The Importance of Tooth Care

Serious health problems - such as heart, lung and kidney disease - can stem from dental neglect. Heres some expert advice.

A new passion for dental care is growing among veterinarians, and their mantra is brush, brush, brush, notes Jennifer E. Rawlinson, DVM, a lecturer in veterinary dentistry at Cornell Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine.

Thanks in part to new advances and concepts adapted from human dentistry and modified for animals, veterinary dental care no longer ranks as one of the most commonly ignored areas of pet health care. To encourage optimal dental health, the American Animal Hospital Association recently published the AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats. The guidelines are designed to help veterinary teams provide comprehensive dental care for animals – everything from pre-anesthetic exams to anesthesia monitoring and dental X-rays, scaling/polishing, fluoride treatment and barrier sealants – and to educate pet owners about the importance of home dental care.

The bottom line is that veterinarians cant provide excellent dental care without your help. If you arent already paying attention to your cats mouth on a regular basis, its time to start. Your cats general health and comfort depend on it, Dr. Rawlinson says. Oral pain can bring people to their knees, but animals suffer silently.

While we would not wish pain on our cats – or other serious health problems that may stem from dental neglect, such as heart, lung and kidney disease – about two-thirds of us currently overlook the daily dental care recommended by veterinarians, according to a recent AAHA study. The result is that 70 percent of cats show signs of periodontal disease – a progressive infection of tissue surrounding the teeth – by the ripe age of three years, the American Veterinary Dental Society reports.


The further you go between brushings, the less effect you have, Dr. Rawlinson says. Plaque, a bacterial film that leads to the formation of a hard substance called tartar, can begin to form on teeth after three days. If you brush your cats teeth only once a week, you are not effectively maintaining your pets dental health, she adds.

Before you reach for a toothbrush, however, a professional veterinary dental exam and, if needed, a dental cleaning under general anesthesia are in order. Your cat should receive a dental check-up every six months or at least annually. A cat with gum disease, resorptive lesions (pit-like lesions in the crown and/or root of the tooth) or tooth fractures will find brushing painful; you dont want your cat to associate brushing with pain.

When you get the healthy green light, let the brushing begin. If youre a novice, ask your veterinarian to demonstrate the procedure. Here are some expert tips to help you get started. (An online video demonstrating how to brush your cats teeth is viewable on the Cornell Feline Health Center website at

Slow and Easy Does It
You can teach cats to tolerate tooth brushing, says ELise Christensen, DVM, a resident at the Animal Behavior Clinic at Cornell Universitys College of Veterinary Medicine. Start by showing your cat that placing your fingers by its mouth means good things are coming. Do this by touching the lips and giving small treats. Repeat this step until your cat appears comfortable and happy. Then lift the lip, touch the gums and reward your pet with praise or a treat. Repeat again until your cat relaxes, she advises.

(Caution: Generally, minimal restraint is advised. If your cat reacts aggressively, stop immediately and consult your veterinarian. Dont proceed to the next step until your cat is comfortable with having his mouth handled.)

Gradually progress to rubbing teeth with a piece of gauze or a cotton swab dipped in tuna juice. Do this at a time when your cat is relaxed. Reward good behavior frequently. Typically, I suggest using tuna juice in a syringe as a reward because the cat doesnt have to stop to chew, Dr. Christensen says. This can cause a person to lose time, and you dont have a lot of time to lose with cats.

When you are ready to brush, soft bristles are the key, whether you choose an angled brush specifically designed for feline use or a very soft-bristled pediatric toothbrush. I dont recommend finger brushes, which are not effective for a cats small mouth, Dr. Rawlinson says. Always use toothpaste made for pets (human toothpaste will upset a cats stomach and ingested fluoride can be toxic), and remember to rinse the brush after each use, she adds.

The jaw can be held nearly closed as you begin brushing, she advises. Hold the bristles at roughly a 45-degree angle to the outer surface of the teeth and gum line. Do not brush above the gum line, as this can cause discomfort. Gently brush the area in a circular motion. Pay special attention to the lateral surfaces of your cats upper back teeth, as these premolars and molars accumulate plaque and tartar more quickly, she adds.

Frequent brushing sessions of less than one minute are best, Dr. Christensen emphasizes. Stop any session before your cat becomes bored or frustrated. Finally, alternate the process with petting or other rewarding activities.

Before bedtime is a good time to brush, Dr. Rawlinson suggests. This allows the oral cavity to be free of food debris for an extended period of time, which reduces the amount of plaque build-up through the night. You may find that your furry friends breath is a bit less toxic in the morning as a result, she says.

Ive Made It Perfectly Clear – No Brushing!
While veterinarians agree that brushing is best, they know that brushing is not an option for many cats and their owners. Luckily, a variety of products are available to help protect teeth without picking up a toothbrush. It is all about the mechanical or physical removal of plaque through chewing, Dr. Rawlinson says. Soft food is the number one villain when it comes to teeth.

Plaque can be mechanically removed through special dry dental diet foods that may also contain an enzymatic coating for dental defense. In addition, cats that are given a daily oral hygiene chew (available through your veterinarian and pet supply stores) after their evening meal have been shown to have significantly decreased plaque and tartar compared to cats on similar diets that do not receive the chew, Dr. Rawlinson explains. Consult your veterinarian for help in choosing the best diet for your cat.

What Products Do I Need?
Along with a new passion for brushing, youll find a plethora of dental products for pets on the market. This includes everything from state-of-the-art rinses, gels and sprays to dental wipes, sponges and pads. Pet toothpastes, for example, come in several flavors designed to appeal to animals. Poultry-flavored enzymatic toothpaste generally gets a paws-up among cats, Dr. Rawlinson says.

A basic pet dental kit that provides complete instructions for use is a good place to begin. Your veterinarian can help you select the most useful products for your cat, depending on your cats cooperation and oral condition. Ask your practitioner about the active ingredients in pet dental products, such as chlorhexidine, which safely kills bacteria and helps prevent plaque from adhering to teeth.

If youre willing to do a little searching on your own, the Veterinary Oral Health Council, run by the American Veterinary Dental College, also offers some helpful guidelines. The VOHC recognizes products that meet pre-set standards of plaque and calculus (tartar) retardation in cats and dogs. Look for the VOHC seal on feline diet products and chews, or visit for a list of products awarded the VOHC seal.