Hi Dr. Barchas, I have a five-month-old kitten, and I want to start cleaning his teeth soon. I heard that you can wrap gauze around your finger, dip it in a mix of baking soda and water, and you can clean their teeth this way. Is this safe? What do you recommend I should use to clean his teeth and how often?


Oshawa, ON, Canada

Brushing your cat’s teeth is a very good idea, and you are wise to get an early start. Dental disease is by far the most common health problem I see in my patients, and brushing your pet’s teeth is the best way to prevent it. In addition to bad breath and pain, dental disease dramatically shortens lifespan and compromises quality of life in affected animals. People who brush their pets’ teeth do their pets a big favor, and they save on costly vet bills down the road.

The goal of tooth brushing in pets is to remove food and bacteria from the teeth, especially at the gumline. Although a piece of gauze wrapped around the finger will help in this process, I recommend using an animal toothbrush. These are available from vets and from pet stores, and come in a variety of sizes and models. For cats, fingertip brushes often work best, but you can experiment to determine what is most effective for your and your pet.

Toothpaste is optional in pets. The fluoride in human toothpaste helps to prevent cavities in people. Cavities are not a serious concern in pets, and fluoride can make pets sick if they swallow it. If you want to use toothpaste, use only a veterinary product. However, you also can use plain tap water. I’d recommend against baking soda–it tastes bad, and your cat may develop an aversion to having his teeth brushed if you use it.

To brush your pet’s teeth, he must cooperate. Gently brush the teeth in a circular fashion, focusing on the gumline. If your pet struggles, try a more gentle approach and work into brushing gradually. Take care not to get bitten. If your pet fights violently, it may not be possible to brush his teeth.

The official recommendation is to brush your pet’s teeth once daily. However, if that isn’t practical, brushing a few times a week is much better than nothing.

Finally, remember that although brushing your pet’s teeth will have a very favorable impact on his health, it does not guarantee that he will lead a life free of dental problems. I brush and floss regularly, but I still have to see the dentist now and then.