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Cat dental health: how do I look after my cat's teeth?

Cat dental health: how do I look after my cat's teeth?

By Francesca Lees BSc (Hons) NCert (AnBeh) ISFM CertFN RVN

Did you know that the most commonly diagnosed disorder in cats in the UK is periodontal (gum) disease? This is followed by obesity and then non-specified dental disease. This means dental related disease is the biggest group of disorders in cats in the UK, with a whopping 22% of cats suffering from some form of dental disease, and 80% over three years old showing signs of dental disease.

With our feline friends being notoriously tricky when it comes to handling them for any sort of preventative health issue, (how hard is it to get them to take a worming tablet!?) how can you ensure our cat’s oral health is not being neglected?

Kittens have 26 deciduous teeth and when cats reach adulthood they have 30 teeth. The domestic cat’s wild counterparts will use their teeth when hunting, to catch prey and then tear the meat apart, however domestic cats today are usually fed a mixture of commercial wet and dry cat food. 

In this blog I’ll provide information and advice on preventative dental care for your cats, as well as what to do if you suspect your cat has any dental related disorders. 

Why is preventing dental disorders so important?

Of all the dental disorders, periodontal disease is the most common, with 15.2% of cats suffering from it in the UK. That’s an estimated 1.8 million cats affected annually from the nation’s 11 million strong cat population. While the direct symptoms of periodontal disease are painful enough (pain, gum inflammation, tooth mobility), if left untreated, periodontal disease can lead to tooth loss. The long-term impact of periodontal disease is also serious, with a study showing that sufferers are 1.8x more likely to develop other health conditions compared to cats that don’t have periodontal disease. But here’s how pet parents can help…

Brushing your cat's teeth helps prevent dental disease

The best way to prevent dental disease in domestic cats is to routinely brush their teeth, however this can be difficult as cats are not always the most cooperative of animals when it comes to handling!

How can I get my cat used to having its teeth brushed?

Ideally a tooth brushing routine needs to be established when your cat is a juvenile. Kittens can be taught, through a gentle introduction, to accept tooth brushing and this is the most effective way of preventing your cat from developing periodontal disease.

To train a kitten to accept tooth brushing it is recommended you start very slowly using a cat friendly finger toothbrush and some cat friendly, flavoured toothpaste (enzymatic toothpaste is the most effective) and this usually comes in tasty flavours such as chicken and liver. Make sure you go at your cat's pace and build up to toothbrushing slowly by first letting them lick the toothpaste off the toothbrush.

Once they have become accustomed to the toothbrush and the toothpaste you can begin to touch their teeth and gum-line with the brush. Once they are familiar with the feel of the toothbrush on their gums and teeth you can start to build up to a brushing motion. Apply the bristles at a 45 degree angle to reach the surface of the tooth and the gum line. Ideally you would do this at the same time and at least once every day to establish a routine. To make it a positive experience you can also give some tasty treats during and after the process so your cat associates tooth brushing with a tasty treat too! 

Behaviourist top tip – How do I keep my cat still when brushing his teeth?

The key to handling and restraining cats is to allow your cat to feel in control of the situation. Cats cooperate better with a more “hands off” approach. A “less is more” style of restraining will result in a happier, calmer cat!

Try to avoid pinning your cat down, or holding them tightly against their will as this will only make them struggle more and will likely result in a complete failure of the tooth brushing attempt! Once your cat is happily licking chicken flavour toothpaste off their toothbrush (and enjoying it!) you shouldn’t need to restrain them at all! 

But what if you’ve got an older cat who has never had their teeth brushed? What can you do to help prevent dental disease in your adult cats?

It is much harder to teach a cat to accept toothbrushing if they are older, however there are other options for cats who are not able to accept regular toothbrushing.

Specific dental diets for cats

There are a handful of dental “diets” on the market which are scientifically proven to help with and are marketed at cats with periodontal disease. Some are available from pet shops and some are available via prescription only through your vet. If your cat has a diagnosed dental disorder then your vet may recommend or prescribe one of these diets for your cat.

Dental treats for cats

Dental treats can be useful and can be added into your cat's diet. These dental treats are often porous in texture and are scientifically designed to surround your cat's teeth making it easier to control tartar.  

There are a few Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) accepted dental treats on the marke. Look out for the VOHC logo on the packet as these treats have been scientifically proven to help reduce tartar build up, however it is important to note that they cannot remove tartar which has already accumulated on your cats teeth therefore they are not an alternative option to veterinary treatment for an existing dental condition.

Water additives to prevent dental disease in cats

Water additives come in the form of a plaque reducing liquid that is added to your cats drinking water. Water additives can be a useful alternative for cats who will not tolerate tooth brushing and who may be fussy in terms of dental treats. They can also be useful for cats with sensitive stomachs or digestive issues by which treats can cause digestive upset. They can help to reduce bad breath and aid in controlling plaque build up. It is recommended that you add water additives to your cats fresh water bowl daily or if they use a drinking fountain it can be added to the water in their drinking fountain too (but make sure you replace the water daily).

Feeding dry cat food can help prevent dental disease in cats

Feeding your cat wet food alone can contribute to them developing a dental disorder because wet food has no abrasive action on the teeth, however feeding a dry, crunchy kibble type food can help to prevent plaque build up as your cat will crunch the biscuits and this can help to scrape off the plaque, resulting in less tartar build up. Feeding a dry food, such as Tippaws, with a very crunchy texture is a great way of helping to prevent periodontal disease in a way that is non-invasive for your cat. 

What do I do if my cat has dental disease?

15.2% of cats out of a sample of 18,249 were formally being diagnosed with periodontal disease and breeds most susceptible to it include Siamese (18.7%), Main Coon (16.7%) and British Short Hair (15.5%) as well as crossbreeds (15.4%). Also, the average bodyweight of cats with periodontal disease (5.7kg) is higher than for cats without periodontal disease (5.5kg), so if your cat is carrying a few extra pounds, they could also be at risk of having poor dental health.

As cats are very good at hiding health issues we often don’t notice that our cats have dental disease. It is really important that you check your cat's teeth regularly and look for any signs of disease such as red gums, smelly breath, discoloured teeth or teeth which have a build-up of tartar along the gum line. 

You may also be able to tell if your cat has a dental issue if you notice any behavioural changes. Cats will often stop grooming themselves when they have dental pain so you may notice this or you may notice your cat's fur becomes dull or matted (in long haired breeds). If you notice any of these symptoms the first port of call is your vet. 

Can periodontal disease in cats be treated?

Your vet can treat periodontal disease, usually by performing a dental procedure under general anaesthetic (the safest and most effective way of treating dental issues) however dental procedures can be costly as often extractions need to be made. So preventative care is the best way forward. 

How can I get my cat’s teeth checked regularly?

A top tip is to make sure you also take your cat to the vets every year for their yearly booster vaccination and check up (no matter how old they are and even if they hate the vets or the car!). This check up is so valuable for your cat as it is the perfect opportunity for your vet to check your cat's mouth and assess whether they need a dental procedure. This is especially helpful if they’ve been hiding their symptoms well!

It’s important to note that some cats are predisposed to dental disorders and there can be a  genetic factor in whether your cat will develop periodontal disease or not, however we can all make small changes to our cats routine which can help to prevent a dental disorder, be it brushing your cats teeth, using a water additive, giving dental treats or adjusting their diet and adding in a dry, crunchy kibble type food. Prevention is better than cure and by taking steps to aid in the prevention of dental issues your furry feline friend will thank you for it! 

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