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Keeping a cat’s teeth clean

Foods that clean a cat's teeth

[From Tufts May 2012 Issue]

Q I know there are dog treats that say on the label that they will prevent tartar and periodontal disease. Any such products for cats?
LaVerne Gurley
Humble, Texas

Dear Ms. Gurley,
A A number of cat treats are labeled as good for the teeth, but none has received the seal of acceptance from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC), the only independent company whose word is accepted by the veterinary community at large. However, there are cat foods for the regular diet that contain the seal, which means the product can help with plaque and tartar control. They include Hill’s prescription Diet Feline t/d and Science Diet Oral Care Diet for Cats (go to www.VOHC.org for the complete list).

The ability of a diet to help reduce plaque and tartar is significant. By removing plaque (think of the film that forms over your teeth by morning) and tartar (what plaque hardens into if it’s not removed), a food is working to reduce the chances of periodontal disease, the most common oral hygiene problem among cats (they don’t get cavities). If advanced enough, periodontal disease can cause gum erosion and the eventual loss of bone around the tooth socket so that the tooth finally falls out.

The foods with the seal work by getting your cat to chew his food more thoroughly, which mechanically scrapes plaque and tartar from his teeth. Consider that cats in general don’t chew their food. When you hear a cat crunching, the sound is kibble crumbling in his mouth — it does not mean that chewing is taking place. But the size of the kibble in food with the VOHC seal is larger than usual, which forces the cat to do some actual chewing. That is part of the reason these products work.

Most of the approved foods are therapy foods available only from vets by prescription, which tends to make them more expensive than what you’d find at the store. But if you don’t want to feed your cat one of these, it’s not the end of the world. Granted, if you give your cat only wet food as part of an all-canned diet as opposed to dry of any kind, the food will stick to his teeth more.

But if you brush your cat’s teeth once a day, every single day, like you’re supposed to, you will go a long way toward removing unwanted plaque and preventing tartar no matter what the food. Whatever toothbrush your cat accepts is appropriate. For some it’s a little cat-only brush with two rows of bristles that you buy from your veterinarian. For others it’s a soft toothbrush for human babies. Even a little gauze wrapped around the end of your finger will work.

Use cat toothpaste only, which may come, say, salmon-flavored. Toothpaste for people often has fluoride, which can make a cat sick if he swallows it (and he will definitely swallow at least a little).

It’s best to start brushing your cat’s teeth when he’s a kitten rather than introduce the habit when he’s already set in his ways. Work on it slowly, building up the process over time, praising your cat for sitting still and giving him a treat afterward. “But if it doesn’t work, don’t beat yourself up over it,” says Jean Joo, DVM, a veterinary dentist at Tufts. “We’re supposed to enjoy our pets, and our pets are supposed to enjoy us. If this becomes a huge battleground between you and your cat, it’s not worthwhile. I have one cat who will literally attack me if I try to brush her teeth.”

Besides, there’s always an out. By the time your cat is somewhere between the age of 5 and 7, he should be on a regular schedule for teeth cleanings at the veterinarian’s office, perhaps once a year or once every other year. For cats who start showing signs of dental disease younger, the cleanings, always done under anesthesia (a cat can’t be counted on to “open wide” and sit still), should start sooner.

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