Brush up on Feline Oral Care

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.

DIY Care
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.”

Veterinarians Who Visit You

Cathy Bryan, an accountant in Marina Del Rey, Calif., first discovered mobile, or house-call, veterinarians when she was planning a family trip. She almost had to cancel her vacation because she couldn't show a boarding facility proof of her cats' vaccinations. "I only realized a day before our trip that my cats were overdue for their vaccinations. I was up to my eyeballs trying to wrap everything up at work.... There was no physical way for me to get them to the vet before our trip." Desperate, she found a veterinarian who would come to her home to vaccinate her cats -- and she was hooked.

Like Bryan, a growing number of pet owners are finding the idea of receiving medical treatment for their pet without the hassle of making a trip to a veterinary office irresistible. While traveling veterinarians may conjure up images of small towns and simpler times, for the most part, veterinarians who make house calls cater to over-scheduled career-driven people living in metropolitan areas. Jim Claghorn, DVM, a mobile veterinarian who has been seeing patients in Northern California for 25 years, says the vast majority of his clients are working people, 30 to 55 years old.

What you can expect from a house-call veterinarian
House-call veterinarians provide most of the services you will find in a stationary veterinary office, such as exams, vaccinations, dentistry, blood testing, disease screenings, preventative care, dispensing medications and behavior consultations. They also offer in-home humane euthanasia, allowing animals to spend their final moments in the comfort of their home rather than in a sterile veterinary office. In the words of Dr. Claghorn, pets can rest at peace "without any stress, pain or misery that they would experience in the torture chamber."

In-home convenience comes at a cost. You should plan to pay higher fees than you would if you went to a regular veterinarian's office. The additional cost usually is in the form of a "travel fee," which can run anywhere from $40 - $50, or even more, over your area's standard rates.

When to make the trip to a veterinary office or animal hospital
Most mobile veterinarians refer patients to veterinary offices or animal hospitals for critical and intensive care, as well as surgical procedures and radiology services. Says Dr. Claghorn, "If your dog has a broken leg or has been hit by a car, don't call me. Go to an animal hospital." Some house-call veterinarians, who travel in a motor home-cum-surgical suite, are able to provide more extensive services, however. Be sure to plan well ahead by asking mobile veterinarians for a full list of provided services during your initial discussions.

Something else to keep in mind, especially if your cat needs urgent care, is that when house-call veterinarians are seeing another patient, there is no receptionist to pull them out to handle your emergency. They may be on a house call in another county and not be able to see your cat in a timely fashion.

The benefits to your cat
Despite the potential drawbacks, in-home care definitely has its perks, especially from your cat's perspective. According to Dr. Claghorn, "Ten to fifteen percent of cats have a nervous breakdown when the cage is brought out. All they know is they are being taken to a place where they will be injected with needles and surrounded by barking dogs." When your veterinarian comes to you, your cat does not have to endure the stress and anxiety of being put in a cage, of having to ride in a car or spend time in the veterinarian's office. Additionally, you don't risk exposing your pet to communicable diseases that may exist in a veterinary office.

The benefits to you
These days, Bryan relies on a house-call veterinarian for all of her cats' medical needs. "I know that having a vet come to your home is a luxury, but with my hectic schedule, it's also a necessity. Both my husband and I work all day, so if we're not paying a vet to come to our home, we're going to have to pay someone to take our cats to the vet."

When your veterinarian comes to you, not only do you not have to take time out of your schedule to take your pet to an outside office, you also spare yourself the frustration of sitting in a waiting room. If you are elderly, disabled or without a car, you also won't have to arrange for transportation to the veterinary office.

Interested in finding a house-call veterinarian?
For a list of house-call veterinarians by state, check out the American Association of Housecall & Mobile Veterinarians Web site . Click on "LOCATE A VET" at the left-hand side of the home page. You may also want to ask a reputable dog care professional, such as a groomer, trainer or even a veterinarian in your area, for a recommendation.

Cat Health Terms Demystified

Visiting a veterinarian can sometimes feel like you've taken a trip to a non-English speaking country. Terms like "gastritis" and "enteritis" may roll off your doctor's tongue while you and your cat sit listening equally puzzled. While most vets take the time to explain such terminology, there are instances when they may lapse into conversation that is best suited to medical conferences and peer reviewed journals. You can meet your vet halfway, however, by promoting better dialogue while learning to think more in vet speak.

Don't Feel Intimidated
While waiting in a room to see your vet, you may see one or more impressive degrees framed on the walls. These could be next to posters describing seemingly impossible-to-pronounce conditions. Despite the potential for intimidation, Thomas Carpenter, DVM, president of the American Animal Hospital Association, said that you should remember that your veterinarian likely has a lot in common with you. "He or she may have one or more treasured pets," said Dr. Carpenter. "Feel free to ask as many questions as necessary, as that's what your vet might do in your position." 

Know Your Sci-Speak Comfort Level
When reading the paper, do you pore over health stories? Maybe science was your favorite subject in school, or you work in a related profession. On the other hand, your brain could tune out medical terminology as some kind of alien verbiage. Dr. Carpenter said that when training and advising vets, he tells them to be aware that some people want to hear a lot of science, while others don't. It could just be that your own veterinarian misjudged your level of comfort on such matters. Diplomatically let your vet know what type of discussion best works for you. 

Maximize Your Vet's Staff
Some of the best sources of information are often underutilized, according to Dr. Carpenter. These are the staff members who work with your vet. "Think about it," he said. "When you go to see your family doctor, you probably wind up asking more questions of the nurse and staff than you do of your doctor." He assured that most personnel at veterinary office are very well trained and are open to answering questions. Although busy themselves, they might also have a bit more time than your vet does to explain complex conditions, prescribed drugs and other issues related to your cat's health. Dr. Carpenter said they could also sometimes open the door to further discussions with your vet, if needed.

Read Up
Even if you have a great rapport with your vet and his or her staff, it never hurts to read up on feline health matters, particularly those that may directly concern your pet or might soon. The American Animal Hospital Association has a number of related articles at its site, Healthy Pet. Your vet's office may be able to provide you with brochures on common conditions.

In the meantime, to help decipher some common technical terms that you might run across while conducting such investigations, here is a mini dictionary:

asymptomatic -- without symptoms

blocked urethra -- blockage of the urinary passage

bronchi -- the main passages that allow air to move in and out of your cat's lungs

bronchitis -- an inflammation of your cat's lung airways; usually indicated by a cough

colitis -- inflammation of your cat's colon

conjunctivitis -- inflammation of the eyelid lining

cyst -- a fluid filled sac

enteritis -- inflammation of the intestines

eosinophilic granuloma -- an ulcer, or swelling, usually on your cat's lip

FCV -- stands for "feline calicivirus," a virus that can cause symptoms much like the common cold

Panleukopenia -- also known as feline distemper - this highly contagious viral disease can affect multiple internal tissues and organs

FIP -- feline infectious peritonitis is a progressive and ultimately fatal disease causes by a coronavirus

FVRV -- stands for "feline viral rhinotracheitis virus," a virus that can cause a severe version of cat "flu"

flukes -- a type of intestinal parasite

gastritis -- inflammation of the stomach wall, that can cause vomiting

gingivitis -- gum inflammation

hemorrhage -- loss of blood from a blood vessel that can occur either internally or externally

lymph nodes -- small organs where immune system responses are launched

metritis -- infection and inflammation of a cat's uterus

peritonitis -- when the lining of your cat's abdominal cavity becomes inflamed due to any number of reasons, including infection

pleurisy -- inflammation of the inner lining of the chest cavity that can lead to fluid build-up making breathing difficult for your cat

pneumonia -- inflammation of the lungs caused by a number of different agents, such as bacteria, viruses and fungi

ranula -- a blister-like swelling beneath one or both sides of your cat's tongue

rectal prolapse -- when the rectum turns inside out due to diarrhea or straining

thrombosis -- a blood clot

Care for Aging Cats

Just like their human companions, cats experience a gradual decline in organ function as they age. These age-related changes include a natural slowing of the cat's resting metabolic rate (RMR), resulting in a decrease in muscle and an increase in body fat, which also increases the likelihood of obesity. While energy needs vary from pet to pet, cats between the ages of 7 and 9 years are at the highest risk for obesity. It is important for you to watch your cat's intake, weight status and physical activity to help offset age-associated loss of muscle.

Remember that your aging pet has the same nutrient needs as during her earlier years, however the quantities and the way in which they are provided may have to change. As its metabolism changes, select a diet that's less energy-dense, while still providing essential nutrients.

Visible Signs of Aging
A sure sign that your cat is entering old age is when it does not jump onto its favorite perch as easily, sleeps more, and moves more slowly when awake. In addition, the skin loses its elasticity and becomes less pliable. The decrease in skin elasticity may result in areas of hair loss. Old age also brings a decrease in bone mass. This may be due, in part, to the inadequate absorption of calcium. The age for these developments is around 12 years in cats. Arthritis commonly occurs in older pets, too, and can be made worse by obesity. Some of this can be managed by proper nutrition, medical therapy and nutriceuticals.

Old age in general may result in a reduction in response to a cat's surroundings and partial loss of vision, hearing and taste. To avoid startling your loving pet, it's a good idea to let your cat see your hand in front of its face before touching and to call the animal by name before approaching.
Special Dietary Needs for Your Mature Cat
Try these nutritional strategies to cope with age-related health issues. 

  • Hairball Prevention Older cats can still develop hairballs and some may even experience an increase in hairballs.  To help minimize the development of hairballs, feed your cat a diet with a unique combination of beet pulp and cellulose fiber. 
  • Weight Control Aging pets should be fed a diet with a higher percentage of calories from high-quality animal protein and with antioxidants and essential amino acids, like taurine, to help maintain healthy muscle mass and immune function. A little less fat in the diet may also help mature cats if their diet remains rich in fish oils to promote overall health and a beautiful, shiny coat.

Special Dental Needs
Proper tooth and gum care is also important for older pets. Dry foods, may assist in maintaining good dental and oral health. You may also need to schedule regular appointments with your veterinarian to prevent dental scaling or periodontal disease.
Behavioral Changes in Your Aging Pet
One of the most noticeable changes in mature pets is their resistance to change in their daily routines. Older cats may become more finicky about their eating habits. With a decreased sense of smell and taste, it may be necessary to provide a food with a stronger smell and taste. Lower quality pet foods are not recommended for elderly pets because some of them may not offer enough of the right nutrients.

As your cat slows down, short, sustained periods of physical activity will help to enhance circulation, maintain muscle tone and prevent excess weight gain. The level and intensity should be adjusted to your pet's medical condition. Encourage a healthy exercise routine by playing games with your cat for 15 to 30 minutes at least twice a day.

How Old is Your Cat in Human Years?
While the aging process varies from cat to cat, have you ever wondered how old your cat might be in human years?  Check it out:

Cat's Age Human's Age
1 year =  20 years
2 years =  24 years
3 years = 28 years
4 years = 32 years
5 years = 36 years
6 years = 44 years
7 years = 48 years
8 years = 52 years
9 years = 56 years

Dental Care for all Cats

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.