- Up to 90% of cats over age 4 have gingivitis, periodontitis, or another type of dental disease.
- Brushing your cat’s teeth daily, or as often as you can, may help prevent oral health issues.
- You can ease your cat into toothbrushing by taking it slow and encouraging them with rewards.
Your cat has teeth, just like you — and if they’re prone to stinky breath that rivals your morning breath, you may wonder if they need regular dental care, too.
Vets say yes, your feline friend certainly does need dental care — particularly since 50% to 90% of cats over the age of 4 have some type of dental disease.
If you’ve never put a toothbrush into your cat’s mouth before, don’t worry. It’s never too late to start. Below, get step-by-step instructions to brush your cat’s teeth from experts, along with other tips to support your cat’s oral health.
Does brushing really matter?
Cats take care of other grooming tasks on their own, so you might assume brushing their teeth is unnecessary.
Yet while they’re perfectly able to clean their fur and paws and groom their nails, they can’t give their chompers the same treatment.
Without regular brushing, your cat’s teeth and gums may accumulate plaque, a transparent film of bacteria and debris. Over time, plaque attracts minerals from your cat’s chewed food and hardens into tartar.
Left unchecked, these conditions could lead to painful dental issues, including:
What’s more, cats with poor oral health may face a higher risk of kidney disease.
How to brush your cat’s teeth
Here’s the good news: You can manage some of these dental diseases by taking care of your cat’s teeth.
Caring for your cat’s teeth does include a good brushing from time to time — which may be easier said than done for some cats.
According to Bonk, it’s best to introduce your cat to brushing when they’re still a kitten. But if your cat is an adult, don’t worry — you can still teach an old cat new tricks. Here’s how to get started:
1. Get the right equipment
Before you can start brushing, you’ll need to have essential supplies ready, including:
- A cat toothbrush: “Cats have very small mouths and teeth, so you’ll need to purchase a toothbrush specially made for pets,” Bernal says. If you’re just starting out, consider a finger toothbrush. These slide onto your finger like a glove and give you easier control while brushing.
- Pet-safe toothpaste: Human toothpaste may contain ingredients that are toxic to cats, like fluoride or xylitol. Instead, look for a special cat toothpaste that’s safe for swallowing. These often come in flavors your cat might enjoy more than cool mint — like chicken, beef, or even catnip toothpaste.
- Rewards: Grab some rewards to reinforce good behavior, like treats or a fun toy. These can both encourage your cat to allow the indignity of toothbrushing and reward them for cooperating with the process.
2. Get your cat comfortable
With your equipment on hand, you can start familiarizing your cat with the brushing process.
According to Bernal, the goal of this step is to simply get your cat used to you handling their mouth rather than actually cleaning their teeth. You can start by:
1. Lifting your cat’s lips
2. Running your finger or a toothbrush over their teeth
3. Repeating until your cat feels comfortable with you touching all of their teeth
If you’re using a toothbrush during this step, Bonk first recommends keeping it dry. Later, you can introduce your cat to the toothpaste by letting them lick it from the tube or your finger first.
3. Start brushing
After a few sessions of getting your cat used to the brushing process, you can start actually cleaning their teeth.
First, set your cat in your lap, or in a spot where you can easily access their mouth.
If your cat doesn’t want to hold still, consider recruiting someone else to hold them for you. Alternatively, you can try wrapping them in a towel — like a cat burrito or “purrito” if you will. Swaddling your cat gives you better control of their head and helps keep them from swatting at you.
Then, Bernal says, follow these steps:
- Squeeze a drop of toothpaste onto the toothbrush.
- Gently move the toothbrush in a circular motion over every tooth.
- Continue tooth to tooth until you’ve clean all of your cat’s teeth
- Remember to brush along the gum line to help prevent plaque buildup there.
Ideally, aim to brush their teeth for 2-3 minutes once a day. If your cat won’t tolerate daily sessions, brushing every other day or weekly can still make a difference, Bonk says.
4. Offer rewards
Throughout the process, it’s important to stay gentle and reward your cat for good behavior, Bernal says.
After all, you want your cat to keep calm when you get the toothbrush, not run away and hide.
Positive reinforcement, like a yummy dental treat, may help your cat learn to link the reward with the toothbrushing session — which may leave them more inclined to cooperate.
That said, every cat has different preferences. If your cat doesn’t care for treats, other rewards that may motivate them include:
Other ways to support your cat’s oral health
Patience is key when training cats to tolerate any new experience. Of course, if you’ve been at it for a while and your cat responds to the toothbrush with a flurry of claws, it might be time to change your tactics.
“Some cats just aren’t going to go for toothbrushing, and that’s fine,” Bonk says.
Rather than forcing your cat to brush, you can still help keep their teeth and gums healthy through methods like:
- Getting a professional cleaning: If your cat won’t let you brush their teeth at home, Bonk suggests contacting your vet for a professional cleaning. Your vet can sedate your cat before cleaning their teeth and examine your cat’s mouth for any dental issues.
- Feeding them dry food: Tartar and plaque may be less common in cats that eat dry food. So, feeding your cat kibble or crunchy dental treats may help support their dental health.
- Trying a gel: If your cat won’t sit still for a brushing session, Bonk suggests smearing your cat’s teeth with a dental gel to fight plaque and tartar.
Brushing your cat’s teeth might seem a bit strange at first — both to you and your cat. But it’s an important way to support their dental health and keep them from developing painful dental diseases.
While it’s best to introduce toothbrushing to a young kitten, adult cats can also learn to tolerate the process, so long as you start slow and reward them for cooperating with you.
“Stay patient, persistent, and gentle. If you can regularly clean your cat’s teeth, they have a better chance at living a happy, healthy life,” Bonk says.