Cats are meticulous self-groomers, cleaning every patch from whisker to tail, but their dental health requires a human hand. Yet cats don't appreciate curious fingers exploring their canines and gums. Getting them to open wide and say "Ahhh" takes not only practice and planning, but knowledge of what's happening in feline mouths. Like their human companions, cats can suffer from bad breath, gum disease, tartar and plaque buildup, and discolored or abscessed teeth. Cats can also benefit greatly from preventive oral hygiene to keep gums pink and teeth pearly.
5: Learn About Feline Dental Diseases
Dental conditions are among the most prevalent issues veterinarians find when treating cats. Gingivitis (gum inflammation) is the mildest form of periodontal (or gum) disease, and it's also the most common oral problem. Gingivitis begins when plaque, a sticky, bacterial film, mingles with saliva and food particles and stays on teeth. It can harden into tartar, a yellowish-brownish crust. If severe, tartar has to be removed by your vet through a scraping process called descaling.
The buildup of tartar collects along and under the gum line. If the tartar is left untreated, toxins released by bacteria irritate the gums and can cause the teeth to separate from the gums. Inflammation and infection can spread throughout the gums, ligaments and bones supporting the cat's teeth, resulting in tooth loss.
4: Check Your Cat's Mouth
Just as you brush and floss between trips to the dentist, your cat can avoid painful diseases with regular oral care. A daily -- or at least twice weekly -- cleaning at home will keep his teeth and gums sound. It will also make you familiar with any changes in your cat's mouth. Foul feline breath can be an early sign of dental distress. Excessive licking, drooling or difficulty chewing are other indicators of a cat's oral discomfort. If you see red or bleeding gums, lesions, or discolored teeth, make an immediate appointment for your vet to examine the cat's mouth.
3: Rinse and Spit?
Cats may not enjoy it, but most will tolerate teeth-cleaning once they get used to the habit. Collect the right supplies in advance to make the experience go more smoothly. You'll need either sterile gauze strips or a soft rubber toothbrush, designed specially for cats. These are sold by vets or pet supply stores, which also offer cat formula toothpaste, available in favorite feline flavors. Cats should never, under any circumstances, be given human toothpastes. These contain ingredients that can sicken cats, including a foaming agent, sodium laurel sulfate, which cats can't spit out.
Your vet may recommend a weak sterile solution as an alternative to the feline toothpaste.
2: Open Wide
Ready to brush? Using the toothbrush, or wrapping a strip of gauze around your index finger, dip it into the solution or feline toothpaste. With the cat on your lap, open its mouth and rub your finger or toothbrush in a circular motion on a tooth, concentrating on the area adjacent to the gums. The first time you brush your cat's teeth, do only one or two teeth, and then stop and praise your cat for its cooperation, offering a treat or favorite toy to reinforce a positive feeling.
As your cat grows more accustomed to the routine, you can gradually brush all teeth, massaging the gums at the same time. The back teeth present the greatest challenge, but with gentle persistence, your cat will adjust to the mouth invasion. If possible, begin examining your cat's mouth when it's a kitten.
1: Step Away From the Toothbrush
If your cat refuses to allow you to brush its teeth, becoming agitated, aggressive or fearful when you try, there are alternatives for oral care. Specially formulated treats with a slightly abrasive texture can help remove plaque, control tartar buildup and freshen the cat's breath. Some include cat-friendly ingredients such as Vitamin E, selenium, taurine and antiseptics that fight mouth bacteria. Dental sprays to spritz in the cat's mouth daily can control plaque and tartar.
Your vet may also recommend a dental formula food. These have larger-than-average "nuggets" designed to reduce plaque and tartar through chewing. A dental-care additive for your cat's drinking water, available from your vet, can also help dissolve plaque and discourage bacteria. Be sure the cat doesn't ignore his water bowl because it tastes something strange.
Always schedule an annual cleaning at the vet for your brush-resistant feline. Older cats may need more frequent cleanings.