If your cat suffers from fish-breath, it could be their dental hygiene leaves a lot to be desired. Indeed, bad breath can be an indication your pet has dirty teeth or gum disease. Worse still, inflamed gum tissue harbours bacteria (which causes the bad smell) and can lead to dental discomfort, wobbly teeth, and difficulty eating.
February is Pet Dental Health Month in the United States, so let’s take this opportunity to understand more about the importance of good dental health for our feline friends.
Why Do Cats Get Dental Problems?
The short answer is they don’t brush their teeth.
Most cat foods, especially the canned or moist varieties, leave a sticky residue on the teeth after eating. This sticky sludge is called “plaque” and it’s the ideal environment for bacteria to breed and create a gum infection. When plaque becomes mineralized, the solid deposit is called “tartar” and this pushes on the gums to cause recession, which in turn weakens the tooth’s attachment to the socket.
In addition, bacteria can irritate the gums and cause a red, angry border where the gum meets the tooth; this is known as “gingivitis”. Now there are several reasons why some cats get gingivitis (including certain viral infections or kidney problems) but a dirty mouth is a big risk factor in an otherwise healthy pet.
Be it wobbly teeth or sore gums, the chances are a cat with a dirty mouth has pain or discomfort in one form or another. It might be they have a constant nagging toothache that they learn to live with. Or alternatively they might feel shooting pains when they chew, clues to which include becoming a messy eater or losing their appetite.
Worse still, there is a chance bacterium from a dirty mouth get access to the blood stream. If blood-borne bacteria travel to the heart or kidneys, this can cause potentially life-threatening infections which are something nobody wants.
What are the Signs of Dental Problems?
Bad breath is one clue (although it may just be that tuna supper!) To be sure, you need to look inside your cat’s mouth. Try lifting your cat’s lip to check out what their teeth look like. A healthy mouth should have pink gums, just like ours, with no angry red rim where the teeth meet the gum. A cat’s teeth are a different shape to ours but the idea is the same, they should have clean white enamel without a yellow-brown coating of tartar. Also, check for broken or missing teeth, which could cause pain.
As to the signs of a sore mouth, watch your cat eating. Do they seem to have difficulty chewing, drop food on the floor, or take ages to eat their supper? These are all signs that it hurts when they chew. In extreme cases, the cat’s fur may smell unpleasant, because their saliva is contaminated with a bad odour which is spread over their coat as they wash.
If you suspect your cat has a problem, get their mouth checked by your vet. If tartar is present then it’s advisable to first get the teeth cleaned under anaesthesia and then look at ways of keeping them pearly-white afterwards.
Options for Clean Teeth
Dry kibble is less sticky and leaves fewer deposits on teeth than canned food, meaning it takes longer for tartar to build up. There are special dry diets that have a teeth cleaning action (Hills TD or oral care) as certified by the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council). To have the maximum tooth-cleaning benefit these diets need to be the cat’s main food, and the law of diminishing returns clicks in when you add in other foods.
How to Brush Your Cat’s Teeth
However, the gold standard for the best dental health has to be tooth brushing. Think how unpleasant your mouth feels when your skip brushing your teeth and you get some idea of the difference brushing makes. Now think what it would be like if you never brushed your teeth and you enter the world most of our pets inhabit.
It is possible to teach your cat to enjoy the one-on-one attention tooth-brushing offers, the trick is to take it slowly and make sure your cat is happy with each step before moving onto the next.
To teach your cat to accept having their teeth brushed; first choose a soft-bristled brush for pets, or a finger brush. You can also use a piece of gauze wrapped around your finger. In terms of toothpaste, make sure you use a product designed for pets: not only do these taste better to the cat, but the fluoride in human toothpaste if swallowed will upset their stomach. It also helps to leave the toothpaste and brush out around the home, and allow your cat to lick the toothpaste from your finger, so they realize it’s nothing to be wary of.
Take it a step at a time, starting with lifting the cat’s lip. Release the lip after a few seconds and tell your cat how clever they are and give an awesome chin rub. Repeat this a couple of times or more a day, and once they’re comfortable with you lifting their lip, move on to the next stage.
The full steps are:
- Lift the lip
- Use a finger to rub toothpaste onto a couple of teeth (let the cat lick it off)
- Use a toothbrush to apply toothpaste
- Try gently brushing with the tooth brush
- Tackle more of the teeth
Build this regime up over time and soon you’ll be a teeth-cleaning ninja. Your cat will have a healthy mouth, which means banishing fish-breath and receiving sweet kisses instead – definitely an important reason to help your cat to good dental health.
Do you have a cat with stinky breath? Have you ever tried brushing your cat’s teeth? Please share your experiences below.