Dental disease such as gingivitis (gum inflammation) is very common in cats but if left untreated can give rise to periodontitis (loss of the supporting structures around the tooth) with subsequent tooth loss and a range of health problems due to chronic inflammation and the immense amount of bacteria present on unhealthy teeth. More information on feline dental disease can be found here.
The good news is: Mild to moderate gingivitis can be treated with home care and may be fully reversed without further dental treatment. It is important to start and continue home care before the gums become too sore to touch or any deep pockets form between gums and teeth. The most effective dental home care not surprisingly is toothbrushing.
How to brush
A detailed step-by-step video instruction guide can be found here.
First and most important get your cat used to being handled comfortably around the mouth.
It's really important that cats maintain their sense of control with any form of handling. Continuing to do something that they are averse to will only reinforce a negative behaviour pattern, cause the both of you unnecessary stress and can affect their relationship with you. This is why we train cats slowly to accept teeth brushing, ensuring each step is rewarded with the ultimate goal being that your cat enjoys having their teeth brushed!
We recommend the use of a marker word or sound in training. This involves pairing a word or sound with a high value reward (most often a tasty treat but it can be anything your cat really enjoys). This enables you to mark the desired behaviour, i.e. your cat being relaxed when having their mouth touched, the moment it occurs which results in your cat learning quickly.
Please watch the following short video about clicker training and then this video on how to train your cat to accept having its mouth touched/ opened.
Once your cat is very comfortable with having their mouth touched introduce the toothpaste using positive reinforcement in the same way.
Only ever use veterinary feline toothpaste and toothbrushes for your cat. Human toothpaste contains ingredients that can be toxic to cats.
This is a special cat-only enzymatic toothpaste which is designed to break down the plaque on your cats teeth. Find a flavour they like – seafood or chicken usually go down well.
Introduce the taste of the toothpaste without a brush by either offering it on your finger or offering a very small blob on a favourite treat and if this is accepted gradually increase the amount of toothpaste being given on the treat until you have reached the amount required for brushing. When this is accepted slowly start to dab small amounts of toothpaste on to the teeth.
Get your cat used to the sensation of their teeth being touched
Once you are comfortable with approaching the mouth in a stress-free way and dabbing toothpaste onto the teeth is accepted, you can use a cotton bud with some toothpaste on it to gently rub toothpaste on to your cat's teeth. Start at the back as these are the most important ones!
Only when this is tolerated without problems can you move on to using a cat toothbrush.
Finally… introduce the toothbrush and toothpaste
The final step is, of course, brushing the teeth! This should be gentle and is really just a case of getting the toothpaste on the teeth and along the gumline with gentle circular motions.
Once your cat accepts the toothpaste, start offering it in small dabs on a cat toothbrush. Without restraining them, allow your cat to lick the brush 3 – 5 times per day for one week. Reward with a treat each time.
Then you can introduce the brush - you only want to brush the back teeth for a couple of seconds but slowly work your way up to half a minute or more per side moving from the back teeth to the front. It may take a couple of weeks of daily training.
Some cats find it harder than others to allow toothbrushing so although it is the best method, we recommend exploring alternative options to ease the pressure on both of you.
If you have any problems at all, bring your cat in to The London Cat Clinic and we’ll be more than happy to show you. You can buy kits with toothpaste and all the brushes you need to get started from our clinic or these can be purchased online.
You can use daily topical disinfectant gels, tooth sealant sprays or drinking water additives to decrease plaque bacteria. These products don’t need a brush to work. We like the Healthymouth™ product range of water additives and oral gels which have received the Veterinary Oral Health Council 'Seal'. These products have proven effective at reducing tartar and gingivitis in small clinical trials. . HealthymouthTM contains natural and organic ingredients that act together to reduce the accumulation of bacteria in the mouth. This in turn reduces plaque and tartar development and halts the progression of dental disease.
What about food?
There is also some anecdotal evidence that chewy treats (such as cooked chicken stomachs or similarly dense material) help reduce plaque accumulation by mechanically cleaning cats teeth.
Unfortunately, there is little evidence that dry food helps reduce plaque and tartar so we do not recommend it. Some cats will however get better with dietary change to a higher quality, low carbohydrate diet as this also changes the bacteria in their mouth.
How to tell if you are doing it right
As gingivitis is caused by accumulation of bacteria on the teeth, it is expected to respond to home care therapy unless the gums and peridont are already structurally damaged.
However, sometimes gingivitis can be very stubborn or a sign of underlying health problems such as feline leukaemia or feline immunodeficiency virus infections, immune-mediated conditions or more severe dental disease that is hidden underneath the gum line. Therefore if you are concerned about your cat's teeth please book in for a complimentary nurse dental check here