They won't always like their routine cleanings but regular home checkups combined with annual vet visits are good wellness practices.

By Tracey L. Kelley
August 24, 2020
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Your comfy couch kitty still has a bit of a wild side, and you see it when she yawns wide. Her sharp, strong teeth—perfect for self-defense and catching and eating prey—may look like they’re just fine. But the reality is cat teeth cleaning is necessary both at home and by a professional to stay healthy, just like us humans. 

Why Cat Teeth Cleaning is Important

According to Cornell University’s Feline Health Center, only 10 percent of cats make it through life without experiencing some sort of dental problem. The rest need dedicated care to prevent severe diseases like:

  • Gingivitis: A chronic inflammation of the cat’s mucosa—the moist tissue lining the oral cavity—and gums due to plaque and tartar buildup.
  • Periodontitis: Often the result of unchecked gingivitis, which causes the cat’s tissue surrounding the teeth to degrade, resulting in tooth and bone damage.
  • Tooth Resorption: This occurs in 20­–60 percent of cats and occurs when the inside of a tooth erodes and requires extraction.

Cornell experts note some purebred cats—including Abyssinians, Maine coons, Persians, Siamese, and Somalis—may have greater risks of dental problems. 

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 explains that while we don’t know what predisposes certain cats to dental issues, “We assume it’s partly genetic and partly environmental. We do know that dry food isn't necessarily better for the teeth as once believed. Unless kibble is designed—and clinically proven—to specifically reduce plaque, there’s no added dental benefit to dry food.”

So although your feisty beast was born to be wild, her current domesticated nature means it’s critical you stay on top of your cat’s dental care, including professional dental checkups as well as preventative cat teeth cleaning and at-home tooth care. 

How to Check Your Cat’s Teeth for Issues

You might already have a grooming routine that involves regular brushing or combing your cat. Checking and brushing her teeth should also be on the preening list. 

Bi-weekly teeth brushing—although daily is more effective—is an essential measure to help your kitty not only avoid dental problems, but also other health complications. Plaque leads to tartar, which is a combination of minerals and bacteria. “If it sits for a long time on the tooth,” Anthony says, “[plaque] 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.”

It takes about a minute each day to brush your cat’s teeth once she’s used to it—although some cats may never allow it. So grab a flashlight to take a closer look at her mouth. Wait until your kitty is mellow, and with reassuring strokes and soft praise, gently use your thumb and forefinger to lift the sides and front of her lip. Check her teeth and gums for signs of dental or other diseases, which can include:

  • Yellow, gooey plaque or hardened tartar along the gum line 
  • Swollen, red gums
  • Cracked teeth
  • Spots or redness on the back of her throat
  • Sour or foul breath 

If she starts to squirm or gets annoyed, let her scamper off, and plan to resume your check another day. Hopefully, you’ll never see any of these symptoms of tooth trouble, but if so, consult your vet right away. 

Also, pay close attention to how she eats. “Sometimes, cats chew their food partly but stop when it's painful, so owners may notice crumbs of food around the bowl,” Anthony says. “The most important thing I tell people is just because your cat is eating, it doesn't mean they don't have serious dental pain. Cats are stoic, and their signs of illness can be very subtle. Regular vet visits are the only way to detect these issues.”  

Cat Teeth Cleaning & Exam: What to Expect

“Dental disease is extremely common in cats, with more than 50 percent of those over age 4 having some degree of dental problems,” Anthony says. “The average cat should have a preventative cleaning every one to two years to control tartar and prevent problems.”

Your vet will be happy to detail what happens during a cat teeth cleaning and exam prior to scheduling, but here are some general guidelines: 

  • The examination and cleaning usually lasts between 45­–75 minutes.
  • The vet will conduct a thorough health assessment, complete with a medical history. 
  • If your cat is healthy, the vet will give your cat mild anesthesia to take X-rays and perform the teeth cleaning. Without X-rays, the doctor can’t see dental health below the gum line. During the cleaning procedure, special tubing is used to help breathing and prevent debris from getting into the lungs.
  • The doctor utilizes ultrasonic and manual scalers to clean teeth, then polish, and add a protective sealant.
  • If further dental care is necessary, you’ll receive a phone call outlining the recommendations and whether to continue during that visit or schedule a future appointment. 

Anthony stresses you shouldn’t opt for ‘anesthesia-free’ dental work on your cat. “They remove the surface tartar, and while the teeth can appear cleaner, the real problem under the gumline isn’t addressed,” she says. “Improper cleaning from these procedures often leads to periodontitis and tooth loss. You're much better off getting your pet's teeth cleaned by a veterinarian, and following with tooth brushing and dental treats.”

Preventive Vet offers a comprehensive explanation of the anesthesia process, how it protects your cat during these procedures, and what questions to ask your vet to understand and minimize risks.

Cost of Cat Dental Exams & Cleaning

If you’re wondering how much a dental exam and teeth cleaning will cost for your cat, expect to spend between $800 and $1,600 for a standard oral exam, X-rays, anesthesia, and cleaning. Keep in mind that costs vary based on location and the services performed, but Anthony says if your vet says your cat has teeth that need to be removed, to trust their recommendation. “We don't perform unnecessary dental procedures.”