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A cat with bad breath has much more than a social problem. Unlike humans, kitties with halitosis are probably in considerable pain and their lives may be in danger. That’s because cats with unpleasant breath probably suffer from feline dental disease. This condition not only gives a cat bad breath and more than a little pain while eating, but it can also cause infections in the gums that may migrate to vital organs, such as the heart and the kidneys, possibly resulting in serious illness and even death. Although the American Veterinary Dental Society notes that 70 percent of cats develop dental problems by the age of three, your cat doesn’t have to be one of them. All you need to do is brush its teeth regularly, following these six steps:
Step 1: Buy the right brush and paste
Experts agree that toothpaste for people shouldn’t be used to clean feline teeth. Since cats don’t spit out the toothpaste after brushing, regular fluoridated paste could upset your cat’s stomach. Instead, buy toothpaste specially designed for cats. Also purchase a child’s toothbrush with soft bristles. But don’t plan on using either right away. You need to first prep your cat for what lies ahead.
Step 2: Get in position
Introduce your cat to the place where you’ll be doing the toothbrushing. “Start by just putting your cat up on a counter top, or on your lap, or wherever you ultimately would like to do the toothbrushing, and give a reward,” suggests Valerie Creighton, DVM, president of the American Association of Feline Practitioners. “That can be a small food treat or scratching of the cheeks --whatever makes the cat happy.”
Step 3: Try using a tantalizing lure
After a few days at the tooth-brushing place, begin to help your cat realize that getting its mouth worked on can be a good thing. Bring your cat to where you plan to brush the teeth, and “put some tuna fish juice on the edge of a cotton swab,” suggests Jan Bellows, DVM, a veterinary dentist in Weston, Fla. “Then, apply it to the area where the gums meet the teeth.” Finish with a treat.
Step 4: Introduce the toothpaste
Next, help your cat discover the pleasures of toothpaste made just for the feline set. At the brushing zone, “introduce the toothpaste by letting the cat sniff at the uncapped tube, followed by a treat,” recommends Dr. Creighton, who practices in Thousand Oaks, Calif. After a day or two of sniffing the tube, put some toothpaste on your finger for your cat to sniff or lick each day.
Step 5: Bring on the toothbrush
After a few days of taking the toothpaste from your finger, your cat should be ready to accept it from a toothbrush. “Get the cat used to the presence of the brush without forcing it into the mouth,” Dr. Creighton suggests. Once your cat is used to seeing the brush, try placing your hands on its face and running your fingers along its lips as though you were getting ready to brush the teeth -- but stop short of actually doing so.
Step 6: Brush the teeth
If you detect that your feline friend is comfortable with the brush and having your hands near its mouth then you’re ready to try actually brushing its teeth. If your cat still bristles at the bristles, don’t give up. Instead, try lifting your cat’s lips with your fingertips and gently brushing the outer surfaces of your pet’s teeth. If worst comes to worst, your cat can take care of the inside surfaces with the abrasive action of its tongue until you can take it to your veterinarian for a full, professional tooth cleaning, which should be done at least once a year and up to four times annually if gum disease has already set in.
You can check for dental and gum disease as you work with your cat. Look for symptoms including brown or yellow staining on the teeth, red or swollen gums and bleeding gums. Even if you regularly take your cat for professional toothbrushings, keep in mind that more than your feline’s teeth will be clean after each visit. You’ll then have a clean slate upon which to start acclimating your cat to a home dental care routine.
“This process may take several weeks, but by the end, you and your kitty will be far less traumatized by the idea of you brushing its teeth,” Dr. Creighton predicts. “And you’ll be well on your way to a healthy habit where your cat’s teeth are concerned.”
is an award-winning pet writer and the author of Housetraining for Dummies, Senior Dogs for Dummies and Beagles for Dummies. She was honored by The Cat Writers Association as a finalist for the Muse Medallion, which recognizes excellence in writing about cats.