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Keeping Up with Your Cat's Hygiene

Healthy Ears

Good ear care is one of the most overlooked areas of cat care, but it is important to your cat's health. Weekly ear checks and cleaning when necessary will prevent common problems like ear mites, allergies, and bacterial, fungal, and yeast infections from taking hold.

Most cats tolerate ear cleanings if you make them part of the regular grooming routine. Try to keep the experience positive, and reward cooperation with a small treat.

To see into the ear, hold the tip between your thumb and forefinger and gently roll it outward to reveal the inner part of the ear. Check for signs of trouble. A small amount of light brown wax is normal, but excessive discharge (especially black, red, or green-yellow) or redness indicates a problem. If the ear appears healthy, gently wipe the inside with a pad soaked in ear cleanser, which is available from your vet or pet supply store. Never insert a Q-tip or anything else into the ear canal—you could cause serious, permanent damage.

If the ear appears to be red and sore, if you see a lot of discharge, or if your cat is scratching her ears and shaking her head a lot, take her to the vet. Ear problems often are hard to diagnose without a microscopic examination of the discharge, and treating for the wrong thing won't help and might even hurt.

Kitty Dental Hygiene


Offensive breath indicates an underlying problem. Here are some possible causes of bad breath in adult cats:

  • Diet. Some foods, especially canned and semi-moist foods, leave traces on the teeth, where bacteria collect and create bad breath. A change of food sometimes freshens the breath. If not, see your veterinarian.
  • Gingivitis. Unless your cat is a teething kitten, red puffy gums indicate infection. Your cat needs to see the vet.
  • Abscessed tooth. Cats rarely complain of tooth pain, but an infection or abscess requires veterinary attention to prevent serious complications.

Proper dental care should also be a regular part of your program for keeping your cat healthy and happy. Cats are prone to the same dental problems as their owners—broken teeth, gum disease, abscesses, decay, and pain—which not only cause discomfort but also can contribute to behavior problems. A good dental health program can prolong your cat's life, and freedom from pain can only help his disposition.

Periodontal (gum) disease is extremely common in small animals. From the time a kitten starts eating solid food, bacteria and food particles are deposited along the gum line and under the gums. These deposits form plaque. If not removed, plaque hardens into calculus and eventually causes serious problems. Most of us know how painful dental problems can be, but your cat will likely suffer in silence until the disease is quite far advanced. Fortunately, a program of preventive dental care can keep your cat's mouth healthy.

You can help maintain your kitty's dental health in several ways. Feeding high-quality dry food begins the process (see Feeding Your Cat). You can also ask your vet to demonstrate a basic oral exam, which you can do on a regular basis to spot problems early. Essentially, you will carefully and gently check your cat's mouth for signs of trouble, including inflamed or bleeding gums; loose, broken, discolored, or “dirty” teeth; bad breath; or excessive drooling during the exam or at other times.

Brushing Felix's Teeth

Tooth brushing will help maintain your cat's dental health. Ideally, our cats should have their teeth brushed every day, but realistically, most of us will brush our cats' teeth at most two or three times a week, which is much better than not brushing at all.


Don't use human toothpaste or baking soda on your cat. They can pose health risks if swallowed, and most cats don't like the taste.

Special tooth brushes are available for cats, or you can use a small child's toothbrush with soft bristles. Some people prefer rubber “brushes” that fit over the fingertip or special tooth-cleaning pads, both available from pet supply stores and veterinarians, who also carry toothpastes formulated for cats.

Begin with very short sessions. Don't introduce the brush at first, but put a little of the kitty toothpaste on your finger and run it briefly along your cat's teeth and gums. Pet your cat and praise him; then release him. Slowly increase the amount of time you spend doing this until you can rub the outer surfaces of all his teeth, then introduce the brush. (Cats don't usually develop periodontal problems on the inner edges of their teeth and gums because their tongues keep those surfaces cleaner.) You might need to reduce the time you spend with the brush at first until Felix is used to the bristles. Be sure to keep sessions happy, and cuddle or play with your cat after the tooth cleaning to help him look forward to this social time.

“Felix, the Dentist Will See You Now”

Your cat should also have periodic dental exams during which your veterinarian will look for signs of gum disease, loose or broken teeth, discolored teeth, or signs of discomfort. She will check your cat's tongue and other oral tissues for abnormalities, and she might use a periodontal probe to check for symptoms of gum disease. These procedures can be done during a regular examination.

Other procedures might require your cat to be anesthetized. Because some tooth problems occur below the gum line, your vet might recommend full-mouth or partial x-rays. Your cat might also need thorough periodic tooth cleanings to remove built-up plaque and tartar, or he might occasionally need to have a tooth removed. Although there are always risks associated with anesthesia, new, short-acting injectable anesthetics are much safer than older anesthetics. Ask your vet what kind of anesthetic she uses, how easy it is to reverse, and how she will monitor your cat while under anesthesia.

How often should your cat have a professional dental exam? That depends on his age. A kitten should have an oral exam as early as possible, with follow-ups at each vaccination appointment until he's about 4 months old. At about 6 months, he should be checked again to be sure his bite is okay and to ensure that all his baby teeth have fallen out. Occasionally baby teeth are retained, causing the permanent teeth to come in crooked. If that happens, your vet will need to pull the baby tooth.

From 6 months to about 3 years of age, most cats need only an annual dental exam during their regular yearly vet visit unless you notice a problem. From 3 or 4 years until about 6 or 7, most cats still require only a yearly exam, especially if you practice home dental care.

Just like people, though, cats vary, and if your cat is prone to plaque buildup or other problems, your vet might recommend oral exams every 6 months. In later life—usually from 7 years on—most cats should have dental exams every 6 months.

More on: Pets

Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat http://life.familyeducation.com/cats/health/45708.html 2005 by Sheila Webster Boneham, Ph.D. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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