Most veterinary dentists recommend that we brush our pet’s teeth at least a few times a week as part of a healthy dental routine. While brushing a cat’s teeth sounds like a crazy endeavor fraught with risks of bodily injury, I am a strong believer that cats can be trained to allow teeth brushing. The key is introducing the process very slowly and using lots of positive reinforcement. Pets can’t have fluoride toothpaste so we recommend using a flavored enzymatic one. They come in lots of great flavors including seafood (a big hit with my own kitties), poultry, and beef. You start off offering a dollop of toothpaste for your kitty to lick off for a week or two. Break out the big deal treats so they associate this activity with good things. Once your kitty is comfortable with that, move on to letting them lick it off a small toothbrush or finger brush. Do that for 1 to 2 weeks, then move on to trying to brush the teeth. I recommend starting slow with the front teeth and then work your way to the back of their mouth over a -2 week period of time. When they are comfortable with this concentrate your efforts on the back molars and along the gum lines. This can do a lot to help keep teeth clean and healthy. While dental treats are great for freshening breath and removing some tartar, they are unfortunately no substitute for a teeth brushing routine.
Interestingly, kitties don’t get true “cavities” the way we do. They form something called a Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesion (FORL) and start breaking down and resorbing their tooth, replacing the tooth root with bone. It typically starts along the gumline and can be a very painful process until most of the tooth and roots have been broken down. We don’t quite know why this happens, but the main theory is that this process could be autoimmune, where the cat’s own immune system starts to attack the teeth. Two-thirds of cats will have at least one FORL in their lifetime.
As many of you know, cats are fantastic at hiding their pain and a majority of the time, kitties continue to eat and drink normally without letting on how painful their mouths are. Sometimes, cats will drop food while eating, drool, or cope by only chew with one side of their mouth. During an oral exam, we can often see bright red dots on teeth that indicate the presence of FORL. Unfortunately, we can’t ask kitties to lay back and open wide, so the next step is a dental cleaning under general anesthesia. While under general anesthesia, we can fully examine and probe the mouth for any abnormal periodontal pockets, as well as take x-rays to look at the tooth roots and look for disease below the gumline. These tools allow us to fully evaluate which teeth can stay and which teeth need to be extracted. While it sounds like a scary procedure, kitties often do great and feel so much more comfortable afterwards. We recommend waiting 2 weeks to allow the mouth to heal, then starting a teeth brushing routine to help maintain the teeth.