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Feline Dental Care

You probably wouldn’t think of not taking yourself to the dentist at least twice a year for an exam and cleaning, but when was the last time you took your cat to the dentist? Eighty-five percent of adult pets have periodontal disease, and dental disease is the largest single cause of health problems in cats. Infected gums and teeth can make kitty’s breath decidedly unpleasant and cause her considerable pain, which can be so bad as to keep her from eating. Even worse, tartar buildup and oral infections contain a multitude of bacteria that can 'seed' to other parts of the body and affect the heart, kidneys, intestinal tract, joints and even the brain.

An adult cat has thirty teeth (a juvenile feline twenty-six) and all thirty of them need to be checked regularly (at least once a month) for yellowing (plaque) or darker material (tartar) and for cracked or broken teeth. Gums should be a healthy pink, not an angry red or a pale pink. At the first sign of any irregularity, including a reluctance to eat, take your cat to the vet. Even if your cat has no symptoms of dental or other disease, resist the temptation to skip your pet’s annual veterinary exam. Feline dental disease can occur rapidly, and the office visit charge you save today could turn into hundreds of dollars in fees tomorrow for blood tests, anesthesia, and tooth extractions. Most veterinary dental cleanings are still done under general anesthesia, and all surgery, including dental procedures, is risky for cats, especially those over six years of age. Prevention not only saves money, it may save your cat’s life.

Well-behaved cats now have the option of anesthesia-free cleanings. Ask your vet if he or she provides such an option and, if so, whether your cat is a good candidate. If your vet doesn’t provide such a service, it’s worth seeking it out. Pet Dental Services offers a list of veterinary hospitals that offer anesthesia free cleanings in California. If your cat requires an extraction, however, or is an uncooperative type, her dental cleaning will need to be done under anesthesia. Pre-dental blood work is recommended for all cats, and is required by most vets for cats over six years of age in order to make sure that the liver, kidneys, and blood counts are within normal ranges and to reduce as many risks of anesthesia as possible. Animals with especially bad teeth may be put on an antibiotic a few days prior to the procedure.

If your pet requires cleaning or extractions under anesthesia you will need to fast her starting the evening before the procedure. Professional feline dental cleaning is similar to a human dental cleaning – the technician will remove any tartar, and check for cavities, gingival (gum) pockets, loose teeth, and growths on the gums or palate. If necessary, diseased teeth will be extracted. Tartar pits teeth, so the final step in your pet’s cleaning is polishing to smooth out the pits and prevent further tartar formation, as a smooth tooth will not encourage tartar formation as easily as a roughened one.

One of the best weapons in preventing dental problems in cats is regular brushing of your cat’s teeth. Needless to say, your cat probably has other ideas on this point. Feline dental care is best started when your cat is young and continued at regular intervals throughout your cat’s life. Daily brushing is best if you and the cat can handle it, but even two or three times a week is better than none. Unfortunately you can’t just decide that you’re going to brush your cat’s teeth and start doing it. Your cat needs gentle conditioning in order to get her accustomed to your handling her mouth.

Start by holding your cat still and massaging the outside of her mouth for a few seconds. Repeat this on as many days as necessary to get your cat comfortable with your touching her mouth. At this stage you can proceed to opening her mouth with clean hands and rubbing a finger over her gums. Again, you need to go slowly and repeat this step until your cat is used to it. The next step is to add toothpaste to the finger and get your cat used to the taste and feel. PLEASE NOTE: USE ONLY TOOTHPASTE SPECIALLY FORMULATED FOR CATS. Toothpaste designed for humans may be toxic to cats, who can’t spit it out. Once your cat has grown accustomed to both the toothpaste and having her mouth handled, you can move on to the final step which is to brush her teeth with a small child’s tooth brush or one designed especially for cats. Most pet stores carry them. At each step, reward your cat with a treat, to reinforce the behavior you want. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine has a helpful and free training video, which presents an easy to follow four-week program for getting your cat prepared for regular brushing.

If your cat really won’t tolerate regular brushing after you’ve tried a slow, gentle wooing, you may just need to bring her to a professional more frequently. Discuss your cat’s teeth and temper with your vet and work together to formulate a plan. Your cat needs regular dental care just like you do in order to lead a long, happy, and pain-free life. She isn’t going to figure out how to brush on her own, so be a good cat Mom or Dad and do it for her. She may not thank you for the brushing, but she’ll thank you for the love and the healthy teeth and pay you back with good breath and good health, a decidedly worthwhile outcome.

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©Mike Stanfill, 2008