Dr. Mark is a veterinarian with over 40 years of experience in the field. He works with dogs, cats, exotics, and livestock.
Almost all cats eventually develop dental disease, but in some, it is as young as a few years of age. Pockets of bacterial pus develop underneath the gums that when released into the blood hurt the pet´s heart, kidneys, and other internal organs. It is much more serious than the bad breath you might notice as your cat ages.
The best way to avoid these problems is by taking care of your cat's teeth when they are still healthy.
There are some great alternatives to prevent the buildup of calculus, tartar, and the development of inflamed gums (gingivitis) in your cat. They have to be done every day; if you leave the plaque on longer, it starts to develop into tartar, which cannot be removed except by scraping it off while the pet is under anesthesia. Although I have listed them from the most effective home care methods to the least in the list below, you should look into all of them:
- daily tooth brushing
- dental gels
- dental treats and chews
- dental diets
- diet change
- dental toys
- dental sprays
- encourage water consumption and use a water additive
Best Methods of Daily Oral Health Care for Your Cat
1. Daily Brushing
The best way to prevent the formation of tartar is by brushing your cat's teeth each day. (1) You have to use a specific toothpaste that cats can swallow, and you have to brush daily so that plaque will not turn into tartar and so that your cat will learn to accept the brush.
There are regular and finger brushes, and the mechanical action of the brush, the movement of the bristles, and the action of the toothpaste all work together to clean the plaque off of the teeth and prevent the buildup of tartar and the secondary infections of gingivitis.
Even so, not all cats are willing to allow you to brush their teeth. What about the alternatives?
2. Dental Gels
Although the gels are not going to remove the plaque and tartar that has already begun to build up in an adult cat's teeth, they do keep the bacteria under control and may control the spread of gingivitis.
This brand, which is a gel similar to a wash, uses chlorhexidine, a compound that kills the bacteria in the mouth that are causing gingivitis. It is the most effective thing on the market except for daily brushing and is very easy to use for cats that will not accept the brush.
Other types of gels rely mostly on zinc, others use aloe vera, and one product that has been accepted by the Veterinary Oral Health Council, or VOHC, is made up mostly of sodium bicarbonate, or baking soda.
3. Dental Treats and Chews
In one study, 15 cats were fed a chew after each meal, and then the amount of plaque was measured. In the second part of the study they were no longer given the chew, and when measured had more plaque and tartar buildup. (2)
Dental chews do work, as has been proven. There are a lot of good products out there, so if you choose one and your cat does not like them just try another with a different flavor.
4. Dental Diets
There is an old controversy about feeding dry to improve dental health, but we now know that it probably does not do much good because the kibble is so small that cats just swallow it without even chewing.
The manufacturers of these newer dry dental diets state that it works because the chunks are large and must be chewed to be swallowed; the food is also abrasive and the mechanical action scrapes the plaque off of the teeth. (3) They do work, although not as well as brushing the teeth, and several diets have been accepted by the VOHC.
The taste of each of the diets is a little different so if you are adding this to your cat's teeth-cleaning regimen only buy a small bag and make sure that they like it.
5. Diet Change
If your cat does not like the taste of the commercial dental diets, or if you are trying to feed a more natural food, a diet change can sometimes help reduce plaque buildup. If your cat likes canned, and you want to continue giving moist food, that is fine. Canned food does not cause tooth decay.
(There is some new research that shows that feeding any dry food will change a cat's oral biome and make periodontal disease less likely. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other problems that dry food will tend to aggravate, like urinary tract problems and chronic kidney infections, so in my opinion, just switching from canned to dry is not worth these minor changes.)
But if you do want to continue with moist food, you should know that some foods can be more abrasive than the usual canned food or kibble, for example, whole meats. Herbal additives (myrrh and goldenseal) may be helpful too but they need to be mixed up with a blended food since they change the taste. (4)
Some veterinarians also recommend feeding bones to decrease the amount of plaque buildup. There may be some justification for this as wild cats that eat bones do not have as many dental problems as cats eating a commercial diet. On the other hand, our house cats tend to live a lot longer than wild cats who are also eating feathers and hair, which also probably aid in keeping the teeth clean. There are too many variables involved to say that all the benefit comes from bones.
If you do give your cat bones they have to be raw so that they do not splinter and injure their throat, esophagus, or stomach.
6. Dental Toys
The effectiveness of toys alone has not been determined but they can be a part of keeping a cat's gums healthy. Even if they do not remove the plaque, as most veterinarians now think, they do stimulate the gums and are probably useful in controlling gingivitis.
A lot of great toy options are available and some allow you to put catnip in the toy to increase the pet´s interest. Another toy is soaked in baking soda but I do not think most cats would even chew on it.
7. Dental Sprays
The sprays may be more effective in the future but at this time they are useful only to prevent the spread of gingivitis, not as a treatment. There are anecdotal reports that it makes the plaque softer and easier to remove with toothbrushing but is not effective alone.
This is a comment from one of the spokesmen for the company that has finished one unpublished and unreviewed study on a dental spray: "No, this product does NOT treat established dental disease, it does NOT replace brushing, it does NOT replace professional veterinary dental care and HealthyMouth LLC takes pains to inform its users of this."
That VOHC-approved spray contains zinc, among other things, so it may be somewhat effective but has only been studied in a single dog breed and never in cats. None of the others have been proven to work.
8. Water and Water Additives
Open-mouth breathers develop more tartar than other pets and often have secondary gingivitis. Saliva is produced normally but there is not enough since it dries out and the harsh environment tends to encourage the buildup of tartar.
Water is certainly not enough to prevent the development of dental disease but it can keep it under control for those cats that do not drink enough. Fresh water and water with an additive have been shown to help. (5)
The one product accepted by the VOHC contains glycerine, which mainly makes water stick to the teeth more and may also be slightly bacteriostatic (bacteria in the mouth grow less).
The best way to encourage your cat to drink water is by providing them with a water fountain. (If you are using a water additive you can put it in the water fountain but be sure to provide an alternative water source that is just plain water. Your cat can become very sick if they decide they do not like the taste of the additive and stop drinking.)
A water fountain will give your cat moving cool water, much better quality than that left in a bowl, and perhaps even the movement encourages the cat to be curious and more likely to drink.
To prevent contact allergies, purchase a ceramic or stone water fountain.
What Should You Do If Dental Disease Has Already Started?
If your cat already has tartar buildup and secondary gingivitis, the only way to effectively remove the tartar is by having the teeth cleaned. Unfortunately, cats require general anesthesia for this to be done which is one reason it is so expensive.
It is worth it to get this done though. After removing the tartar the veterinary dentist will probe the teeth and remove those that are rotten, clean beneath the gum lines and clean out pockets of pus, and will then polish the teeth to make them smooth and discourage the buildup of new tartar.
After cleaning you can start a tooth brushing program and utilize the other methods to keep your cat´s teeth healthy.
Preventing Future Problems
The only proven method to prevent significant buildup is to brush your cat's teeth.
Although it might seem an expensive investment, it is worth it to test the microbiome of your cat´s oral cavity with the Basepaws company.
This test includes the DNA test, which is interesting since it might let you know which health problems your cat is prone to based on their breed or mix, but even more importantly it will tell you which cats have more of the bacteria in the mouth more likely to lead to tooth resorption and bad breath. Even cats in the same household will have different bacterial flora in their mouths and the test can determine which individuals need more care than the others.
All of the methods listed above probably aid in preventing problems from developing in the future, but immediately after tooth cleaning some cats are a lot more sensitive and will refuse to have their teeth brushed. If you cannot brush your cat's teeth, skip down to the next choice on the list and purchase a dental gel; be sure to also use the other methods to keep the teeth from becoming covered in tartar again.
(1) Ingham KE, Gorrel C, Blackburn JM, Farnsworth W. The effect of toothbrushing on periodontal disease in cats. J Nutr. 2002 Jun;132(6 Suppl 2):1740S-1S. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/132/6/1740S/4768298
(2) Gorrel C, Inskeep G, Inskeep T. Benefits of a 'dental hygiene chew' on the periodontal health of cats. J Vet Dent. 1998 Sep;15(3):135-8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10597159/
(3) Mata F. (2015). The Choice of Diet Affects the Oral Health of the Domestic Cat. Animals : an open access journal from MDPI, 5(1), 101–109. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4494333/
(4) Wynn, S. G., & Fougère, B. J. (2007). Veterinary Herbal Medicine: A Systems-Based Approach. Veterinary Herbal Medicine, 291–409. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7151902/
(5) Clarke DE. Drinking water additive decreases plaque and calculus accumulation in cats. J Vet Dent. 2006 Jun;23(2):79-82. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16878759/
Kim, B., Kang, S., Susanti, L., Park, Y., Kim, S., Shim, J., Lee, E., & Seo, K. (2019). Development of dental hygiene gum for cats considering their anatomical features of dentition. Journal of veterinary science, 20(5), e47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6769323/
Mallonee DH, Harvey CE, Venner M, Hammond BF. Bacteriology of periodontal disease in the cat. Arch Oral Biol. 1988;33(9):677-83. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/3245794/
Adler, C.J., Malik, R., Browne, G.V. et al. Diet may influence the oral microbiome composition in cats. Microbiome 4, 23 (2016). https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-016-0169-y
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.