By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 8 November 2011)
According to veterinarian Arnold Plotnick (2006), without dental care, the majority of cats will develop dental disease by five years of age. In addition to causing painful dental problems, tooth decay can seriously impact cats’ health as they grow older because bacteria and toxins on the teeth may migrate throughout the body. Heart, liver, and kidney disease have all been linked to tooth decay in cats.
The majority of veterinarians recommend brushing a cat’s teeth with a toothpaste specially formulated for cats (human toothpastes are toxic to cats). However, some also believe that dental diets can be beneficial, either in addition to brushing or for cats that won’t accept brushing.
How Dental Diets for Cats Work
Contrary to popular belief, most dry kibble diets won’t clean a cat’s teeth because cats either swallow the small kibbles whole or the kibbles crumble so easily that only the very tips of the longer teeth get scraped. Dental diets are the only dry diets likely to reduce plaque.
Dental diets comprise dry kibbles that are specially formulated for greater abrasiveness to scrape plaque and tartar (calcified plaque) from the teeth. For example, t/d Feline Dental Health from Hill’s Pet Nutrition has transverse fibers designed to pull plaque off the teeth. This diet contains no active chemical ingredients or mineral abrasives. Another leading brand, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet – Feline Dental, is also made from large kibbles and contains the cleansing ingredient sodium tripolyphosphate. In addition, many companies offer tartar control cat treats.
Although veterinarians often recommend dental diets, the Feline Advisory Bureau notes that their long-term effectiveness for preventing dental disease has not yet been proven.
Risks Associated with Dental Diets for Cats
The trouble with dry diets is that they tend to be high in carbohydrates, putting cats at risk for a broad array of health problems ranging from irritable bowel syndrome to diabetes. In addition, cats that eat primarily dry food usually spend their lives slightly dehydrated, increasing the likelihood that they will develop painful urinary tract problems that cause them to urinate outside the litter box.
Dental diets and tartar-control treats are typically loaded with by-products, grains, and rice. The first five ingredients listed on the label of the Hill’s Pet Nutrition dental diet are chicken by-product meal, brewer’s rice, corn gluten meal, powdered cellulose, and whole grain corn. The first five ingredients listed for Royal Canin’s feline dental diet are chicken meal, ground corn, rice, wheat gluten, and chicken fat. Tartar control treats tend to be even lower in protein and higher in carbohydrates than dental diets, though these treats are not meant to be fed regularly as meals.
Meat by-products may include diseased animals or undigestible matter such as feathers, and because cats are obligate carnivores, they can’t process carbohydrates properly. A high-carbohydrate diet not only puts a cat’s health at risk, but also ensures that much of the food ends up in the litter box. This means that the cat will require more food, and the litter box will need to be scooped more often.
Although dental diets claim to be nutritionally complete, they may do more harm than good if fed exclusively. Owners who wish to feed their cats dental diets can strike a balance by feeding a premium, high-protein wet food and supplementing with dental diet kibbles.
If adding any dry food to a cat’s regular diet, encourage the cat to drink plenty of water to maintain adequate hydration by doing one or more of the following:
- Place the water bowl in a location away from the food bowls (most cats prefer to eat and drink in separate areas as they would in the wild).
- Put out multiple water bowls at various locations so that the cat comes across them often and is reminded to drink.
- Purchase a fountain-type water bowl (many cats prefer running water because in the wild, moving water is more likely to be clean than standing water).
For advice on how to choose the best possible food for your cat, see High-Protein Diets for Cats.
- Bellows, B., Small Animal Dental Equipment, Materials, and Techniques: A Primer, Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
- Bellows, B., Feline Dentistry: Oral Assessment, Treatment, and Preventative Care, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
- Feline Advisory Bureau, “Feline Dentistry: How Homecare Can Help,” FABCats.org, n.d.
- Fox, M.W.; Hodgkins, E.; & Smart, M.E., Not Fit for a Dog! The Truth About Manufactured Dog and Cat Food, Linden Publishing, 2008.
- Hofve, J, “Does Dry Food Clean the Teeth?” LittleBigCat.com, 2010. Knight, A., Fishy Business? Vegan Pet Food [PDF].” Vegepets.Info, 2008.
- Plotnick, A., “Dental Disease,” ManhattanCats.com, 2006.