wanted to. Cats rely on their teeth even more so than humans do; as well as breaking down food, they’re also used for picking items up and carrying them. In addition, the ability to bite is essential to your cat’s attack and defence instincts. A cat without teeth will feel anxious and vulnerable. We owe it to them to help them keep their teeth as long as possible. So let’s get into the detail!

The Role Of Diet In Cat Teeth Cleaning

The choice of diet affects the oral health of the domestic cat. That’s not just a statement of fact, it’s the title of an entire scientific study, which we’ve read and taken into account when putting this article together. A further study conducted as recently as 2014 found that dental health issues identified in cats today are largely the same as those identified in cat skulls of 50 years old or more, suggesting that feline oral health issues aren’t a recent problem. Cats seem to be prone to oral and dental health issues, and the authors of that more recent report believe they probably owe that trait to their origin as a desert species. Despite popular belief to the contrary, the breed of a cat does not play any role in its potential to develop dental problems. Although breed specific cat foods are available, they focus on other genetic or practical traits within breeds, and not on oral health alone.

When planning meals for your cat, you should always take into account the ingredients of the food you buy, and how they relate to cat teeth cleaning processes. The following ingredients are all highly desirable:-

  • Ascorbic acid. You’ll know this better as Vitamin C. Vitamin C can work both as a preventative and a cure when it comes to oral health issues; it works as a mild antiseptic. It’s been proven to both reduce inflammation and heal sores within the mouth.
  • Zinc. Zinc is actually a wonder-food. It’s been known to reduce bad breath issues in cats, as well as having antibacterial properties. It can come in various different forms as part of cat food, including zinc salts and zinc oxide.
  • Polyphosphates. There’s a common belief that dry cat food is better for feline oral health than wet cat food, and that’s partially true. We’ll get into that in a little more detail below. The effect is mostly down to the fact that some dry foods are coated in polyphosphates. They’re compounds that bind to minerals – especially calcium – which would otherwise turn into plaque. As such, they reduce and also prevent the formation of plaque on a cat’s teeth. As cat teeth cleaning goes, that’s a pretty effective way of going about it without a brush.

I’ve Heard That Dry Food Cleans Cat Teeth – Is It True?

cat teeth cleaning

Cats are clean animals, and will even wash their own mouths out, but they can’t do it all themselves. Image courtesy of Pixabay

Yes and no. There are definitely individual merits to wet cat food and dry cat food, and we’ve explored them both at length on those links. Statistically speaking, cats on a predominantly higher dry cat food based diet have better oral health than those who are fed predominantly wet cat food. The belief, for a long time, was that because dry cat food (or kibble) is larger, harder, and involves more biting and chewing to break up, it naturally cleans the teeth of a cat as they work to eat it.

We now understand that it’s the coating of dry cat food – specifically the polyphosphates, as we discussed above – that’s doing the real work. The chemical compound binds the elements that would otherwise cause plaque, and allows them to be digested. So dry food is better for cat teeth cleaning, but not purely because it’s dry food. In fact, some dry foods don’t contain polyphosphates at all. That’s why it’s important that always check the label.

So How Do I Know What Will Help My Cat, And What Won’t?

Although the label should clearly state what is and isn’t in the food, we appreciate it isn’t always practical to stop and check the small print every time you make a purchase. There are also a great many foods on the market that claim to have all manner of health benefits for cats. Not all of them do. Fortunately, an independent body exists who adjudicate what actually has a dental health benefit for felines, and what doesn’t. The work of the Veterinary Oral Health Council is held in high regard by those who perform studies, and their label will appear on the packaging of food items which they deem to be beneficial to a cat’s oral health. If in doubt, look for the label before making any purchases.

How To Spot Oral Health Problems In Cats

Your cat can’t physically tell you when something’s wrong, so it’s important that you know and understand the key indicators of feline dental health issues. The quicker you can identify them, the sooner the problem can be solved. A mild issue will soon develop into a major one if left unattended. If you’re attentive enough, you can deal with the problem at home with some basic cat teeth cleaning instead of paying for a vet visit. Here’s what to look out for.

Pawing or clawing at the mouth. This likely indicates a pain issue within the mouth, which your cat is unable to solve alone.

Excessive dribbling or drooling. Some cats dribble quite a lot when they purr. If this is your cat, don’t worry! Excessive drooling is only a concern if it occurs regularly, regardless of your cat’s mood. It can indicate that they’re struggling to swallow, or keep their mouth closed. It may also indicate that your cat is producing excess saliva in an attempt to deal with an infection.

Changes to the gums. Your cat’s gums are surprisingly communicative about illnesses. Dark red lines, or actual bleeding, are obvious signs of trouble. The gums changing colour – especially if they turn blue – are also signs of serious health problems. Inflammation or ulceration on the gums is a definite indicator of poor oral health, and again should merit a visit to the vet. In short, check your cat’s gums regularly. Be familiar with what they look like when they’re healthy. That way, you’ll quickly notice any changes.

Bad breath. Now, we know your cat’s breath probably doesn’t smell wonderful at the best of times. In fact, people have developed fresh breath tablets for cats for that exact reason. But just like with their gums, you should know what your cat’s breath normally smells like. If it changes – and especially if it smells noticeably worse – that can be a sign that there’s a dental or oral health issue lurking. It at least merits you giving them a good gum inspection to make sure. And it never hurts to have a home cat teeth cleaning session, which we’ll get to in a moment.

Difficulty eating, or refusing food. This is so obvious that it almost goes without saying. However when a cat refuses its food, owners often think more along the lines of a stomach upset, or a virus, than they do of poor oral health. Your cat could very well be refusing its food because it’s suffering pain when chewing.

Cat Teeth Cleaning: How To Do It

People can be a little apprehensive about cleaning their own cat’s teeth. That’s understandable. Putting your fingers anywhere near your cat’s mouth, uninvited, is an easy way to get bitten! But it can be done, and it’s usually just a matter of training them to accept it. All but the most belligerent of cats should be happy to let you clean their teeth for them with a little effort.

cat teeth cleaning

Almost all cats will tolerate having their teeth cleaned by you. Note that ‘tolerate’ doesn’t mean ‘like’! Image courtesy of Flickr

For those that simply won’t allow it, all is not lost. There are alternative feline oral health products on the market, and they’re intended to assist with cat teeth cleaning as best they can without any actual brushing. They include liquid oral care solutions, plaque removal powder, fresh breath tablets and more. See our essential cat health aids page for more information.

Before you start, you’ll need a special cat toothbrush, and a special cat toothpaste. Do not use human toothpaste or toothbrushes on your cat. The brush will be too harsh, and the toothpaste isn’t made from ingredients that are friendly to cats. Once you’ve got them, try proceeding as per below:-

  1. Get your cat used to having its face massaged. When we’re stroking our cats, we usually focus on their backs, under their chins, or behind their ears. Some of them may even let us tickle their bellies without clawing all the skin off our hands, if we’re lucky. But we don’t often pay much attention to their face. Start including the area around the mouth, and the jaw, as part of a good stroking and grooming session. A few minutes each day for two or three days should do the trick.
  2. Progress to massaging the teeth and gums. Although it might feel like a big step to you, it’s probably not as big a deal to your cat. A cat who’ll let you massage the outside of their mouth will probably let you do the inside, too. Start off with your finger, a cotton bud, or a soft cloth. Don’t introduce any brushes, pastes or gels just yet. Just get the cat used to the feeling of you probing the inside of their mouth. Again, repeat this for a few minutes per day, across two or three days.
  3. Let your cat smell and taste the paste or gel first! Cats primarily explore things with their nose. You’ll always see them sniff new foods before they try eating them. Cat toothpaste will smell unusual to them if they haven’t come across it before. They’re unlikely to accept you trying to stick it straight into their mouths. Let your cat sniff both the brush, and the paste or gel, separately. You’ll know when they’ve decided they’re comfortable with it – they’ll get bored and wander off!
  4. Put some of the paste or gel onto your finger, and let them lick it off. The manufacturers of cat toothpaste are wise souls. They know what does and doesn’t appeal to a cat. Cat toothpastes are designed to be delicious to cats. Once they’ve had a taste of it on their own terms, they should be more open to it being put into their mouth on a brush.
  5. Start brushing every day. You’re now ready to commence cat teeth cleaning! Put your toothpaste on the brush, and give it a try. If your cat refuses it, go back a step or two and try again. Do not rush your cat – it stresses them out, and negative experiences will make your job harder. Giving them a sniff of the toothbrush before it goes in their mouth doesn’t hurt. Once they accept having their teeth brushed, try to do it once a day, at roughly the same time. Cats are creatures of routine; if having their teeth cleaned becomes part of their normal life, they’ll be less and less resistant to it as time goes on. If you’re lucky they might even start hopping up on your knee and expecting it!
  6. Always give treats. Cats are best trained or persuaded into doing things by positive experience. Treats always work. A cat will tolerate a lot of things if it knows it’s going to get a treat at the end of it. It may be bribery, but bribery wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t successful!

And there you have it. Hopefully, you now know how diet connects to oral health in cats. You should know what to look out for on the ingredients list. You should know what the potential signs of oral health problems are. With a bit of luck, you even feel confident enough to start a cat teeth cleaning regimen yourself!

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Hi! My name is Jamie Fallon. I run Catmart.net, an online cat health and cat behavior resource. If I’m not sat in front of my PC—and I usually am—then I’m either spending time with my cats or my other half… Whoever jumps on me or asks me for food first!