Cat Teeth Brushing 101: Everything You Need to Know

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 12 min read

Cat Teeth Brushing 101: Everything You Need to Know

There's a fairly common perception that cats 😺 are independent creatures and don't really need a lot of maintenance.

They take care of themselves, right? They don't need baths 🛁 because they clean themselves, they don't need their nails trimmed because a scratching post lets them keep them short, and so on.

Unfortunately, this kind of attitude leads more to neglected kitties than it does to responsible pet parents. Cats 🐱 may be relatively clean creatures, but they can still use a little helping hand, especially for areas of hygiene that they can't handle on their own.

One such form of cat upkeep is tooth 🦷 brushing.

It's actually really important! While cats typically don’t get cavities (we’ll get into this in more detail down below), they are prone to develop periodontal disease and tooth resorption, which is quite painful.

Often, older cats – especially those whose mouths haven’t been tended to over the years – end up with toothless mouths – two of my kitties had multiple teeth removed later in life 😔.

You can stall or avoid this issue entirely by keeping your cat's teeth brushed and as clean as possible. You likely have a lot of questions, so I'll do my best to answer them here.

As usual, I've added a great short education 📽️ video on how to train your cat to let you brush their teeth in 4 weeks. This is a must watch!

How Do Cat Teeth Compare To Human Teeth?

For starters, an adult cat has 30 permanent teeth while humans have 32. Does this surprise you? We're not very different teeth-wise after all 😊.

Second, just like us humans, cats are born with no teeth. As they grow, they get baby teeth (aka milk teeth) and eventually those fall out as their permanent teeth grow in.

Third, if you’ve ever looked in a cat’s mouth, you can see a lot of sharp little teeth. If you compare their molars to ours, theirs are much pointier. Those sharp teeth are ideal for ripping and tearing apart bits of meat, but they can still get little bits of tissue stuck between them and trapped along the gums, and they aren’t able to floss to get it out.

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Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, just like us, a cat’s teeth are prone to plaque build-up, which hardens to tartar and when left unchecked can lead to gingivitis and periodontal disease. Imagine not brushing your teeth for 15, 20 years. Odds are you’d be in a lot of pain from cavities.

One important difference between human and cats’ teeth is that cats don’t typically get cavities because of the shape of their teeth. God bless them for that! However, the dentin can erode leading to tooth resorption.

Unlike humans and dogs, cats do not have occlusal tables [horizontal surfaces] on their molars; thus, they do not develop true carious lesions.” – Dr. Alexander Reiter

Since cats are masters at hiding pain, it’s important to maintain their teeth before dental disease sets in. Check out this short read of 5 things you may not know about your cat’s dental health.

While biannual teeth cleanings are the norm for us humans, regular cleanings are also recommended for your kitty.

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How Do Wild Cats Care For Their Teeth?

You might be thinking to yourself, why do I need to clean my cat’s teeth? After all if wild cats can survive without having their teeth brushed, shouldn’t my kitty be fine? Right?

A Wild Cat Image by Toe Beans

Well not so fast. The difference is wild cats also chew on bones and other tough bits of what they eat. These bits of bone serve as an abrasive and a cleaner to remove bits of stuck meat. It's sort of like how we might use toothpicks.

Another important consideration is that wild cat’s teeth usually outlive them as cats in the wild do not live that long.

Unlike our fur babies, who thanks to advances in science and veterinary medicine can now live 20+ years. Thank you cat scientists 😊

Our angel Sosa, our longest living kitty, lived for 18 years and 11 happy months!

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Why is this important?

Well, when you feed your own cat a meat diet, chances are it's all soft food. After all, you don't want to give them inedible bones that could splinter and hurt them or just be carried under the couch to be lost, right?

Well, that removes the "flossing" part of their diet and makes them more prone to gum disease.

Also, it’s important to realize that wild cats can and do get gum disease and toothaches; they just don't have any way to deal with it but to suffer until the tooth breaks out or an infection kills them. Never forget that nature is a harsh world!

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Why Should You Brush Your Cat's Teeth?

Regularly brushing your cat’s teeth will have as many benefits as brushing your own teeth. Also, a consistent tooth brushing routine will positively impact your cat’s overall health and well-being.

We should never underestimate the impact that happy fur children have on our own happiness and well being as well.

Brushing a Cat's Teeth Image by Toe Beans

The first benefit, of course, is oral health. You're removing bacteria and preventing gum disease, which minimizes the chance of toothaches, infections, abscesses, and emergency dental surgery. Anything you can do to prevent illness and pain is good, right?

Second, dental health has a direct impact on overall health. When cats have dental disease, plaque bacteria can enter the blood stream through the blood vessels in the infected tooth spreading to other organs such as the heart, kidneys, and liver.

The bacteria that are found within the mouth of pets with dental disease are the same bacteria that are often implicated in heart disease. These bacteria are associated with both endocarditis (inflammation/infection of the interior of the heart) and valvular disease in dogs and cats.” - Catherine Barnette, DVM | VCA Animal Hospitals

Third, brushing your cat’s teeth as preventative medicine can spare your cat a traumatic life-threatening experience while saving you money. Dental extractions are expensive for pets.

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If a tooth needs to be pulled, especially in an emergency situation and doubly so if there's an infection involved, you're going to be looking at a hefty bill – trust me I’ve done this for two senior kitties.

Investing a few bucks into some toothpaste and a toothbrush is way better than an expensive, risky, dreadful surgery.

Once you've successfully trained your fur baby to accept their teeth being brushed, it can become part of bonding time. Cats groom one another as a sign of affection, and while they don't exactly brush each other's teeth, adding it to part of your grooming routine can be a good experience for you both.

What Kind of Brush Should You Use?

Cat toothbrushes come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, and forms. Since different cats have different temperaments and preferences, it might take some experimentation and some training to find the right option.

Types of Cat Toothbrushes Image by Toe Beans

Here are some of the best options:

  • Finger brushes. Often called dental wipes, these are basically slightly abrasive cloths you wrap around your finger, so you can use it to brush their teeth. This gives you more fine control and sensitivity to make sure you're getting as much of the tooth as possible.
  • Standard toothbrushes. These are a lot like our human toothbrushes, only with a much smaller head and shorter bristles. Some will say it’s easier to maneuver around a cat's small mouth, but some cats don't like stiff plastic being shoved in their jaw.
  • Silicone toothbrushes. These are like traditional toothbrushes, except instead of harder plastic and stiff bristles, they're made of softer silicone. These toothbrushes typically slide over one finger essentially turning your finger into the handle. These are best for cats that don't like the harsher or more abrasive kinds of brushes
  • Nubbed toys. If you search online for cat dental toys, you’re like to find a rubber toy with little holes in it. These products are designed less as a toothbrush and more as a toy, hopefully making it more attractive to your cat. Your cat is given an incentive to chew on it, like catnip inside it, and they just chew away. It's more of a passive tooth brushing than an active effort on your part. With that said it’s also less effective, though better than nothing.

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You can even use a human toothbrush (as long as it's new and only used for your cat) or just wrap your finger in gauze. There are a lot of options! You just need to try a few until you find one that your cat will tolerate.

What Kind of Toothpaste Should You Use, If Any?

Toothpaste is important for human tooth brushing because it's mildly abrasive and can scrape away the built-up bacteria and plaque that cause cavities. But is toothpaste important for cats too?

Putting Toothpaste on a Toothbrush Image by Toe Beans

Generally, yes. If your cat won't tolerate any kind of cat-safe toothpaste, a dry brushing will be better than nothing at all, but if you can get them used to toothpaste, you're much better off.

There are a wide range of cat toothpastes available, and they come in such delectable flavors as tuna, malt, poultry, and salmon. Since these are flavors your cat will probably love, toothbrushing can be considered a treat of sorts.

Never, under any circumstances, use human toothpaste. This is one of the reasons why you shouldn't share a toothbrush with your cat, because of residue on your toothbrush.

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Why? Human toothpaste contains fluoride. Fluoride is clinically proven to help prevent cavities and restore tooth enamel… but it's also toxic to cats and dogs. The last thing you want to do is poison your furry child!

Case in Point: Sometimes your cat might want to brush their own teeth, like my angel Moo. If you’re like me, you leave your toothbrush out by your sink and odds are there is some toothpaste residue that remains on the bristles. Many years ago, my husband told me Moosie was chewing on my toothbrush! I was grossed out and worried in the same breath. Needless to say, from that point forward my toothbrush lived in the medicine cabinet. Where does your toothbrush live?

A closing note on toothpaste, look for one that is Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) certified so you can trust the claims the manufacturer is making.

Is It Ok to Use Baking Soda to Brush My Cat’s Teeth?

No.

You may also be tempted to use baking soda to brush your cat’s teeth. Don’t.

“Baking soda has a high alkaline content and, if swallowed, it can upset the acid balance in the stomach and digestive tract.”- VCA Animal Hospitals

How Often Should You Brush Your Cat's Teeth?

Generally, you want to get in the habit of brushing your cat's teeth once daily. You don't need the morning-and-evening brushing people prefer, but a daily cleaning is a good way to maintain dental health and prevent various tooth problems down the line.

Brushing Cat Teeth Image by Toe Beans

Some cats are very resistant to the idea of having their teeth cleaned. There are options you can use – which I talk about further down – but ideally, you'll be able to get them cleaned as often as possible.

Even if that's only once a week or once every two weeks, anything is better than nothing at all. Just keep in mind that once plaque hardens into tartar, it’s difficult to remove without the use dental instruments and general anesthesia.

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And, as you may know, while anesthesia-related deaths are rare, complications can and do occur.

“Like any medical procedure, anesthesia does have risks. These risks can run from minor problems, such as mild vomiting after recovery from anesthesia to life-threatening problems such as cardiac arrest or stroke.”- American Veterinary Medical Association.

How to Train a Cat to Let Their Teeth Be Brushed

I’m not going to lie to you, if you have a two-year-old kitty and you decide you want to start brushing their teeth, chances are you're going to be in for a difficult time. However, with a little bit of patience and a lot of love you will soon be happy you did it.

You need to train them, and the earlier you start, the easier it will be. Don’t worry though, older cats can learn new tricks too.

Cat Teeth Brushing Training Image by Toe Beans

The biggest thing you need is plenty of treats – and it doesn’t have to be food. Positive reinforcement is the name of the game here, so every time you do anything related to tooth brushing, give them a treat.

It could be a fun play session or a special snack. Eventually, they'll associate the act of tooth brushing with the reward and will be more willing to accept it.

Other than that, the key is to start slow and work your way up. Begin by pulling at their lips and looking at their teeth. Don't try to do anything with the toothpaste or brush yet, and be sure to offer them a treat right after.

This might only last for a couple of seconds before they get irritated, and that's fine. You want the action to be tolerable before moving forward. No one wants a foreign object just shoved into their mouth.

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Second, offer your kitty a bit of cat-safe toothpaste on a finger for them to lick. I mentioned the special flavors they come in, so your cat will likely think of it as some kind of food and will give it a taste.

You want them to be used to the flavor of the toothpaste so they aren't dealing with you shoving some kind of nasty chemical in their mouths. Again, offer them treats afterward if they aren't into the toothpaste's flavor. You can also try putting a little toothpaste in their mouth without using the toothbrush.

Next, start introducing the toothbrush. You can try different brushes here to see which one they object to the least. Putting a dab of toothpaste on it can get them used to having it around their mouth, but you don't want to try brushing yet. You're just getting them used to a strange new tool, not how it's used. Again, treats after every exposure!

Once they're more used to the brush of choice, you can start trying to brush their teeth. Don't go deep! Start by brushing those big sharp chompers at the front of their mouth and nothing else.

All you're doing is getting them used to two things: the toothbrush being put in their mouth and the sensation of having a tooth brushed. Go slow, do only a tooth or two to start, and reward them for their patience.

Over time, they'll be more willing to let you brush more teeth. Eventually, you'll build up to the point where you can brush their whole mouth, 30 seconds per side. That's when you know your training has been successful.

Here’s a great video showing how to train your cat to let you brush their teeth in 4 weeks:

Are There Other Ways to Promote Cat Oral Health?

Of course. While there's no real substitute for regular tooth brushing, you can do a few things to help ease it along, especially for cats that really, really don't like tooth brushing.

Cat Eating Healthy Foods Image by Toe Beans

First, make sure their diet is healthy. The worse the diet – especially if it's full of carbs – the worse the bacteria in their mouth will be, and the more likely they are to experience poor dental outcomes.

You want robust, healthy food for them, not food packed with unhealthy fillers. If you switch their food, remember to transition to their new food slowly.

You may also consider a special pro-dental food. These may be prescription foods, or they may just be expensive normal foods, but they can include some elements that help fight mouth bacteria for cats that won't let anyone brush their teeth.

Don't forget to make sure they have dry food as well. It's generally healthier for your cat to eat wet food, but dry food can help with that same effect that bones do for wild cats.

Harder, more abrasive food can scrape teeth clean.

There are also "mouthwash" style products for cats. Now, obviously, you can't train a cat to swish and spit a mouthwash, and you shouldn't try either.

Instead, you can use oral sprays that include some flavoring agent (to make it more pleasant for your fur baby) and an antibacterial and antiplaque chemical to help enhance their oral health.

Of course, a mouth spray can be just as irritating as tooth brushing, so you need to train them on that too. Talk to your vet to see what they recommend.

Anything Else?

Cats are creatures full of love, but they can also be surprisingly high-maintenance. Grooming can be a whole process, which is why we wrote a whole book about it.

Check it out to see if your questions are answered, and if not, drop me a line! I love helping fellow pet parents take care of their furry children.

Grooming a Cat Image by Toe Beans

If your fur baby has anxiety, another thing you might try prior to attempting a tooth cleaning is a bit of CBD. You can learn all about CBD for cats here and throughout my blog.

So tell me, do you brush your cat’s teeth? When did you start? How often do you brush them? What’s your chosen toothbrush style and how does your cat respond?

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer, and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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