No pet owner is perfect, not even us professionals. We might skip playtime or serve meals late or not train our animals as thoroughly as we could. Admit it: You know you could do a better job of trimming your cat’s nails or cleaning his litterbox. I never like to say that anyone is a bad pet owner, but the honest to God truth is that you could be a better cat owner — a great one, even! — if you did just one thing: brush your cat’s teeth.
The numbers say it all: By the time they are 2 years old, 70 percent of cats have some type of gum disease. Seventy percent! That’s just wrong. And that number could be substantially reduced if cat owners made a concerted effort to brush their cats’ teeth from kittenhood on. Tooth brushing helps banish that awful tuna breath that plagues so many cats, and it can help reduce your cat’s risk of painful dental infections.
Brushing teeth is important for more than just fresh breath, pretty white teeth and combatting periodontal disease. When you are caring for your cat’s mouth several times a week, you get to know it pretty darn well. You’re going to notice more quickly when something is wrong. Sure, you’ll be attacking plaque and tartar and keeping these bacteria-trapping substances at bay, but you’ll also become aware of painful areas or sores that could indicate serious problems.
According to one of my colleagues, veterinary dental specialist Brook Niemiec, up to 60 percent of cats suffer a painful cavitylike lesion called tooth resorption. In addition, the mouth is a common site for cancer.
You might think there’s no way your cat would put up with having his teeth brushed. I’m here to tell you that it can be done. Absolutely, it’s best if you start when he’s a kitten, but even adult cats can be brought to accept it — if you make it worth their while.
If you’re starting with a kitten, begin by lifting the lip to look at the teeth and gently rubbing them with your finger. Do this a few times a day so your kitten gets used to having his mouth handled.
Gradually begin to rub the teeth with a damp gauze pad. When he accepts that, graduate to a small toothbrush or finger brush made for pets. Let him lick off some of the tasty toothpaste made for pets (never use your own brand, as it contains ingredients that aren’t healthy for cats), then gently brush a few teeth at a time.
You never have to do all of your cat’s teeth at once; cats can have short attention spans, after all. Maybe do one side of the mouth in the morning and one side in the evening. Be sure you don’t miss the “cheek” teeth in the back. Always be patient and give your cat lots of praise as you look at or brush his teeth.
And, yes, there is always going to be the cat who categorically refuses to let you brush his teeth. All is not lost, though. Ask your veterinarian about dental rinses you can add to his water, sprays that can attack plaque and fight bad breath, and edible chews that help scrape teeth clean. They’re not better than brushing, but they’re better than nothing.
By Dr. Marty Becker