How to Make Brushing Your Cat's Teeth a Hassle-Free Experience

Knowing how often to brush your cat's teeth is an essential part of his care routine. Your gentle touch and diligence when brushing will help keep his dental health in tip-top shape.

Along with our affinity for sharing the best spot on the couch and indulging in the occasional salmon croquette, we have a lot in common with our feline friends. Adult humans have 32 teeth; adult cats have 30. We also share the same type of teeth: incisors, canines or fangs, premolars, and molars. People brush their teeth at least once a day and cats should, too—with your help, of course. Here's how to brush your cat's teeth.

How Often Do I Need to Brush My Cat’s Teeth?

Just like human teeth, cat teeth need to be brushed regularly. Cornell University's Feline Health Center reports the vast majority of cats older than 4 years of age suffer from some form of dental disease. The good news is most of the common cat dental diseases—gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth resorption—can be prevented with regular dental care.

cat having teeth brushed by woman
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Tarina L. Anthony, DVM, is a longtime practitioner of feline-exclusive medicine, and owner and medical director of Aurora Cat Hospital and Hotel in Aurora, Colo. She stresses that routine dental care is vital to other aspects of your kitty's wellbeing. "Plaque—the slimy stuff—aides in the formation of tartar, the hard stuff that dentists scrape off," she says. "Tartar is basically minerals and bacteria. If it sits for a long time on the tooth, it can lead not only to gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth loss, but also systemic issues such as heart, kidney, or liver disease as that bacteria enters the bloodstream and lands in those organs."

Ideally, Anthony says, you should check and brush your cat's teeth every day. Consistency is important because you can spot problems right away. "Gently lift their lips and take a quick peek. If the gums look swollen or the teeth appear yellow, talk to your veterinarian," she says. "Bad breath is often a sign of dental disease, as well as dropping food or tilting his head while eating. Sometimes, cats chew their food partly but stop when it's painful, so owners may notice crumbs of food around the bowl."

There are few alternatives to brushing a cat's teeth. "Treats and water additives that help remove and prevent plaque can be used alongside teeth brushing, but aren't always effective on their own," Anthony explains. "One reason is cats don't always chew the treats before swallowing."

When Should I Start Cleaning My Cat’s Teeth?

Inspect and brush early in your cat's life so that kittens will grow into adults quite tolerant of the cleaning process. Because a kitten's deciduous teeth—also referred to as cat baby teeth or "milk teeth"—are replaced with permanent versions, experts recommend waiting to begin brushing until after your kitten is no longer teething and the adult teeth have grown in, usually when he's about 6 months old.

How Do I Get My Cat Ready for Teeth Cleanings?

To establish a cleaning routine, pick a time when your cat is relaxed, and let him lick a bit of pet toothpaste off your finger. Usually, it's a snazzy flavor he'll like, such as beef, fish, or poultry. Offer this incentive while you stroke around his head and under his jaw. It might take a few days before you can try brushing, but this slow, steady approach assures him there's nothing to fear.

Next, help your cat adjust to the feeling of brushing with a magical elixir: tuna water. Mmmmm! Although it doesn't have any dental benefits, it's an appealing taste to most felines. VCA Hospitals recommends you drain a can of tuna fish, and dip the tip of a cotton swab into the liquid. Then, tilt your cat's head slightly upward, raise his lip, and gently rub along the front of a few teeth along the gum line. Praise and reward your kitty, then let him down.

You might have to practice this warm-up lesson several times before moving on to the main event so he's not nervous about the process.

How Do I Brush My Cat’s Teeth?

Now that your kitty likes his toothpaste and is familiar with your touch around his mouth, it's time for a home dental check and a regular brushing routine.

Your cat teeth cleaning kit doesn't need to be elaborate, but it's specific. Always use specially formulated pet toothpaste, since human toothpaste, salt, or baking powder are harmful to cats. If you're looking for a homemade cat toothpaste, ask your vet for their safe suggestions. There are several toothbrush options that are safe to use on your cat, including a baby's soft-bristle brush, a pet's curved toothbrush, a finger toothbrush, or even a cotton swab.

Dab your cat-friendly toothpaste on your brush of choice, then:

  1. Position his backside against you to reach easily around his body. This keeps him from squirming away, and also reduces his feeling of confrontation like approaching from the front might do. Offer plenty of reassuring strokes along his face.
  2. Lift up your kitty's head at a slight angle and raise his lip.
  3. Slip the toothbrush into his mouth, and with a soft, circular motion, work the brush lightly across his teeth near the gums, back to front, for about 10 seconds.
  4. Switch sides and repeat.
  5. Reward with snuggles and treats!

A little gum bleeding is normal in the beginning and should go away with regular cleaning. Over time, you'll be able to be more thorough, spending about 30 seconds on each side. You only need to brush the outside of his teeth—his rough, barbed tongue cleans the inside.

Senior or rescue cats who may not have had regular checkups require a lot more patience and time to adjust. In fact, they may resist completely, so just let them have their way. It's possible your veterinarian will recommend biannual professional dental exams supplemented by cat teeth cleaning products to use at home if your feisty cat refuses your efforts.

For most cats, a daily brush and check is best, but even once or twice a week is beneficial. Combine brushing your cat's teeth with a normal grooming session so he feels spiffy inside and out. Reward with a treat so he'll remember it as a positive experience.

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