By Jean Hofve, DVM

February is National Pet Dental Health Month! How much do you know about your cat’s dental health? Well, here’s a little refresher for you!

The normal adult cat has 30 very sharp, highly specialized teeth. In the wild, these teeth would perform a variety of tasks such as grooming (the 6 small incisors at the front of each jaw), grasping and killing prey (the 4 long canines, also called “fangs”), and crushing and shearing the meat off the prey’s bones to eat (the pointed molars and premolars along the sides of the jaws, also called “cheek teeth”).

In the wild, the cat’s diet and eating habits keep the teeth clean and strong. However, the typical diet of a domestic cat – commercial cat food – does not. Therefore, proper dental care throughout the cat’s life is essential to optimal health.

Dental disease is the #1 most common health problem seen by veterinarians. By the age of 3, virtually all pet cats (and dogs) have some degree of dental disease, ranging from a mild accumulation of tartar to severe infection and tooth loss. Most pets would benefit from an annual dental exam and cleaning, but it is also important for you to take care of your pet’s teeth at home.

Within hours after cleaning, bacteria start to re-colonize the surface of the teeth. They secrete substances to attach themselves more firmly, and to protect themselves from the immune system. The combination of bacteria and their secretions is called plaque. If plaque is not removed, minerals in the saliva turn it into calculus, more commonly called tartar, within 24-48 hours (which makes brushing less than daily fairly useless).

Some of the substances secreted by the bacteria cause inflammation of the gums (gingiva), resulting in gingivitis. Untreated, inflammation can progress and even break down tissues in the mouth, leading to periodontal disease. Eventually, infection and erosion cause the teeth to decay, abscess or fracture. All of these processes are extremely painful to the animal.

While diet does play a role in dental disease, there is also a very strong genetic component. Some breeds, such as Abyssinians, have a tendency to develop severe gingivitis; and Persians often have overcrowded, cavity-prone teeth due to their “smushed” faces. Some pets may need very little dental care, while others might require full cleanings under anesthesia once or even twice a year.

One myth that is completely false is the notion that “dry food cleans the teeth.” The best that can be said for dry food is that it may produce slightly less tartar than canned food. Cats eating only dry food can and do develop the same dental problems as cats who “never touch the stuff.” One study showed that food itself is completely irrelevant; cats developed tartar even when fed by stomach tube, with no food passing through the mouth at all! The exceptions are Hill’s t/d® and Friskies Dental Diet®, which have very large kibbles designed to fracture so that the fragments scrape tartar off the teeth. However, the major ingredients are poor quality (by-product meal, corn gluten meal, corn meal or ground yellow corn, cellulose; Friskies even contains glycerin, a form of sugar – now, how is that good for teeth?!). Plus, these foods suffer from all the usual problems of dry food (extreme processing, high carbohydrates, low moisture). Because of the health risks associated with dry food (such as obesity, diabetes, allergies, arthritis, FLUTD, and kidney disease), we cannot recommend them as a regular diet. (See the articles on dry food and teeth, and why dry food is unhealthy for your cat for more information.) It is a lot easier to keep your pet’s teeth clean yourself than to give insulin shots every 12 hours for the rest of her life, or to surgically remove stones from his bladder!

Excellent dental health requires help from your veterinarian as well as a commitment to home care from you. If your pet already has dental disease, the first step is to have his teeth cleaned under anesthesia by your veterinarian. While no surgery is risk-free, modern anesthetics, together with appropriate monitoring and supportive care, make this a very low risk procedure, even for older animals (who usually need it the most!). I’ve done hundreds of dentistries on elderly cats without a single anesthetic death.

The best way of removing plaque and preventing dental disease at home is brushing the teeth. “Yeah, right!” I hear you say. It’s true, but almost nobody does it. Heck, even *I* don’t do it. If you’re the rare one who would like to try, and your cat is cooperative, read on… Ideally, you should brush your cat’s teeth daily. Brushing removes plaque on the outside of the crown (above-gum portion) of the tooth, and stimulates the gums to keep them healthy. However, plaque can still accumulate below the gum line; so an annual check-up and cleaning, if necessary, is still an essential part of your pet’s dental health. Even if you don’t see any problems, it is best to have your pet’s teeth professionally cleaned prior to beginning a home-care program to make sure there are no painful areas in the mouth that might jeopardize your success.

Your veterinarian can show you how to brush your cat’s teeth, but it may still turn into a battle at home, which is the last thing you want! Here are a few tips to get you going:

  • Buy a finger brush and toothpaste designed for pets. Do not use a human brush or even a pet brush on a stick; these can severely injure the gums without you knowing it (other than by your cat’s very negative reaction!).
  • Since most cats love having their faces rubbed at the corners of the mouth (because of the scent glands there), gently rubbing there is usually a good place to start. Each time you do, run your finger a little farther forward along the lips.
  • Gradually extend your rubbing by slipping your finger under the lips and massaging the gums gently. Take this step slowly and back off immediately if your cat objects. You don’t want to make this an unpleasant experience, so let the cat dictate how fast you progress.
  • Put a little pet toothpaste on your finger when you’re rubbing. Most cats love the taste.
  • Put the brush on your finger with a little toothpaste. This will be only slightly different from what you’ve been doing and should be tolerated. If not, remove the brush and go back a step. A piece of damp gauze can substitute for the toothbrush.

It’s best to brush every day; then if you miss a day, it’s not a crisis. However, if you plan to brush every other day, and then miss a session, you’ve lost several days that cannot be reclaimed, and plaque will have a good head start.

There are many dental care products marketed for pets. Oral rinses, gels, and water additives will not control plaque by themselves. And they only work on plaque on the surface of the teeth, not under the gumline where dental disease begins. Treats do not contribute to dental health, even if they are labeled “Tartar Control.” No proof of effectiveness is needed to put such a label on a treat; it’s just a marketing gimmick.

The best product I’ve found for getting rid of tartar and keeping the teeth and gums healthy is a treat called C.E.T. Forte Chews. For cats, they come in poultry and fish flavors; for dogs, they come in several sizes. They have a fibrous texture and are impregnated with helpful enzymes that keep the gums healthy. For best results, give one chew per day.

Another product that has gotten good reports is Wysong’s “Denta-Treat”. It is a cheese-flavored powder that you can sprinkle on the pet’s food or use as toothpaste. Some days, my cats even like it!

Most dog chews, including nylon, rubber, rawhide, hooves, ears, and real bones (whether packaged, raw, or cooked), do little to reduce plaque accumulation, and can actually cause a dog’s teeth to fracture. Broken teeth are a source of infection and pain to the dog, and a major expense to you when they have to be extracted. If a dog swallows a chunk of any of them, it can cause a life-threatening intestinal blockage. If you have a ball-obsessed dog, don’t let him chew on tennis balls; the fuzz rapidly wears teeth down.

There are many serious health risks associated with tooth decay. Bacteria living in these “slums” can enter the bloodstream and seed infection in critical organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys. Decayed and abscessed teeth are very painful, and may hinder the animal from taking in enough nourishment; not to mention deterioration of the pet’s quality of life. In my personal experience, many a cranky old cat has become happy and playful again after hidden dental problems were corrected.

Proper dental care for your pet is neither easy nor cheap, but it is truly necessary to maintain optimal health and well-being.

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