Downtime

Am I Really Supposed to Brush My Cat’s Teeth?

Seems unlikely that my cat would let me do that.

A cat hissing at an approaching toothbrush.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Beast Mode is Slate’s pet advice column. Have a question? Send it to beastmode@slate.com.

Dear Beast Mode,

Are you really supposed to brush your cat’s teeth? My vet told me I should, and I bought the little brushing kit, but it is just gathering dust. Because, my God, have you ever met a cat?! There is zero chance he is ever going to actually let me do that.

—Feline Dental Worrier

Dear Feline Dental Worrier,

First, let me assure you that I have met a cat. I have socialized with multiple cats throughout my life, to varying degrees of success, but you will have to take my word for it. When our fact-checkers reached out to verify my claims, the cats remained frustratingly tight-lipped. This conveniently brings us to your primary question, about brushing your cat’s teeth.

First of all, if your vet asks you to do something, I think it’s a good idea to listen. While I have been entrusted with a pet advice column, my main qualifications for this include that I have a dog and that she knows how to sit. Sometimes. Certainly when there’s a treat in my hand. Or if I hold a fist and pretend there’s a treat inside. Anyway, here’s a picture of her because she’s really a tremendous gal.

Ruby Greene in a birthday hat.
Ruby’s birthday is in February, if you would like to send any gifts.
Nick Greene

But rest assured that to fill any gaps in my own expertise, I will always consult real-life experts, like Kimi H. Kan-Rohrer, a dental hygienist who instructs at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the University of California–Davis.

Brushing your cat’s teeth may seem like a Sisyphean pursuit, but Sisyphus never had to deal with vet bills. “It is the easiest and least expensive technique a pet owner can perform on a daily basis that helps contribute to their pet’s well-being,” Kan-Rohrer told me over email. “If you wait until there are signs of problems (i.e., halitosis, bleeding gums, change in eating/drinking habits, calculus build-up, etc), then it is already too late to prevent periodontal disease.” Professional cleaning is done under anesthesia, and a regular brushing schedule can help prevent the need for this and other expensive procedures.

It’s pretty easy for me to tell you to brush your cat’s teeth. I’ve never had to do it, which may help explain why all my feline relationships have been relatively cordial. But it can be done! There are videos on YouTube to prove it. “Tooth brushing should be started as early as possible (as a kitten or puppy, or when the pet is acquired/adopted as an adult), in order to establish it as a part of the daily routine,” Kan-Rohrer says. “Just like trimming nails or administering medication, tooth brushing is something the cat will need to get used to with everyday exposure. It’s good to start slow and increase the brushing time a little everyday.”

Judging by your question, concerned reader, you did not start early with your cat, as the vet-administered brushing kit has “collected dust.” Despite this, I still think you should give it a shot. (Check the dusty toothpaste’s expiration date first, please.) Cats are weird! Follow your vet’s advice, but it can’t hurt to start with just the toothpaste to see if they will lick it off your finger or the tube and then go from there. That little pervert may actually like having its teeth scrubbed.

I consulted the Amazon reviews for a popular cat dental kit and was surprised to learn that the responses were largely positive. Granted, this is a self-selecting group; like running for president, you have to be a little crazy to brush your cat’s teeth. Nonetheless, the reviews offer encouragement, and it sounds like that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

“My cat enjoys the taste but hates the process … Every time gets easier and easier, so if you’re having a hard time like I am, DON’T give up!”

“This wasn’t a nightmare like expected.”

“I brushed the teeth of my girl cat, she did not like what was happening and was very glad to be done, however I definitely don’t think she was scarred by the process, nor was she upset with me after.”

“I am able to use it on my cat and she doesn’t mind it too much.”

“She waits outside the bathroom begging for toothbrushing the moment it gets dark every. single. night.”

OK, that last one is a little scary, but you get the idea.

Not every cat should get its teeth brushed. “There are some conditions in cats, such as feline resorption lesions or chronic gingivostomatitis, that can be painful,” Kan-Rohrer says, and she recommends getting an evaluation before starting a dental routine. Check back in with your vet to see if your cat’s teeth are still brush-able, and maybe ask for a dust-free toothbrush while you’re at it.

Neither you or your cat are used to this, but how often do we get to try new things with old friends?