Question: My vet noticed some tartar build-up on my four-year-old cat Charlie's teeth at his annual check-up. The vet said I should be brushing Charlie's teeth, but that's proving to be impossible. Can you recommend any other ways to keep the teeth healthy and prevent future dental problems?
C.H., via email
Answer: Dental disease is very common in cats, especially among breeds with poor tooth alignment like Siamese, Persian and Chinchilla. Infectious diseases such as FIV (feline immunodeficiency virus), FELV (feline leukemia virus) and feline calicivirus can also cause dental problems. But probably the most important reason for bad teeth in our domesticated pets today is diet.
Animals are meant to chew raw food that is rich in vitamins, minerals and enzymes. The majority of commercial pet foods use ingredients that have almost no nutritional value to start with, and what little nutrients they do have are destroyed with the high heat used in the manufacturing process.
Dry food and crunchy biscuits do not clean a carnivore's teeth as most pet food manufacturers would have us believe.
In the wild, chewing through tough skin and bones scrubbed animals' teeth like a tooth brush, preventing the build-up of tartar, whereas most commercial food does not require much tooth action at all. On the contrary, the food forms a kind of glue that adheres to the teeth, contributing to dental decay. Poor food also leads to halitosis (foul breath), as it festers in the gut, and the offensive odor then backs up.
Some of the most common dental diseases in cats are gingivitis (gum inflammation), periodontitis (more serious inflammation that affects the gums and supporting structures of the teeth) and ulcerative gingivostomatitis (severe and chronic inflammation of the gums and mucosa), as well as fractures of the teeth due to trauma or jaw abnormalities. Symptoms can range from bleeding gums, bad breath and tartar formation to a reluctance to eat and groom, vocalizing, pawing at the mouth, drooling and facial swelling.
As well as being painful, dental problems can cause systemic effects. Bacteria from the infected teeth and gums can enter the blood stream, damaging the kidneys and heart.
Dental problems also tend to suppress the immune system and render the animal more vulnerable to other degenerative diseases. Therefore, it's important to get your pet checked by a vet if you do suspect any issues. Even better, you can do your best to prevent dental problems from occurring in the first place.
Unlike many health conditions, dental disease can be prevented almost entirely with natural home care. Here are my top tips for looking after your cat's teeth.
Feed a raw diet
If possible, feed Charlie a raw food diet that's rich in beneficial nutrients. Primal Pet Foods has a great range of raw foods for both cats and dogs, including convenient, complete and balanced meals made with all-natural ingredients (www.primalpetfoods.com). Also check out Natural Instinct's frozen raw cat food range (www.naturalinstinct.com).
Raw, meaty bones from the butcher that do not splinter can be given to dogs and cats regularly to stop tartar build-up. I recommend knuckle bones for dogs and chicken necks for cats. Pets must always be supervised while they eat bones to stop splintering and accidental swallowing. You can also feed Charlie raw or steamed vegetables to help fight tartar.
Alternatively, you can try prescription dry dental diets such as Hill's t/d or Royal Canin Dental, formulated to reduce plaque and tartar build-up. They are made with increased amounts of vegetable fibers that wrap around the teeth and prevent the food particles from adhering, or they pull the tartar away when animals bite into them.
Brushing your cat's teeth twice a week can go a long way in preventing dental disease. You say you've found this difficult, but don't give up! There are lots of different cat toothbrushes available, including 'finger brushes,' which may be easier to use than a traditional-looking toothbrush.
Never use human toothpaste to brush your cat's teeth; instead opt for one of the many specially formulated pastes and gels suitable for cats, preferably made with natural ingredients, or make your own (see right). Dr Mercola's Dental Gel, a plant-based product containing eight essential oils, is a good choice, as is Petzlife Oral Care Gel .They both contain peppermint oil, a natural antiseptic, and neem oil, an antimicrobial, great for keeping teeth and gums healthy (both available online from www.chewy.com).
If your cat simply won't let you brush his teeth, try Pets Are Kids Too Premium Pet Dental Spray, with a multi-enzyme formula designed to help fight plaque and bad breath. It's best used with a toothbrush but can also be applied directly into the mouth, or to your cat's paw for him to lick off.
There's also ProDen PlaqueOff Powder, which you sprinkle onto your pet's food daily. It's made with a brown seaweed called Ascophyllum nodosum, said to be beneficial for oral health.
Inspect your pet
Inspect your pet's mouth regularly for any signs and symptoms of dental problems. It's also important to arrange for regular oral exams by a vet, who can nip any problems in the bud early.
The usual treatment for cats with early gingivitis and mild periodontal disease is a simple descale and polish. But this needs to be done under general anesthetic, which comes with risks. Other conditions may require X-rays, root canal treatment or extraction.
There are a variety of complementary and alternative therapies that can be useful for dental problems in cats.
For mild gingivitis, Carbo Vegetabilis 6C can be given be 3-4 times daily for 5 to 7 days. For severe gingivitis, Mercurious Solubilis 30C can be used 4 times a day after veterinary treatment.
For a toothache, I recommend Chamomilla 30c 4-6 times daily, and for a tooth abscess, Aconite 30C to be dosed every 1-3 hours.
For teeth extractions, arnica is useful when given before and after dental work.
Chinese herbal medicine
I have found that Astragalus 10-Plus, whose main ingredient comes from the root of the astragalus plant, helps in treating tooth abscesses and infections. It may even help with infections resistant to antibiotics.
Lactoferrin, available in capsule form, may be helpful for cats with gum disease. When the gums are inflamed, giving cats half or one 350-mg capsule once a day can be beneficial. Try mixing it in milk or syrup to make it more palatable.
Coenzyme Q10 is a naturally occurring enzyme that has been found helpful for encouraging bleeding gums to heal quickly. The Dr Mercola brand produces a cat-friendly formula made with ubiquinol, the active form of CoQ10.
Dental pain can easily cause pets to become withdrawn and depressed. Both hands-on healing and distant healing can help them recover quickly and can also relax them before and after dental procedures. See my book You Can Heal Your Pet for how to give this kind of healing to your pet.
Simple sage 'toothpaste' for cats and dogs
Sage is an effective remedy for mouth, skin and digestive problems in dogs and cats. It is great for keeping teeth clean and preventing gingivitis, as it contains thujone, a volatile oil that has powerful antiseptic, antibiotic and antimicrobial qualities.
Try this simple sage remedy for cleaning your pet's teeth:
1) Place a handful of fresh sage leaves in a mug and add boiling water
2) Let this infuse for 10 minutes to make a tea, then let it cool down
3) Take a small children's toothbrush or a specially designed pet toothbrush, and dip it in the cooled sage tea
4) Gently brush around the teeth and gums of your dog or cat
Rohini Sathish, DVM, MSC, MRCVS, MHAO, MCIVT
Dr Sathish is an award-winning holistic vet with 22 years of experience. After training in acupuncture, acupressure, energy healing, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), animal communication and herbal medicine, she now actively integrates conventional veterinary treatments with complementary therapies and is co-author of You Can Heal Your Pet (Hay House, 2015). You can contact Dr Sathish at her website: www.rohinisholisticvetcare.com