How to prevent plaque and tartar buildup on your cat’s teeth

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How to prevent plaque and tartar buildup on your cat’s teeth   - A cat being held by a man who is wearing a pet toothbrush on his finger

Dental care is an important part of taking care of our feline friends. A buildup of plaque and tartar on your cat’s teeth can lead to periodontal disease, which can cause severe symptoms and health concerns when left untreated. Plaque and tartar buildup can be prevented in a number of ways to keep cats healthy. Read on if you’ve ever wondered:

  • How do plaque and tartar form?
  • Can I prevent plaque on my cat’s teeth?
  • What are the symptoms of feline dental disease?
  • How are plaque and tartar buildup diagnosed and treated?

Bad breath and discolored teeth are often a cat owner’s first sign of dental disease after plaque has built up on their pet’s teeth. Regular dental cleanings with a veterinarian are the only way to remove tartar and treat dental disease. Between cleanings, plaque buildup can be reduced with brushing, dental treats, and other dental products such as water additives and oral gels.

What are dental plaque and tartar?

Dental plaque is a buildup of bacteria from food and saliva, resulting in a soft, sticky film on the outer surface of the teeth. Plaque can be removed with regular toothbrushing. Tartar occurs when an accumulation of plaque that has not been removed hardens on the teeth. Tartar buildup cannot be removed by brushing and requires professional cleaning to remove.

How can I prevent plaque buildup on my cat’s teeth?

Plaque naturally develops on the surface of teeth and cannot be fully prevented. However, the buildup of plaque can be removed to prevent the formation of tartar, which leads to dental disease.

Regular brushing

Regularly brushing your cat’s teeth is the best way to remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Daily brushing is best, but brushing a few times a week can also help prevent dental disease in cats. As some cats do not tolerate brushing, only attempt to brush your cat’s teeth if the process can be done safely. Cats can be trained to tolerate regular brushing, especially when training starts when they are young.

You can use finger toothbrushes, a cat toothbrush, a soft-bristled human toothbrush, or a damp cloth to gently wipe your cat’s plaque away. A favorite treat and tasty pet toothpaste can help your cat tolerate the process of brushing. Avoid using human toothpaste, as it causes gastrointestinal (GI) upset in cats when swallowed and may contain xylitol, an ingredient toxic to cats.

Dental diets and treats

Some dry food and treats are shaped to help scrape plaque off of your cat’s teeth. Dental treats and diets do not remove tartar and are not nearly as effective as regular brushing. However, they can be used between dental cleanings to help slow the buildup of plaque.  Always ask a veterinarian for guidance with dental products and use only products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) to ensure their effectiveness and safety. If your cat already has dental disease, talk to a vet before giving your cat a new product.

Other dental products

There are other non-food dental products that can help slow plaque accumulation on a cat’s teeth between cleanings, such as:

  • Water additives
  • Tooth wipes, gels, and powders
  • Mouth sprays

These products work by coating the teeth to reduce plaque formation or decreasing the amount of plaque-causing bacteria in the mouth. If your cat does not tolerate brushing at home, an online vet can help you choose a VOHC-approved product to improve your cat’s dental health. Similar to dental food and treats, these products are best used alongside brushing or in between dental cleanings, as they are not as effective as brushing and do not treat dental disease in cats.

What are the signs of plaque formation on a cat’s teeth?

Plaque and tartar buildup turns teeth yellow or brown, especially around the gum line on the eye teeth (fangs) and the larger teeth in the back of the mouth. As plaque and tartar accumulation progresses to gum disease, other symptoms may become noticeable, such as:

Cats have a tendency to hide pain, so symptoms of oral pain may present as a loss of appetite or aggressive behaviors. Most cats with dental disease don’t show any behavioral changes at all. Discolored teeth and bad breath are never normal in cats, while teeth that appear white and shiny paired with breath that is not foul-smelling is a sign of good oral health.

How do vets treat tartar accumulation and feline dental disease?

Veterinarians diagnose dental disease and tartar formation with a dental examination. “Complete dental X-rays taken under anesthesia are necessary to evaluate the full extent of feline dental disease,” explains Dr. Jo Myers, a veterinarian at Vetster. A complete dental cleaning under anesthesia is needed to remove tartar buildup and plaque below the gumline that cannot be removed with brushing. Even if your cat has no noticeable tartar, dental cleanings under anesthesia are highly recommended.

As tartar buildup progresses to periodontal disease, a more serious dental issue, teeth may become loose or infected, so treatments such as tooth extraction or antibiotics may be needed. Other treatments may also be required if different parts of the body are affected. Dental disease can affect a cat’s overall health and may contribute to kidney disease, liver disease, and bacterial infections. Many cat owners avoid booking dental cleanings for their pet due to concerns about putting their cats under anesthesia. The risks of anesthesia are very low, especially with close monitoring and diagnostic testing prior to the procedure, and the health risks posed by poor oral health far outweigh the risks involved with anesthetic dental cleanings.

Does my cat need dental cleanings at the vet?

All cats can benefit from regular dental cleanings whether they tolerate at-home brushing or not. Veterinary dental cleanings remove plaque beneath the gums that cannot be reached with brushing as well as tartar on the tooth surface. Vets can also ensure no teeth are loose, broken, or diseased with a thorough oral examination under anesthesia and dental X-rays. Dental cleanings are also easier and more affordable when a cat’s teeth are well taken care of and healthy.

It’s important to speak with your vet about your cat’s oral hygiene and whether or not brushing at home is a viable option. A veterinarian can develop a plan to best take care of your cat’s teeth based on their needs. You can talk to a vet from home by booking a virtual care appointment to learn more about your feline friend’s oral health.

FAQ - How to prevent plaque and tartar buildup on your cat’s teeth

How do you prevent plaque on a cat’s teeth?

Brushing is the best way to prevent plaque accumulation. Dental treats, dry food, and other dental products approved by the VOHC also help slow plaque buildup on a cat’s teeth.

Why does my cat have so much plaque?

Plaque forms naturally on teeth from bacteria and food in a cat’s mouth. If the resulting plaque is not removed regularly, it begins to build up on the teeth. Yellow or brown tartar forms when plaque hardens on the teeth and needs to be removed by a vet.

What can I use to keep my cat’s teeth clean?

For cats who tolerate brushing, pet owners can use a finger toothbrush, cat toothbrush, damp washcloth, or small, soft-bristled human toothbrush with tasty cat toothpaste. For cats who don’t tolerate toothbrushing, a vet can recommend dental food, treats, or other products that help remove plaque between dental cleanings.

Can I scrape tartar off of my cat’s teeth?

Some plaque can be scraped off with toothbrushing or specially shaped dental treats and dry food. However, when plaque hardens into tartar, it cannot be scraped off at home and requires a professional dental cleaning with a vet.