Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Brushing teeth for cats

I’ve known for years that I should be brushing Tempest’s teeth. Despite knowing better, I have rarely brushed her teeth, and thus she now needs a professional cleaning at the vet’s.

I worked at a vet’s office one summer, and she happened to push dentals quite a bit, so I know the process. They go under full anesthesia for the procedure (with few exceptions), and that means a few different things. First of all that it is good to have a full bloodwork done, especially if the cat is 7 years or older, to make sure there’s nothing funky going on that would make the anesthesia more dangerous for them. There is always some danger to anesthesia, and it is my opinion that the less often we or our pets are put under, the better.

Yet dental heath is really important. I need to get in a really good habit of brushing Tempest’s teeth so that we can hopefully avoid the need for a dental like this in the future. There are lots of sites with info on how to brush a cat’s teeth, and I liked the info that The Cat Site provided. Along with details on why and how, were some statistics:

Brushing your cat’s teeth should be an important part of the grooming routine. A recent survey held on this site showed that only twelve percent of cat owners brush their cat’s teeth on a daily basis. Most cat owners prefer to hold an oral hygiene session only once or twice a week. More than twenty percent never brush their cat’s teeth.

Brushing the teeth of an adult cat that is not used to the process can be difficult. Yet, any veterinary dentist will tell you that brushing regularly once a day can make a major difference to your cat’s dental health.

I think I was actually surprised that as many as 12% brush their cats’ teeth on a daily basis – I don’t know a single person who does!

The issue of pet dentals came up in an earlier post, and Mary posted a link in the comments to a group that does dentals without anesthesia. There are arguments for and against the no-anesthesia procedure, but personally I think that once I get Tempest’s teeth professionally cleaned (yes, with anesthesia), if I keep up a daily brushing, the no-anesthesia dentals should be all she needs from that point on, from a maintenance standpoint. Anything more serious – broken tooth, abscess, etc – would obviously be a different situation entirely. Of course I’d have to find a vet that does the no-anesthesia dentals (or learn how to do it myself), but I’m sure there are some out there in my area. Especially as Tempest gets older, anesthesia will be something I’ll want to have done only if absolutely necessary. Brushing her teeth daily makes so much more sense, and is so much less stressful for her!

Now I just have to do it!

tempest and her toes

17 responses to “Brushing teeth for cats

  1. rich February 21, 2008 at 9:16 am

    I knew about her needing her teeth cleaned. Honestly I have never even imagined that a cat needs their teeth cleaned. I am going to get a checkup for Beanie and develop a habit of teeth brushing with him. Thanks for the info and reminder.

  2. Deb February 21, 2008 at 12:26 pm

    yeah, I”m not sure if it is relatively new (in the last 10 years or so) for vets to talk about brushing teeth, or if it was just the vets that I grew up going to (in the boonies) that didn’t talk about it, but it my impression is that it is a new-ish thing for vets to recommend. I think a lot of people are unaware of the recommendation, or how to go about it. Of course it is much easier if we start when they’re babies! But Tempest, at least, is pretty good about these types of things, so we’ll manage. Good luck with Beanie! I’m sure he’ll think it is a time-to-shred-daddy game. 😉

  3. Mary Martin February 22, 2008 at 4:52 pm

    I finally got emme to eat raw food, which has bones in it (ewww, i know). She eats less and it works on her teeth a bit. I guess if I could graduate to a small raw, meaty bone that would be optimal. When the hounds were on raw their teeth were fabulous!

  4. Deb February 23, 2008 at 10:52 pm

    Yes, it definitely seems (as gross as it sounds!) that we need to brush their teeth to replace the munching of bones that would otherwise keep their teeth in shape!

    Glad you got emme to eat the raw food. Sounds like it is going to be good for her. Tempest is not happy about being on a slimming regime!

  5. rich February 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm

    So I did some reading and it said one way to introduce brushing is to gently rub their teeth and gums with your finger. Well as Deb guessed someone thought it was play time and now Daddy has scabs on his hand.

  6. Deb February 25, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Rich, I have heard that as well, but I’m not sure it is a great idea for all cats. The brushes are a LOT smaller than most of our fingers, and their mouths don’t have that much extra room. It is worth trying both to see what he’d like best. But with Beanie, yeah, I knew he’d think it was shred-daddy time! Aw, the beanster.

  7. Mary Martin February 26, 2008 at 11:03 am

    I tried that (the finger thing) with emme and she got me in the death grip with her front paws then gave me the kangaroo kicks with her legs and shredded me from the back of my hand to my elbow.

  8. Deb February 26, 2008 at 7:52 pm

    ouch! I’m really lucky – tempest isn’t a shredder, and I’ve always been able to cut her toenails (luckily, since they grow super fast), so the teeth brushing isn’t that hard to get her used to. I hope you find a less painful way to get emme used to the teeth brushing!

    The problem is that I don’t actually know anyone who brushes their cat’s teeth, so I don’t even know anyone to ask advice of!

  9. rich February 26, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    Mary: We can hook up Beanie and emme he did the same thing.

  10. Mary Martin February 29, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Rich: Beanie’s gorgeous, by the way. I came closed to using him in my pamphlet, but, like Tempest, he looks to happy and that didn’t really contribute the right vibe.

  11. Gary February 29, 2008 at 3:21 pm

    Excellent and – I believe – underrated topic. Because there’s evidence that infections to other parts of the body may start in the mouth, that’s yet another important reason to pay attention to our animals’ oral health.

    I brush Mike’s teeth about 1-2 times a week with little impregnated pads that I work with my finger. I took a gradual approach until he was comfortable with me rubbing his gums. Now he sometimes purrs. Perhaps because he knows he gets a treat afterward? (I realize that’s kind of backward.)

    I assume a position relative to him with which I know he’s comfortable, and keep up a steady soothing dialong. After about 15 seconds, he starts to get squirmy, so at that point I quit while I’m ahead, figuring it’s better in the long run to keep the experience pleasant from his perspective rather than get in a few more wipes.

    One product I like is Virbac C.E.T. Dental Chews (here’s one random source: It’s a combination toy, treat, and (hopefully) dental care product. It seems to have magical aerodynamic properties; so I throw it and glide it across the floor, and make it interesting with boxes that it hides behind and tissue paper that it hides under, and Mike (if he’s in the mood) chases it. After a few chases, he eats the treat, so the exercise simulates stalking, catching, and consuming prey. Though I’m skeptical of animal dental treat claims, I figure since this product has at least three chances to be of value. Granted, it’s a use-once toy.

    BTW, there’s a workshop on brushing animals’ teeth this Sunday at PetMac in Arlington (

  12. Deb February 29, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    Thanks for sharing what works with Mike.

    I know that my vets have recommended that people start with brush, rather than sticking your whole finger in their mouth. Most “starter kits” come with both a cat-tooth brush as well as one or two finger brushes, and it is worth trying various options to see what works best for each cat.

    I’m lucky with tempest, that’s for sure!

    I have a cat supply catalog that comes once in a while, and they have a variety of products that could probably help prevent some build-up (but do nothing to actually clean), including some toys that are specifically supposed to brush and floss the teeth! Not sure how well that would work, but for Beanie it might be a good idea – he likes to bite down on his toys, I think Rich?

    There was also some liquid you can add to the cat’s water. I was skeptical about that, and looked for some reviews, and came across this from yahoo answers, in response to “does this work?”:

    Plaque and calculus (the hardened yuck that you find on dirty teeth) cannot be dissolved by any chemical product that is safe to put in your pet’s mouth. In other words, anything that can dissolve calculus will probably poison your pet if you try to put it on the teeth.

    If the teeth are already dirty, then this product, and all other oral disease ‘preventatives’ will do nothing except waste your money, and your cat will suffer because you will have a false sense of security about his or her teeth.

    If the teeth are presently clean, meaning there is no buildup and they are pearly white, then there are products that can help prevent tartar and plaque buildup. The most effective method, however, is to physically brush the food particles off the surfaces of the teeth after eating. No water additive, chew toy, or particular food will prevent oral disease 100%. They will HELP, but as your pet ages, regular checkups with your vet to check the health status of the oral cavity, and the occasional ultrasonic scaling, has been shown to extend the healthful life of dogs and cats by as much as 20%.

    That’s enough to put teeth care in perspective!

  13. Gary February 29, 2008 at 5:17 pm

    Definitely you don’t want to start by sticking your whole finger in your cat’s mouth! Unless you know you have a very compliant cat! I started by just putting my fingers in the general area, then touching the outside of his mouth, then barely opening it for a second, and so forth. But each cat will accept a different pace and, as always, “your results may vary.”

    I wholeheartedly agree that the best home care in terms of our animals’ dental health is regular brushing (whether the “brush” is an actual brush or your finger).

    You probably know this, but possibly some readers may not, because it’s contrary to conventional wisdom (though that conventional wisdom is slowly changing): Dry food – convenient as it is – may actually contribute to dental problems, in cats anyway, because it tends to be relatively high in carbohydrates, and tiny carbohydrate-rich crumbs may lodge between the teeth, break down into starch and acid, and accelerate tooth and gum deterioration. (Unlike humans, cats’ saliva doesn’t have any enzymes that break down carbohydrates.)

    According to my vet, the one exception to this general rule, based on clinical evidence (at least in cats), is specially-formulated dental diets. The dental diets generally work by a) being larger, which facilitates more chewing, b) having an abrasive surface, which may produce a mild scrubbing effect, c) containing enzymes that may accomplish some further cleaning. But, again, they’re not a substitute for brushing and regular vet checkups.

    I wonder when they’ll sell floss for cats!

  14. Deb February 29, 2008 at 6:58 pm

    I’m sure someone will appreciate your lesson on one of the many reasons why we should avoid dry food. Thanks.

    I just want to point out to anyone who is trying to brush their cat’s teeth for the first time – while Gary’s experience with Mike shows how some cats might react, you have to judge things based on your knowledge of your own cat, and what you learn by paying attention as you attempt this. Mike and Tempest are easy cats compared to other cats – such as Beanie and Emme, who are shredders and will not make it easy for Rich and Mary.

    Gary uses a finger brush, something Tempest fought tooth and nail, literally. Tempest doesn’t really mind the cat-tooth brush, however, as long as I let her chew on it a bit. The actual brush is significantly smaller than a finger, which is why the vets I have talked to recommend starting with a brush. Their mouths are small, and the brush can certainly get to parts that I’d risk a finger chomping to get at with my finger.

    The point is that every cat is different, there’s no one answer to how to get your cat used to it, or even how to accomplish it. I am lucky with Tempest, as Gary is with Mike, in that she’s relatively easy going about it.

    I’d love to hear from anyone who has a more challenging cat, and how they’ve been able to get their cats accepting of a teeth brushing.

  15. Gary March 1, 2008 at 12:12 pm

    Absolutely, I agree – one size (literally!) doesn’t fit all. Actually, I’ve been using the finger method for so long, I haven’t thought about varying it – until now. I like the control I have with my finger, but maybe I should look into a brush, because maybe I can get more abrasion that way. (We use brushes instead of fingers when we brush our own teeth…) Maybe alternate between the two methods.

    Anyway, I think the important thing is to brush one way or another, so again, thanks for bringing up and promoting this topic. I recommend it all the time when I do home visits for the rescue league, but my overall impression is that most cat guardians rarely give serious thought to – much less implement – this important and potentially highly beneficial element of home health care. Maybe promoting it and discussing it more, and sharing tips and war stories, will help make it more popular.

    This post has spurred some further thoughts about tooth-brushing, like, is it feasible for rescue league employees/volunteers to get kittens used to humans touching their mouths, to make it easier for adopters to brush? After I finish the current 500-part series in my blog, I’d to write about this topic also, referencing this post and then babbling on.

    I’ll be checking back here also; I’m interested as well in hearing accounts of how people did (and perhaps did not) get their resistant cat to accept some type of brushing. I may look for those stories in other venues also, and if I hear of something that I think may be generally useful I can report back, earnestly trying to keep the comment under six paragraphs.

  16. Gary March 1, 2008 at 2:07 pm

    BTW, I’m surprised by the 12 percent figure also. And skeptical. It doesn’t remotely resemble my experiences or one-on-one feedback. I wonder if some responders to the survey were not being completely honest. I’d guesstimate that the proportion of people with cats who brush their cats’ teeth on a daily basis is closer to one percent.

  17. Gary April 26, 2008 at 12:03 pm

    This isn’t earth-shattering news or anything, but figured I’d mention it. My vet said they’ve been seeing good results so far with a product they started selling six months ago called Maxi/Guard, a gel that you rub on kitty’s gums and apply with your finger, a pad, or a brush. The active ingredient is zinc. That’s all I know about it so far. I just bought some so we’ll see how it works out.

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