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How to brush your cat’s teeth: A vet’s guide

brush your cat's teeth
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Dental disease is a serious problem for your cat. Not only can it cause discomfort for everyone involved (fish breath, anyone?) but it can also impact your cat’s longevity and quality of life. Dental disease doesn’t just affect your cat’s mouth, either. Oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream and travel to other organs, causing or worsening problems in the heart, liver and kidneys.

It’s clear that dental health is essential and brushing your cat’s teeth is the best way to keep your cat’s mouth clean and healthy. Many pet owners think that brushing their cat’s teeth will be impossible, but the truth is, it’s quite easy and, with the right preparation and training, can even be fun. 

Should you brush your cat’s teeth? 

By brushing your cat’s teeth regularly, you’ll be reducing the number of nasty bacteria living in your cat's mouth, as well as removing any debris like food or hair. This will help to prevent your cat from painful gum disease, known as gingivitis.

It will also keep each tooth root healthy so that your puss can hang on to their pearly whites for as long as possible! Spending time regularly brushing your cat's teeth has the added benefit of allowing you to check their mouth for any sore areas, lumps, or diseased teeth. 

Spotting these signs early and informing your vet will help your cat get any treatment that they need as soon as possible. If you don’t manage to brush your cat’s teeth, they’ll be more at risk of tooth loss and painful dental infections, which in extreme cases can even lead to sepsis. However, feeding dry cat food or, even better, a specially formulated diet to promote dental health can also be helpful.

Follow our step-by-step guide below to train your cat to love having her teeth brushed every day.

How to brush your cat's teeth

brush a cat's teeth

(Image credit: Getty Images)

1. Choose the right dental products for your cat

Never use human toothpaste on your cat – these products aren’t meant to be swallowed and could be harmful to your cat. Instead, look for toothpaste specifically formulated for pets. They come in a variety of flavors, so try experimenting to see which your cat likes the best. 

When it comes to choosing a toothbrush, you can use a full-sized toothbrush, a finger brush, or even a piece of gauze to clean your cat’s teeth. Whichever works best for both you and your cat is perfectly fine to use.

2. Let your cat explore these fun new toys

Your cat probably won’t appreciate having a toothbrush shoved in her mouth right off the bat. Give her time to sniff and explore the toothbrush so she can see that there’s nothing for her to be afraid of. You can even let her taste the toothpaste to find a flavor that she likes. 

Use positive reinforcement such as praise, petting or her favorite treats to encourage her to view the experience as something fun and rewarding.

3. Gradually start brushing your cat’s teeth

Once your cat has gotten used to the toothbrush and toothpaste, you can start to slowly introduce the concept of brushing. For most people, it’s easiest to do this with your cat sitting in your lap. You can also ask a friend or family member to hold your cat for you. 

Gently lift your cat’s lip and lightly brush one or two teeth with your toothbrush. Then back off for a moment and allow your cat some time to process this new sensation. Keep your sessions short at first, even if your cat seems to enjoy them. The key is to make the process quick and fun, so your cat looks forward to more.

4. Build up to a full mouth brushing

As your cat learns to tolerate and even appreciate having her teeth brushed, you can gradually build up to brushing more teeth in each sitting. Focus on using moderate pressure – about the same as what you’d use to brush your own teeth.  

Most of the bacteria that cause dental disease accumulate along the gum line, so pay special attention to this area. Remember to always keep your brushing sessions fun and upbeat. If your cat seems stressed by the process, take a break and try again later.

5. Establish a home dental care routine

The best way to prevent dental disease is to brush your cat’s teeth once a day, every day. Try to establish a routine where you brush your cat’s teeth at the same time every day, such as after a meal, so you’ll be less likely to forget. 

If daily brushing is too daunting right now, aim to complete a full mouth brushing at least a couple of times per week. As your cat becomes more comfortable with the process, you can gradually build up to brushing her teeth daily.

6. Incorporate dental care products for additional protection

Daily brushing is the best way to prevent dental disease, but dental care products can help protect your cat’s teeth in between brushings. Products such as dental treats, diets, and water additives can help prevent plaque build-up and slow the progression of existing dental disease. 

Look for products labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal, which certifies that the product has been tested and proven to reduce plaque build-up. It’s important to note that these products aren’t a cure for existing dental disease, but they are a great way to stop problems from arising. And your cat will love them, too.

cat teeth clean

(Image credit: Getty Images)

7. Don’t forget to follow up with your veterinarian

Once dental disease starts, the only way to treat it is by visiting your veterinarian for an examination and a professional dental cleaning. Your cat should visit your veterinarian at least once a year for a check-up, so your vet can catch potential dental problems early. 

At home, you can monitor your cat for symptoms such as red or bleeding gums, bad breath, yellow tartar build-up along the gum line and pain when chewing. If you notice your cat has any of these symptoms, it’s time to discuss a dental cleaning with your veterinarian. They can also recommend dental products and home care routines to ensure your cat gets the maximum benefit from her dental care.

When to start brushing a cat's teeth 

 Just like humans, kittens have baby teeth that come through at a few weeks of age. Their temporary baby teeth fall out at around six months old, and their permanent adult teeth appear in their place. So, you might think that there's no point in getting the toothbrush out until your kitten has their permanent adult teeth since the others are going to fall out anyway! 

However, although brushing your kitten's baby teeth won't benefit the teeth themselves, it will allow your kitty to get used to the experience. Allowing your kitten to get familiar with the toothbrush and toothpaste will make it more likely that they will accept toothbrushing as part of their long-term routine. 

Therefore, when it comes to brushing your cat's teeth, you should start as soon as possible. If you have an older cat and haven't yet started brushing their teeth, don't despair, you can still improve your cat's oral health by toothbrushing at any age! 

How often to brush your cat's teeth 

Cats need their teeth brushed every day, just like we do. Regular brushing helps remove residual food particles, scrub away bacteria, break up plaque, and stimulate healthy blood flow to the gums. 

While it may take some patience at first, you can easily teach your cat to tolerate and even enjoy having her teeth brushed every day.  Remember to start out slow and keep the experience fun for your cat. Before long, she’ll look forward to her daily dental care.

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com (opens in new tab) and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/ (opens in new tab)