Periodontal disease is a significant problem in domestic cats. While veterinarians recommend brushing your cat's teeth, most cat owners don’t have success at implementing daily teeth brushing.
Last March, my cat Jones had his teeth professionally cleaned under anesthesia. After his dentistry, my goal was to brush his teeth to reduce the frequency of this procedure. For several months, I worked on touching his face gently so he would allow me to open his mouth. Progress was slow, and I didn't want to delay brushing his teeth by having to wait until he was comfortable with me holding his face.
Although many cat care professionals will mention 'tough love.', i.e., do it, and the cat will get over it. I know this strategy doesn’t work with my cat, and I suspect the same is true for other cats. If I put Jones in a scenario that makes him uncomfortable, he becomes suspicious and anxious about my actions and consequently avoids me. Restraining him is not an option.
Knowing that Jones loved the toothbrush and our toothpaste (coconut oil), I needed to figure out a way I could brush his teeth without having to hold his head. I started by letting him lick the toothbrush, hoping that the oral benefits would happen regardless of the actual brushing. One day he opened his mouth and gnawed on it. The next time he did that I started to glide the brush back and forth. It was working. The other side of his mouth didn’t happen naturally, so I used the clicker to indicate opening his mouth was the desired behaviour. I placed the toothbrush along his molars, and anytime he opened his mouth I clicked. His reward was a few a seconds of licking the toothbrush. I continued in this way to get him used to interacting with the toothbrush and accept the brushing motion.
At our most veterinary appointment, there was good news. “His teeth looked great,” our veterinarian said. “I've been brushing them,” I proudly exclaimed!
My Instagram survey revealed that 15% of people are brushing their cat's teeth. More people expressed interest in brushing their cat's teeth but didn’t know where to start.
Do you need to brush your cat's teeth?
YES! Just like with humans, teeth brushing is important for our pets. Veterinarians agree: Pet tooth brushing is the gold standard for preventative oral health care.
What toothpaste do you recommend?
Do not use human toothpaste because it contains ingredients that are dangerous for cats. Pet stores carry many varieties of toothpaste to encourage cats to cooperate. Because coconut oil is known to boost oral health in cats (and because my cat loves it), it was a natural choice for me.
Side note: My goal is to show you how to modify behaviour. Although I am always happy to show you what products I’m using, this is not my area of expertise. When selecting products, I encourage you to investigate and educate yourself or talk to a professional.
What toothbrush do your recommend?
Because of the size of a cat’s mouth, a smaller toothbrush is better. Many of the brushes sold at pet stores are round to increase the area of the mouth that the toothbrush contacts.
How often should you brush?
I would aim for once a day. The consistency will not only improve your cat's oral hygiene and also help improve your cat's response to the training.
Do I need to brush my cat's teeth if I feed dry food?
Although some data suggest the size of kibble does make a difference in plaque removal, in my opinion, the other health consequences of feeding a kibble diet outweigh the possible benefit. A less processed diet combined with teeth brushing would be my recommended choice. Keep in mind there are foods, such as raw bones, that are more aligned with a cat’s natural diet, and also help with cleaning teeth.
If my cat's teeth are already bad condition will brushing fix it?
If your cat already has tartar buildup, you need to see your veterinarian to have your cat’s teeth properly scaled and cleaned under anesthesia before starting a home cleaning program. After the dentistry, you can begin teeth cleaning to reduce the need for future dental procedures.,
Teeth cleaning is not a replacement for proper dentistry. Some cats are more prone to dental diseases and will need extra care.
How do I get started?
If you have an easy-going cat that doesn't mind you touching their mouth/face, I recommend you follow this four-week tooth brushing program by Cornell University outlined here.
If your cat is like mine, and touching their face is a no-go, I recommend you start with using clicker training, as I did.
Watch my training video here:
Ps. I have not abandoned the work on teaching Jones to allow me to hold his face. This method is a way for you to get started. Once your cat is happily running for teeth cleaning time, you can decide if you want to introduce some gentle handling to stabilize your cat’s head and put more pressure on the toothbrush.