How often do cats need teeth cleaning?
December 27, 2007 10:03 PM   Subscribe

Do our mostly-indoors, otherwise healthy cats really need to have their teeth cleaned at the vet's once a year?

At our recent vet trip, he checked our cats' gums and felt that we should have their teeth cleaned, even though it's been no more than a year since their last cleaning.

Some facts:
-They get wet food once a day, but eat dry food otherwise.
-They're unrelated genetically, but the vet says that they both seem prone to plaque and gum irritation.
- They're six and five years old.
-They seem to have no trouble eating, particularly the male, who eats like a wolf.

I can't help but feel like the vet is playing the role of auto mechanic and pushing the teeth cleaning with scare stories of "they could have pockets that would be really bad if we wait another year". He showed me some redness in their gums, but since I don't look there every day, I have no idea if it's normal or not.

Of course, the reason I'm hesitant to just go ahead with it is that it's frighteningly expensive and the cats get totally zonked out of their minds on tranquilizers. Also, my family had an older dog die from the anesthesia during a cleaning, so I'm perhaps irrationally soured on the whole thing.

So, in your varied experiences with cats, is this yearly cleaning really necessary, or are we being pressured for profit?
posted by Asparagirl to Pets & Animals (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
We've had our cat here in Australia for several years now, and our vet has *never* suggested she get her teeth cleaned. She eats just dry food (by her own choice!). He did say at one of the yearly checkups/shots that we should give her the occasional raw chicken wing to gnaw on. I wonder if you could get a second opinion from another vet??
posted by web-goddess at 10:30 PM on December 27, 2007

Wait a few weeks and check their teeth yourself. See if the redness goes away, or does it persist and are the gums a little swollen at the base of the tooth? I've only had one cat that had to have regular cleanings, and he was also the only cat that was fed a lot of canned food (he preferred it over the dry). But his gums would get red and puffy over time. When we eventually switched to an all-dry diet, the problem went away. Good thing, because my cat hated going in the car, I was worried about the anesthesia as well, and the procedure was very expensive.
posted by Oriole Adams at 11:10 PM on December 27, 2007

Yes, you do need to clean pet's teeth (dogs and cats) regularly, but you don't always need an annual general anesthetic regiment of dental scaling. Maybe once, and then presuming there are no major issues to contend with, like oral disease or broken teeth, you can clean your cat's teeth yourself.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:11 PM on December 27, 2007

My wife works at a vet clinic and has done many dental cleanings on cats and dogs. These cleanings are recommended for good reason. There is indeed all manner of nasty things that can go wrong with the teeth on animals, just as with humans. Those pockets of infection may or may not be there, but they won't know until they pull the gums back and look. The cost for this procedure varies from clinic to clinic, but it's somewhat time consuming. As far as making profit, they've got a lot of more efficient ways to do that.
posted by azpenguin at 11:29 PM on December 27, 2007

I forgot to mention - your concern about anesthesia is perfectly understandable, especially given your past experiences. However, it's typically very safe as long as it's monitored as it's supposed to be. In all the surgeries my wife has assisted with, they have never lost one on the table.

Cool Papa Bell, the average person doesn't know how to check for abscesses, or for teeth that have rotted below the gums, which is more common than you might think. But home cleaning is good maintenance, provided kitty or pooch lets you do it.
posted by azpenguin at 11:35 PM on December 27, 2007

My vet recommended that I get my (4-year old, indoor-only, dry-food eating) cat's teeth cleaned at her next visit, since she has some pretty severe gum swelling/receding and one of her front canines is loose - it will probably have to come out. He did suggest that this was genetic, and that her stubborn urinary tract infections might be linked to the swelling/potential infection.

I'm planning on going ahead with it when we can afford it in January, but barring those complicating factors, I'd get a second opinion.
posted by timetoevolve at 11:49 PM on December 27, 2007

With dogs, genetics plays a large part in their dental needs. (My greyhound goes in for a dental at 8am. And they're wacky with their anesthesia requirements, which is probably why I'm not sleeping right now.)

But I have a couple 10+ year old cats who have never had their teeth cleaned (professionally or otherwise). Like yours, mine mainly eat dry food with a wet food treat in the evenings. Is there any way you could get a second opinion? Or, you could wait a few weeks, checking the gums yourself once a week or so, to see if anything changes. I, too, always worry about having unnecessary procedures pushed upon me (even though I really, really like my vet; it must be the auto mechanics who have me conditioned). I've had vets comment on their teeth occasionally, but not at every visit, and there has never been an OMG INFECTION incident.

That said, my greyhound just got over a nasty bacterial infection that cost me nearly $600 to treat, and the infection (likely) started in the gums. I had been remiss in her tooth brushing and had been putting off her dental cleaning. So that's not a mistake I'll make again with my feeble-teethed greyhounds.
posted by iguanapolitico at 12:03 AM on December 28, 2007

I put off having my cats teeth cleaned on the basis that they were indoor kitties, in good general health, and ate only dry food. This past summer, one of them was playful as usual one day, and the next day became very, very ill. I burned up much credit and many hours at the intensive care vet hospital hoping she wouldn't die. Her whole body was essentially septic. It turned out that it had stemmed from a tooth abscess.

She made it, for which I am extremely grateful. I urge you to follow up on dental care regularly for your cat. It may spare you a much greater expense in the long run. (Not to mention kitty pain, and the ensuing guilt.)
posted by lunaazul at 12:20 AM on December 28, 2007

A friend of mine worked at a vet clinic for several years, doing teeth among other things. She was initially very surprised to see the difference that regular dental cleaning makes in cats - apparently it affects everything, such that for cats that had regular cleanings you would swear from their appearance and health and behaviour that they were many years younger than they were. She reckoned tooth cleaning was one of the best places you could possibly spend money on a cat, and so swore that her cats would have regular dental cleanings just as soon as she could afford a dentist to clean her own teeth. (Apparently the pay wasn't so great.)
posted by -harlequin- at 2:00 AM on December 28, 2007

A few years ago one of my cats got a cavity, which allowed an infection to enter her bloodstream and infect her kidneys. She had to have the tooth extracted, plus go on medicated food for her kidneys and have subcutaneous fluids applied beneath her skin with a needle and IV bag every other day for twelve days. Now we just let the vets clean the cats' teeth whenever they think it's necessary.

I had another cat who had a whole host of health problems, so when his teeth started going bad the vet gave me fluoride to put in his water since he couldn't withstand the anesthesia that a dental cleaning would require. Maybe that would be a good compromise...get the cats' teeth cleaned now and then ask for some fluoride to keep their teeth in good condition and hopefully put off another cleaning for as long as possible.
posted by christinetheslp at 3:19 AM on December 28, 2007

Genetic relatedness isn't necessarily an issue. If one of them has picked up a chronic gum infection like stomatitis (which makes gums red and irritated), they can pass it back and forth through shared water dishes, etc.

I know more than I'd like about stomatitis because two of my four have it. One is pretty well managed with a relatively cheap medication and has no eating problems. The other had such a bad, chronic condition, that was so unresponsive to medication, that she's had nearly all her teeth removed. And I spent a year and a half feeding her baby food while she dwindled to a frighteningly tiny weight, yowling every time she ate even the soft baby food, because it was so painful. She's doing great now that the teeth are gone, but it was hideously expensive for us and awful for her to get her through that.

All of which is to say that I will be a lot more proactive about cleaning any future cats' teeth regularly from kittenhood. Yearly seems excessive for most cats, but not for all. I only wish someone had told me years earlier that she could benefit from regular tooth cleaning before things got so bad.

I'd monitor your cats' teeth carefully for a while and keep an eye on the redness. (Note that if it goes away, you should still keep monitoring - stomatitis comes and goes, which is one of the reasons it took so long to get mine treated; the first time I took her in, the vet couldn't tell what was going on because she was in an okay phase of the disease.) Meanwhile, there's a liquid called Aquadent that you can put in water dishes that's supposed to be good for killing mouth infections in cats if you use it on an ongoing basis. That might be a preventative measure you could try first, if the tooth irritation isn't too bad.
posted by Stacey at 4:27 AM on December 28, 2007

if the gums are reddened and you are not brushing them regularly (which can be a pain in the ass, I know) then they need a cleaning. The gums are red becuase there are bacteria breeding in there, which is both gross and no fun for the cat. If your cat has bad breath, that's another sign.

At our vet's the put the cat out but also prep for something to wake them up if things start going wrong. It means that even if they don't do an IV for the anaesthetic, they can pop drugs in fast to get the cat back up if they need to. Both of ours are going in for it after the first of the year and then after that we are going to have to go at them with the Klaw Kontrol Bag, the toddler toothbrush and the cat toothpaste. I'd strongly consider a professional cleaning. If you don't trust your vet to do this, then maybe it's time for a new vet.
posted by Medieval Maven at 5:03 AM on December 28, 2007

Why not just seek a second opinion? I would normally heed the advice of the vet (that is what you're paying them for) but every year seems excessive to me (this could depend on the animal though).

My vet recommends the Hill's Prescription Diet TD dry kibble which is supposed to help keep their teeth clean. There are a lot of dissenting opinions about Hill's online (preserves, overpriced, vets being paid off to sell it etc.) but my cat loves it and I haven't had to have a teeth cleaning in the past few years.
posted by purephase at 5:48 AM on December 28, 2007

My vet at check ups always recommend we at least brush our cats' teeth ourselves. Since our cats won't hold still for this sort of thing there have been a few work arounds.

1. Dental water... There's a special additive to cat's water to help their teeth. Unfortunately it makes the bowl slimey and I don't think my cats liked it much.

2. Feline Greenies. I haven't tried them, they're supposed to be decent though.

3. Oral care mix for food. The brand we use offers this, and it's supposed to keep their teeth a cleaner or something. I guess I'll know at the next vet visit if it's working.
posted by drezdn at 7:02 AM on December 28, 2007

My cats, at age 12 and 11 just had their teeth cleaned for the first time ever this year. Neither has significant dental problems. They eat a combination of wet and dry food.
posted by kimdog at 7:18 AM on December 28, 2007

Brushing teeth is not a substitute for proper cleaning (any more than it is for a human), and scaling should never be done by a lay person without an anaesthetic. Cats are prone to serious dental problems called FORLs which can be extremely painful. Many dental issues cannot be adequately diagnosed without an anaesthetic (since most animals won't allow a thorough oral exam while awake), and the most current approach to animal dentistry includes x-rays to assess below the gum dental health as as well. This likely isn't a matter of your vet suggesting once a year cleaning like a car mechanic suggests things (animals are all individuals, some need their teeth cleaning more often than others), it's likely the case that your cats are prone to dental issues, dental health has a massive effect on general health and quality of life (and going outside has nothing to do with their teeth).
posted by biscotti at 7:23 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I really think it matters differently depending on the cat. Everyone's anecdotes about their cats won't help you answer your question about YOUR cats. Try another vet; get a second opinion on whether your cats really need them or not.
posted by pinksoftsoap at 8:41 AM on December 28, 2007

Another vote for the Hill's TD dry kibble. The vet recommended that we give this food to my husband's cat AFTER she got her teeth cleaned there. We did so, and it's worked very well; on follow-up visits, the vet says that her teeth have remained in good shape with little plaque. She and her buddy both gobble down the chow--it's slightly bigger than most cat kibble (almost more like dog kibble) and I sometimes wonder if the larger size (ergo the need for more chewing) has more to do with the teeth-scraping process than anything else.
posted by dlugoczaj at 5:22 PM on December 28, 2007

Re: Hills TD, or anything else. We inherited a pair of cats from a co-worker who was moving overseas. They had been fed TD and the Lamb & Rice formula kibble (no canned food at all) and had required annual cleanings. We switched them over to Diamond Maintenance kibble, and they haven't needed their teeth cleaned in the six years we've had them. They see the vet every year, and he -always- checks their teeth.

As for the OP's question: depends on the cats and the vet. Do you trust the vet to know what's best for your cats, and to avoid as much stress on them as possible?

With my vets and my cats, I'd probably not get a second opinion, but that's because I trust my vets to know what's best for the critters, and that they won't recommend something that would put any of the critters through an unnecessary procedure.
posted by jlkr at 7:23 PM on December 28, 2007

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