Purrrly Whites: How to Keep Your Cat’s Teeth Clean and Healthy

By JanetTCrosby on Feb. 15, 2017


Did you know that the condition of your cat's teeth can affect their overall health? Like dogs and humans, cats have dental health issues that may affect not only their mouth, but overall health and longevity too. Knowing what to watch for is the first step to keeping your cat healthy and happy—from kittenhood through the senior years.

Your Cat’s Teeth: The Basics
Kittens are born without visible teeth. Between three and six weeks of age, teeth gradually erupt from the gums. These first 26 teeth have sharp, needle-like points and are sometimes called baby teeth or milk teeth. The medical terminology is deciduous teeth, which means they will fall out—just like they do in humans. Baby teeth typically fall out between three and six months, but this varies from kitten to kitten.

If a deciduous tooth doesn’t fall out— the condition is known as retained deciduous tooth; adult teeth may have trouble erupting. Cats may also experience tooth breakage or additional plaque and tartar for existing teeth. By the time cats reach adulthood, they have 30 permanent teeth.

What Types of Dental Problems Do Cats Experience?
Like humans, cats are prone to tartar and plaque buildup, gum disease (gingivitis) and ultimately, loss of teeth due to infection and breakage. Dental disease can affect overall health; a diseased mouth is full of bacteria that can enter the bloodstream and infect the heart, liver, kidneys, bone, respiratory system and other body systems. 

Here are some types of dental disease: 

  • Broken Teeth: Impact injury or chewing on hard objects (a more common occurrence for dogs) can cause tooth breakage. Broken teeth are a portal for infection.
  • Resorptive Lesions: Tooth resorption is one of the most common oral lesions in cats over five, second only to periodontal disease. This condition—also known as Feline Odontoclastic Resorptive Lesions (FORL), neck lesions and feline cavities—occurs in several species of animals including humans, but not as often as cats. The exact cause of this condition is unknown, but an autoimmune or viral infection may be to blame. Most cats who present with FORL also have periodontal disease. Tooth erosion starts at the gum line. The gums and affected exposed teeth are often bright red. Individual responses vary, but this is often a very painful condition for the cat, manifesting in drooling, difficulty eating, pulling away if the face is touched and bad breath.
  • Periodontal Disease: Though it’s entirely preventable, periodontal disease is the most common clinical condition that occurs in adult cats. Minerals in cats’ saliva can harden plaque, which is formed by bacteria sticking to the teeth, into tartar. Tartar is much harder than plaque and more difficult to remove. When plaque and tartar makes their way under the gum line, they can damage the supporting tissues around each tooth. If untreated, bacteria under gums can lead to tooth loss.

Periodontal disease includes gingivitis, inflammation of the gums and periodontitis (loss of bone and soft tissue around the teeth). Both are difficult to treat and usually very painful. Home tooth care and brushing is not recommended due to the painful nature of this condition.

It’s important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you notice any indication of lesions, broken teeth or symptoms of gingivitis.

Common Causes of Dental Disease
While dental disease can affect any cat, some breeds are more susceptible. Short-nosed breeds, such as the Persian and Himalayan, have small jaws. This often results in tooth crowding and misalignment, which creates pockets for plaque and tartar. Other breeds commonly affected by dental disease include Abyssinians, Somalis, Maine Coons and Siamese. Genetics, composition of saliva and anatomy also make a cat more or less prone to tooth trouble.

Other potential causes of dental disease in cats include concurrent diseases such as diabetes and Feline Leukemia Virus (FELV) or Feline Immunodeficiency Virus (FIV) infection. Dietary choices can also play a role.

How to Prevent Dental Disease



Start Young
Cats typically do not like to have their mouths opened. They are usually more resistant to oral examination than dogs and have sharper teeth and fast-action claws to get their point across. That said, getting your cat used to oral examination and care at an early age can help foster a successful at-home dental care program and routine veterinary examinations. 

Offering food or treats (small amounts of canned food or cat treats) is a great way to gain trust and prepare your cat for oral examinations in a non-threatening and positive way. Hand feed one treat at a time and repeat a few times over a few days. Gradually work up to gently lifting up the cat’s lips. Once your cat is comfortable with this level of interaction, work up to opening the mouth. Ask your veterinarian to show you the best technique for your cat. It is important to familiarize yourself with the proper technique beforehand to minimize discomfort to your cat or injury to yourself. All animals may act unpredictably if stressed, sick or injured, but a cat that is used to mouth contact can have an easier time during check ups.

Schedule Regular Check Ups
From trying to get a cat in a carrier, to the car trip, the veterinarian and stress from an animal-filled office, veterinary appointments can be difficult. If possible, start young to establish a familiarity and comfort. Adult cats can also learn to handle carriers, car rides and veterinary visits. Start short and use food or toys as positive encouragement. If your cat is especially stressed by veterinary visits, consider finding a feline-only practice certified by the American Association of Feline Practitioners (CFP).

Leave the carrier out in plain sight or food in the carrier on a day your cat won’t be traveling. This may help reduce the anxiety some cats feel when they see the crate. Work up to short trips around the block or veterinarian visits just to walk in for a weigh-in. Take it slow; each car trip will gradually get easier. Never leave pets unattended in a car or crate.

Consider using Feliway spray or wipes in the carrier five to 10 minutes prior to departure. This is a non-toxic calming product made specifically for cats. It is a synthetic pheromone based on natural cat facial pheromones that create a sense of calm and well-being.

Regular veterinary examinations are crucial for your cat’s health. Veterinarians track any changes in weight, oral health, behavioral problems and overall health. Establishing a healthy baseline aids a vet in diagnosis when your pet is sick. Schedule an appointment once a year, and every six months for seniors and cats with any known health problems.

Notice Signs of Dental Disease


Cats are experts at hiding pain, including a painful mouth. An annual examination can alert you to dental problems, but for the rest of the year it’s up to you to notice any signs of dental disease.

If you notice any of the following signs, please consult with your veterinarian as soon as possible.

  • Drooling (saliva and/or blood)
  • Pawing at mouth
  • Chattering jaw
  • Bad breath
  • Not wanting to eat
  • Trouble eating
  • Messy (partially chewed) food around the bowl
  • Lethargy

Offer Play or Chew Toys
For younger cats, introducing dental chew toys to play with is a good way to encourage lifelong dental health. Caution is advised for any toys with string or “floss” as this can be dangerous if chewed off and ingested. Not all cats will play with chew toys, but it’s fun to try.

Use Tartar Control Treats and Food
Dental care biscuits and treats specially formulated for cats can help prevent plaque and tartar from accumulating on the teeth. If your cat already has tartar buildup, dental treats may not do the trick. Schedule a professional veterinary cleaning to effectively remove any buildup.

Brush Your Cat’s Teeth
Once weekly, brush your cat’s teeth by following the instructions below. Work your way up to a full mouth brushing by introducing the toothpaste first, then brushing just a few teeth at a time. Take breaks and stop if your cat is stressed or anxious. 


Bad breath and eating issues are not normal products of age. Knowing what to watch for and starting a dental care program at home will assist your veterinarian in providing the best dental care possible for your cat.


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0 Kudos
‎02-26-2016 05:23 AM
I have exotics with tiny noses flat faces and two of them have the worst breath I ever smelled their back teeth are covered in plaque and very inflamed gums you can't get a finger in their mouth it's too small
I have exotics with tiny noses flat faces and two of them have the worst breath I ever smelled their back teeth are covered in plaque and very inflamed gums you can't get a finger in their mouth it's too small
Posted on Feb. 26, 2016
‎02-27-2016 05:03 AM
Thanks! Edwin (My cat) has been having bad breath and Is a messy cat (He us very old though, so I don't know how I can help much.
Thanks! Edwin (My cat) has been having bad breath and Is a messy cat (He us very old though, so I don't know how I can help much.
Posted on Feb. 27, 2016
About the Author
  • Janet Tobiassen Crosby, DVM, has been writing about veterinary medicine topics since 1998. She was the Guide to Veterinary Medicine at About.com from 1999 to 2015. Dr. Tobiassen specializes in small animals and has practiced on both the east and west coasts. She is a member of the American Veterinary Medical Association and the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association. Trained at Oregon State University, Washington State University, and the Animal Medical Center in New York City, Dr. Tobiassen graduated with a doctorate in veterinary medicine (DVM) from Oregon State University in 1990.
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