Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: A 4-Week Training Program

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Brushing you cat’s teeth? Most cat parents think that they couldn’t possibly get their cats used to it. And yet, dental disease is the most frequently diagnosed health problem in cats. Seventy to ninety percent of cats have some level of dental disease. If left untreated, it can lead to health problems for your cat, ranging from bad breath, dental pain and loose teeth to systemic illnesses that can be life-threatening.

The most effective way to prevent dental disease is to brush your cat’s teeth. Ideally, you get your cat used to this when she’s still a kitten, but even older cats can learn to accept having their teeth brushed.

And before you say “I can’t brush my cat’s teeth,” consider that a regular effective home care program will reduce the need for professional cleanings under anesthesia, which is not only better for your cats, but also for your budget.

The Cornell Feline Health Center has an exceptional 4-week training program to get your cats used to having their teeth brushed. If you follow the program step by step, there are very few cats who won’t tolerate at least some brushing.

To make things even easier for you, one of our readers, who wished to remain anonymous, has provided a transcript for each video. She found it helpful to watch the video, but then have the written instructions handy as she worked through the program. I’m sharing the videos and her transcripts, and I hope that it will encourage many more of you to brush your cats’ teeth. You can read my own journey to getting Allegra and Ruby used to having their teeth brushed here.

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth Training Program Summary

Week 1: The cat becomes familiar with the smell and taste of the toothpaste and toothbrush.

Week 2: The cat learns to let you put toothpaste inside her mouth with your finger.

Week 3: The cat will learn to accept you putting the toothbrush inside her mouth.

Week 4: You will begin to brush you cat’s teeth.

In each step, you link the activity with a reward. Select a reward the cat really likes, such as: her mealtime, her favorite treat, getting a drink from the faucet at the sink, etc. The reward should be something your cat already enjoys (in the video, the cat parent has a jar of baby food open and lets the cat lick it from the jar.)

Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: A 4-Week Training Program

The video shows the entire 4-week program. The transcript for each week follows below.

Week 1

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With the cat in the room (bathroom), put the toothbrush and a dab of toothpaste on the counter. Leave them out where your cat can sniff them. (Show them to the cat.)

The goal is to get your cat to accept the toothbrush as a familiar, non-threatening household item.

Each day put a tiny piece of toothpaste on your finger and let the cat lick it off.

If the cat is shy, go ahead and put a little dab inside her mouth, so she gets accustomed to the taste of it.

Follow immediately with the cat’s favorite reward.

Week 2

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Follow the same routine as Week 1, but this time, apply the toothpaste onto one of your cat’s canine teeth with your finger.

The cat parent in the video is holding back the cat’s gum (left side) with the thumb of his right hand. The rest of his hand is over the top of the cat’s head. He uses his left forefinger to put a dab of toothpaste onto a canine tooth, moving the gum out of the way.

Do this much every day for a week, immediately following the toothpaste application with a reward.

Week 3

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Start getting your cat used to the toothbrush. Put some toothpaste on the toothbrush and let her lick it off.

If she is shy about licking it, go ahead and put some toothpaste near her mouth. But don’t attempt any brushing at this point.

Always follow immediately with a reward.

Week 4

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You start to brush your cat’s teeth. Gently stretch her lips far back enough to allow you to insert the brush into the space between the cheek and the gums.

Position: The cat is on the bathroom counter, at the left side of the sink, facing the sink. A small tray, with toothpaste and toothbrush is in front of her, close to the sink. The cat parent in the video uses the thumb of his left hand to gently pull back the cat’s lips, with the rest of his hand circling the top of the cat’s head.

The toothbrush is between thumb and forefinger of the cat parent’s right hand. His hand comes from below, under the cat’s jaw, holding the toothbrush with bristles up.

Place the bristles of the brush at about a 45 ° angle to the teeth, aiming for the narrow crevice between the teeth & the gums. Gently move the bristles around to disrupt the plaque. (The video shows a forward and back motion, but “the direction of movement isn’t all that important.”)

Moving fairly quickly before your cat loses patience, work your way around the upper & lower teeth on both sides of the mouth.

Then, of course, immediately give the cat a reward.

You only need to brush the outside surfaces of the teeth. Cats don’t like opening their mouth to have the insides brushed. Fortunately, the tongue does a pretty good job keeping the insides free of plaque.

Note: In the video, when the parent moves to the teeth on the side of the mouth away from him, he tilts the cat’s head up and back a little to get at those teeth.

Do you brush your cat’s teeth? If not, will you give this training program a try?

Thank you to our reader for providing the transcript, and for Cornell Feline Health Center for giving us permission to to publish it.

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6 Comments on Brushing Your Cat’s Teeth: A 4-Week Training Program

  1. Tom
    February 17, 2018 at 8:49 pm (6 months ago)

    We used to brush our cats’ teeth but I’m ashamed to say we’ve backslid a lot over the last couple years. We do use the gel that Ingrid reviewed/recommended a while back but we realize this is not a complete substitute for actual brushing. This motivates me to try getting this going again. The transcript/descriptions for the videos is great as I cannot see the videos.

    Reply
  2. Cheri Collins
    February 12, 2018 at 8:56 pm (6 months ago)

    I understand, Marge. Sounds like you are a cat rescuer? I have and have had cats who are / were never going to let me put a toothbrush in their mouths. An alternative, if you can put your finger in, is to wrap a finger with a thin piece of gauze — the rough texture will clean the teeth. The feline love of my life, with me for 13 years, started life feral. (He had to be sedated for the vet to examine him.) When he developed asthma, I tried for a month to get him to accept the inhaled med. I put the mask on the floor and let him eat his favorite treats out of it. That was the limit of his acceptance of that mask. Pills? No way. Our wonderful vet told me about compounded meds, and I have been using various sorts for years now, for the cats who are not going to accept pilling. Boo got the med he needed to control his asthma in a liver flavored soft chew. Even then, I had to start by cutting it up and making wee sandwiches with a soft treat. After awhile I could just put the med soft chew on the little plate with the treats. He loved those treats and only got them with the med.
    The oldest cat I have now (14) has hyperthyroidism. She’s only been with me 2 years. She was neglected. I adopted her to keep her from being “euthanized,” because she is such a sweet, loving cat; but I can’t do much with her if she doesn’t want me to do it. She will chew my hand off rather than let me trim her claws. (I gave up — a kitty manicure at the vet’s is more tolerable for both of us.) Her medication is compounded into a chicken flavored liquid I can mix with a little wet food.
    My other cat was 2 years old and living in a feral colony when she was brought in to the shelter to be spayed. The plan was TNR, but in the shelter, folks thought she was friendly enough to get adopted. She’s beautiful, too — long tabby coat and golden eyes. And she is friendly, on her own terms. Only someone who’s comfortable with some wildish behaviors can make friends with her, really. And new people are not likely to be accepted unless she meets them outdoors. She was in the shelter 3.5 months, and I finally had to adopt her to spring her from jail. She was little and fluffy and I know people tried to pick her up. She does not allow picking up (she turned into a writhing ball of claws and teeth) or any sort of cuddling, she’s never going to sit on anyone’s lap. She’s been with me 4.5 years now, because I have a safe outdoors and she can go out whenever she wants. She tolerates only a minimum amount of hands on, very little, now that I understand and accept her rules. If I have to pick her up, e.g. to put her in the carrier for a trip to to the vet, I hold her behind her front legs and facing in the direction we’re traveling. (Away from me; apparently it makes a BIG difference to her to be able to see where she’s going.) When she gets medication occasionally (antihistamine, as she’s allergic to flea bites), it’s compounded into an ear gel. She doesn’t like it, but I was surprised to find she tolerates my gently rubbing the inside of her ear long enough to get the med in.
    Marge, if you can afford it, a compounded med for a cat who really needs one is worth a try. Soft chews, ear gels, liquids … some cats will accept one more readily than another. My vet suggested BCP, and they have been very easy to work with.
    A tip I learned in an on-line support forum (I had two with kidney disease then): When I’ve done with whatever I have to do to give medication or put on a flea treatment (whatever the cat doesn’t like), I say, All Done. I say it very clearly and move away from the cat as I repeat it a few times. Rosie now understands and believes and relaxes.
    I use a carrier with a top opening for trips to the vet.
    If an antibiotic is needed, ask for a long-acting injectable. The vet can give the injection before the cat is even out from under after the dental. If a second dose is needed (not usually) you can learn to do it at home. A vet nurse can show you how, it’s very easy, very fast. By the time the cat has said, Hey, Let me go! you’ll be done. They usually don’t mind the injection, it’s your holding onto them they protest, but you only need to scruff.
    Oh, and Boo came to accept my cleaning his teeth with gauze on my finger, but only 1/4 of his mouth at a time.
    I’m not sure why toothpaste is “needed” — humans don’t actually need it unless they need fluoride. It’s the friction which cleans the teeth.

    Reply
    • Marge
      February 15, 2018 at 11:25 pm (6 months ago)

      Cheri – I am more of a collector than a real rescuer =^..^=
      Thanks for all the info. I am aware of compounding meds (others may not be, so this was not in vain!). I have had to use a few in the past (bitter tasting stuff mixed into a more palatable goo, we used the ear method for hyperthyroid treatment because the pill form can cause nausea before finally going for the REAL treatment RadioIodine, etc.) At this point, no one here has been on medication for many years and I hope to keep it that way (not to belabor the point, but I try to put this out there as much as possible – lose the dry foods!)

      What *really* prompted me to answer was your recommendation for the injectable antibiotic. I was told about this (Convenia) as an alternative to pilling and tried it one time, but a) it did NOT address the issue, b) it is NOT recommended for dental (or for other treatments) and c) it can have serious side effects which is compounded by the fact that it cannot be cleared from the body!

      Please, anyone being offered this in lieu of having that sometimes challenging pill giving, read this:
      http://catinfo.org/convenia-worth-the-risk/

      It is better to fight it out, or use some compounded medications if you cannot manage the pilling than to resort to this ‘medication’.

      During discussions about our upcoming dentals, my vet has already indicated that the current thoughts in the field are LESS antibiotics (a few days vs the old 10 day standard) OR none at all. This is reflected in Dr. Pierson’s discussion in the link above.

      Reply
      • Cheri Collins
        February 17, 2018 at 8:36 pm (6 months ago)

        Thank you, Marge,
        I’ve read on Dr. Pierson’s site before (when I had 2 cats with CKD and was gathering all sorts of info), but hadn’t seen the article about Convenia. I’ve been lucky! When I adopted the then 12 yr old cat, she had never had any dental care. She needed 12 teeth extracted, poor darlin’. Post extractions, the risk of infection can be significant. With 12, we thought an antibiotic was called for.
        But she has a bladder infection again (3rd time) and we agreed the urine should be cultured to see what the best antibiotic would be. She’ll get amoxicillin compounded into a liquid.
        Compounding, by the way, does not mean taking a pill / bitter tasting stuff and mixing it into something else. The pharmacist starts with the pure drug, the pure chemical, and puts it into a delivery form other than a pill. It’s not something you can do yourself at home. For people who wonder why compounded drugs are more expensive, there you are. (Compounded drugs can be used for human patients, too.)
        I don’t know if I’ll give Convenia again, now that I know the risks. I will now weigh the pro’s and con’s carefully, that’s for sure. Thanks again, Marge.

        Reply
  3. Summer
    February 12, 2018 at 5:15 pm (6 months ago)

    My human brushes my teeth, although not often enough! I pretty much just let her do it from the start. But this is a good tutorial for most other kitties.

    Reply
  4. Marge
    February 12, 2018 at 2:58 pm (6 months ago)

    I see no one has commented (at least when I started this comment.)

    Much as I would like to do this, and I DO AGREE this would be best for us and them, it really wouldn’t be as easy as pie, at least not for me… I have 12 cats, ranging from about 2yo to 19yo. Just the number of cats would require a significant amount of time, every day. Given that they get no dry food to nibble on, I already spend quite a bit of time feeding and rinsing/washing their dishes (usually 5 meals/day), and scooping, sweeping, litter filling…

    Additionally there are a number of them that are NOT keen on being held or, god forbid, restrained! The one long-hair gal periodically has to go into a grooming bag to trim up her behind, and THAT is a production in itself. I tried once to hold a side clump to do a quick snip and she flew straight up in the air about 2 feet and bolted!

    As I have told my vets when they say how easy it is to give medication (I do manage some meds, but some cats *really* make this a huge production), I always tell them when I can grow two more arms to have four like Vishnu, then fine, it’ll be a snap…sort of. YOU (vet staff) do this with at least one person to assist AND their are out of their comfort zone (home.) With only two arms and no one to assist, it may not be happening or will take a lot of time and some skin…yes, I have lost skin to one cat in particular – three hand/arm scratches and a chunk out of my cheek, just to get him into a carrier to go to the vet!

    My latest addition lived in a shelter for about 10 years, most of his life. He was considered feral by the staff. He was not happy being transported out, but over the past year he is used to being here and gives my head butts and lets me stroke his body. We are more than acquaintances now, but certainly not besties! However, I am not about to try restraining him. Their exam last year on adoption day said he needed a cleaning and one canine might be loose. I have waited to see how his behavior was after bringing him home. Now that “dental month” is here, he is scheduled for that cleaning and possible extractions (he replaced one lost to a dental cleaning, so it does make me nervous), but I also plan to have him stay there if he needs meds post-op. Vet did say current thoughts are maybe no antibiotics, or at least fewer days, but he did not even get the full 10 day ear yeast treatment when he came here – day 5+, in a cat playpen still, he said NO in no uncertain terms, and I mean NO!!! and that was that.

    Yes, it will cost me, and he may back-slide a bit, but I would rather pay them than have him fight me! Three others will be going in for cleaning shortly after that… (all but the latest addition and the oldest, who was treated for hyperthyroidism had their cleanings in 2016, which was EEK in cost. Their exams this last year only said these 4 needed to come in.)

    Reply

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