Brushing your cat’s teeth is a great idea until you actually try it

On this list of ideal pet parents, professional cat behavior consultant Mikel Delgado probably ranks high. Ph.D. The expert in animal cognition spends half an hour every evening playing with her three cats, Turbie, Ruby, Coriander, and Professor Scribbles. I trained them to take the pills in gelatin capsules, just in case they eventually needed the drugs. She even orders a check out in the backyard katio so the girls can venture outside safely. Delgado would do anything for her cats — well, almost anything. “Guilty as charged,” Delgado told me. “I don’t brush my cat’s teeth.”

To be fair, most cat owners don’t — probably because they’re well aware that it’s weird, if not downright terrifying, to stick one’s fingers inside a decorative cat’s mouth. Reliable statistics are scarce, but informal surveys indicate that less than 5 percent of owners give their cats a dental cleaning—an estimate corroborated by the vets I spoke with. “I’m always very shocked if someone says they brush their cats’ teeth,” says Anson Tsugawa, a veterinary dentist in California. When Steve Valica, a North Carolina veterinarian, suggested the practice to his clients, many of them said to me, “Look at me like I’ve totally lost it.” (This is where I bring myself out as a pet peep: My cat, Calvin and Hobbes, brushes her teeth three times a week.)

There is certainly an element of absurdity in all of this. Lions, after all, don’t give up the Savannah for Oral-Bs. But our pets do not share diets and lifestyles with their wild counterparts, and their teeth are quite vulnerable to a buildup of bacteria that can eventually invade the gums to cause a painful, long-term disease. Studies show that most domestic cats over the age of four develop some type of periodontal disease. Many experts have told me that rates of periodontal disease in domestic cats can exceed 80 percent. Left untreated, these diseases may cost a cat one or more teeth, or even spread their effects throughout the body, potentially endangering organs such as the kidneys, liver, and heart.

To stave off kitty’s gum disease, veterinary guidelines and specialists generally recommend that owners brush their cats’ kitty daily, ideally for at least a minute, striking each tooth. “This is the gold standard,” says Santiago Peralta, MD, a Cornell University veterinary dentist. Even a two- or three-day interval can leave enough time for tartar to solidify, tells me Jane Peroni, a Florida veterinary dental instructor. But brushing cats’ teeth is also really, really good. truly Difficult. Most cats are not keen on shoving things into their mouths, especially non-rough sticks covered in sludge. (Dogs don’t always like to brush either, but at least they’re used to engaging their owners with their mouths.) My old cat, Luna, was so desperate to escape the brush that she screamed at me, then peed all over the floor.

A niche industry sprang up to alleviate the plight of hygiene-conscious humans: poultry-flavored toothpastes, cat-sized toothbrushes, and silicone scrubbers that fit on fingers. Sometimes gear helps; When he bought Chin-Sun Lee, a New Orleans-based writer Malt flavored toothpaste for her catTuesday, things went crazy. Every morning, he comes jogging so he can lick the brush. Chrissie Lyon, a Salk Institute neuroscientist, told me that one of her cats, Kukshi, is so mad about his toothpaste that she and her partner have to “chain him or lock him in another room” while they brush the teeth of their other cat, Noma.

Tuesday (left) and Calvin (right) brush their teeth. (Courtesy of Chin-Sun Lee and Katherine J. Wu)

But tasty toothpaste isn’t temptation enough for everyone. Valeika, who extols the virtues of feline oral health, admitted that not even his cat, Boocat, is reaping the benefits of his brushing expertise. He “tried so hard for two weeks” when he adopted her seven years ago. But Boocat was so bitchy that he couldn’t stand such a thing. “It can be a real horror,” Valika told me. “We once saw her chasing a bear out of our yard.”

Boocat probably knows how weird the whole dental brushing ritual can be. Even most Americans People Their teeth were not cleaned regularly until the time of World War II. Veterinary dentistry, which borrowed principles from its human counterpart, “is a relatively new specialty,” Peralta told me. “Thirty years ago, no one would even think about the teeth of dogs or cats.” And it wasn’t that long ago that people across the country were letting their pets sleep outside, eating only leftovers, and running wild in the streets. Now pets are overly pampered, and their accessories are goofy. Experts tell me they’ve seen all sorts of snake oil scams that claim to functionally replace cat toothbrushes — sprays, gels, toys, water additives, even calls to rub cats’ teeth with coconut oil. A lot of these products end up cosmetically whitening teeth, temporarily freshening breath, or achieving nothing at all. If there was a super simple, once-a-month dental hygiene magic bullet, Tsugawa told me, “we’d do it for our teeth.”

There are probably plenty of cats that have not been brushed that can be slowly taught to accept the process and perhaps even enjoy it. Mary Berg, president of Beyond the Crown Veterinary Education, told me that one of her colleagues had trained her pet to enjoy the process so much that “she could say ‘Brusha brusha brusha’ and the cat would come running.” But getting to that point may require weeks or months of conditioning. Berg recommends taking it day after day, first introducing the kitten to the toothpaste, then touching one or two teeth, and continuing until they’re comfortable with the full kit—always “with plenty of praise and reward afterward,” he said. And that’s all before “introducing that creepy plastic thing.”

This is a big ask for many owners, especially those who have gone the feline route due to the critter rep being low maintenance. Delgado tells me that the consequences of skipping a toothbrush are also subtle because they don’t directly affect humans. Miss a manicure, and your couch might pay the price. But cats’ teeth are not often seen.

A white cat with gray spots, straddling both sides of the half-rolled-down car window and wearing a rainbow collar
Bukat, Defender of the World (Courtesy of Steve Valica)

Meanwhile, the potential downsides to brushing can be starkly obvious. On cat forums and Twitter, cat phobia joke They lose their fingers. But what is a lot of people Really afraid to sacrifice is their cat love. Broken trust can sour the relationship between owner and pet, Peroni said; People simply cannot communicate to capricious animals that this act of apparent torture is for their own good. Some cats never learn to handle. Even among veterinary experts, dental cleaning rituals are rare. Peralta and his wife only tried to remove “at least once a week” with their cat, KitKat; Berg and Peron don’t brush cats’ teeth at all. (Tsugawa does not currently own a cat, but he did when he did.)

I’m not a professional, but I get a little ripped off too. I didn’t take the time to teach Calvin and Hobbes to view brushing as a cure, and they could get very irritated during the ritual itself. Valica, the North Carolina vet, told me that seeing Pocat’s terrified reactions was the main thing that prompted him to put down the toothbrush. “She would hate it if we were always doing that to her,” he said. “She really won’t be our pet anymore.”

Cat health experts know they are losing this battle. “A lot of us don’t talk about brushing anymore, because no one else does,” Berg said. Fortunately, there are some well-vetted alternatives to brushing. Berg and Delgado use a special food that can reduce plaque, and Peroni’s cat, Noriko, is into Greenness dental treats—both options many pets may be more receptive to. Scientifically, nothing beats good-faith brushing. But realistically speaking, this young art may already be outdated. Delgado told me the best interventions would be the ones people actually use. “If someone in my profession isn’t brushing their pets’ teeth, I can’t blame anyone else,” Berg said.

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