Ask Smalls: How does food impact my cat’s dental health?

Only about 10% of cats will make it through life without experiencing some sort of dental problem. Every meal leaves behind food particles, so a cat’s diet and eating behavior are key in achieving dental health. While some vets recommend dental cat foods or kibble, chewing kibble doesn’t actually clean debris or reduce tartar buildup. Cats don’t naturally chew their food — their jaws and teeth are designed to tear and shred meat. They often swallow the majority of their dry food whole, which has no cleaning effect. Cats are carnivores, so their teeth are meant to be kept strong and clean by chewing meat and bones. It’s better to choose a cat food that provides the best nutrition instead of choosing a cat food that claims to improve dental health.

When plaque builds up along the gumline, it hardens into tartar and can lead to gingivitis (gum inflammation) or periodontal (gum) disease. If left untreated, gum infection and inflammation spreads to the bones and soft tissues that support teeth, causing them to become loose and eventually fall out. Cats also become more susceptible to the weakening of the jaw bone, fractures, and painful inflammation. Bacteria enters the bloodstream through diseased gums and increases the risk of developing heart, liver, or kidney diseases.

Apart from halitosis (bad breath), there aren’t many obvious warning signs for periodontal or other dental diseases. Some other signs of dental problems include:

  1. Red or swollen gums, especially along the gum line
  2. Drooling
  3. Gums which bleed easily, especially when touched
  4. Receding gum line
  5. Reluctance or refusal to eat
  6. Pawing at the mouth

Cats receiving the wrong nutrients like high quantities of carbohydrates in dental foods experience a pro-inflammatory situation in their body, which includes the gums and the mouth. Some owners may put their cat on a raw food diet under the belief that chewing the bones and meat will clean their cat’s teeth. However, studies have shown that this is ineffective and that cat food should be chosen for their nutritional benefit instead.

Although there is no diet for perfect teeth, it’s best to feed your cat the freshest food possible that meets the nutritional standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) so that good dental health will follow. Look for food that’s high in protein and uses recognizable meat sources to stop the sludge (watery kibble) from getting caught in your cat’s teeth. We also recommend brushing your cat’s teeth daily or at least twice a week. While your cat may not initially enjoy it, it’s the best defense against dental problems. If possible, start this habit when your cat is a kitten or gradually introduce the habit to them now.

  1. Start by grabbing some sterile gauze strips or a soft rubber toothbrush that’s been designed for cats.
  2. Wrap the strip of gauze around your index finger, then dip it or the toothbrush into a feline toothpaste or solution. Never use human toothpaste on cats because they contain ingredients that will make your cat sick.
  3. With your cat on your lap, open its mouth and rub your finger or the toothbrush in a circular motion on a tooth, concentrating on the area near the gumline.
  4. The first time you brush your cat’s teeth, only do one or two teeth and stop to praise your cat by offering a treat or toy to reinforce the action.
  5. Every time you brush your cat’s teeth, gradually brush more of its teeth until you’re able to brush all of them. The teeth at the back are the most difficult, but your cat will adjust overtime.

TLDR: Food impacts your cat’s dental health, but it doesn’t physically clean the surface of its teeth. Cats are susceptible to plaque, tartar, and the bacteria that can enter through diseased gums. For optimal dental health, feed your cat a clean, natural diet that’s high in protein and brush a few times a week!