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Have you brushed and flossed? No, not your teeth -- your cat's teeth. Your feline needs regular dental care just as you do. That's because dental disease can affect the gums, bones, and connective tissue around your cat's teeth. It can even cause your pet to lose one or all of its teeth. The statistics for this are startling. According to a recent study conducted by the American Veterinary Dental Society, 70 percent of cats develop dental problems by the age of three. To ensure that your cat doesn't suffer a similar fate, here's what to do.
Beware Bad Breath
One of the first signs of dental disease is bad breath. People often joke about how pets have a malodorous mouth, but this usually is a symptom of underlying dental problems initially caused by plaque buildup. Plaque is a soft, clear or cream-colored deposit that forms on teeth. If it isn't removed, minerals in your cat's saliva turn the plaque into tartar. Tartar builds up on the tooth and below your cat's gums allowing bacterial growth and inflammation.
The same bacteria that lead to the inflammation can enter your pet's bloodstream and may cause or aggravate lung, kidney, liver, and heart problems. That's a lot of trouble, worry and cost from something that may be headed off in its early stages.
Start Care Young
Begin your cat's dental care regime as soon as possible. If your cat is still a young kitten, inspect its mouth as soon as it starts to get permanent teeth. Make sure that its baby teeth come out when the new teeth come in. Retained teeth can cause the permanent teeth to be crooked, and can promote later dental conditions. That's because crooked teeth can become plaque traps, which may be difficult to clean. Kittens have tiny jaws that are at special risk for this and related problems.
It's also important that you condition your kitten to regular tooth brushing. As soon as you bring your pet home, get it accustomed to having its mouth handled. For example, gently pry its mouth open with your hands. Afterwards, lavish it with praise and a head or cheek rub. It is good training because it teaches the kitten to tolerate having things in its mouth without biting or clawing. Your vet will also appreciate that you did this when the cat becomes older.
Food and Dental Hygiene
What your kitty eats affects its "smile." Many experts believe that dry foods and treats help to clean the teeth. They may do this through the abrasive nature of the food, similar to how certain crunchy fruits and vegetables appear to "self-clean" our teeth to some extent. Some dry foods and treats even have special dental care properties that help slow the formation of tartar, so take time to read product labels to see what might be best for your cat.
Brushing at Home
When you first begin to brush your cat's teeth, run your finger gently over its gums. Initially, just rub the outside gum area, but as your cat starts to adjust to the routine, open its mouth and rub the gums inside the teeth as well.
As your pet becomes accustomed to this, wrap your finger with gauze and rub its gums with your protected finger. Eventually, add a pet toothpaste -- never use human toothpaste. After a few weeks, your pet should be willing to accept a toothbrush for pets. Choose a brush that has soft, multi-tufted synthetic bristles. Keep at least one spare on hand so that you can easily change brushes when the bristles wear down.
Hold the toothbrush at a 45-degree angle and apply it to the area where your cat's teeth and gums meet. Rotate the brush in small circles, overlapping several teeth. Finish with vertical strokes to pull plaque from between the teeth. Repeat until all the teeth on your feline's cheek side are clean. The inside teeth will be more difficult, as your pet may resist opening its mouth, but eventually you may be able to brush the inside and outside surfaces of all the teeth. For effective cleaning, brush your pet's teeth a couple of times a week.
When to Call the Vet
If, after time, your pet won't cooperate with home brushing or if you already see brown tartar stains on its teeth or red and bleeding gums, it's time to turn to your veterinarian for help. He or she will give your pet general anesthesia and will then clean its teeth above and below the gum line to remove plaque and tartar. After your cat's teeth are cleaned, they will be polished to remove microscopic plaque and to make the teeth smooth to discourage plaque from clinging.
Just remember that dental care is as important to your pet's health as it is to your own. You owe it to your feline friend to provide it with regular tooth care and cleaning. Your cat may not have nine lives, but ensuring that it has healthy teeth and gums is one way that you can help to make this lifetime the best that it can be.
is a Brookyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer and animal advocate.