Tabby’s Tooth Fairy

Dear Tabby,

We adopted our first kitty about 3 weeks ago – a 6-month-old tabby named, guess what!, “Tabigail”! She is wonderfully affectionate and playful and loves to hang out with us.

Of course, we wanted to do right by her, so, since we are new cat owners, we’ve been doing a lot of reading up on proper grooming and stuff like that. We want to start brushing her teeth, because we’ve read it’s really important to do with cats, particularly those who eat canned food, as Tabigail does.

The problem is, while she loves to be held, touched, and brushed, she flips out any time we go near her mouth with a toothbrush!

What do we do? We tried just stepping up the frequency, and I had my husband wrap her in a towel and hold her down while I brushed her teeth to show her it was no big deal. But that just seemed to upset her even more. We’re obviously going about this the wrong way – please help!

Signed, Tabby's Tooth Fairy

Dear TTF,

How to Brush a Cat’s Teeth:

Step 1: Restock first aid kit, prepare tourniquet for arm about to be removed at elbow by enraged animal, have partner sit nearby with fingers poised over 911.

HA HA HA. Just kidding!

What you’re describing is, of course, very common in kitties, especially if they haven’t been started on the tooth brushing thing from kittenhood. Tabigail is 6 months old – a full-grown kitty – and full-grown kitties in particular do not like change.

Never fear, though! This can be overcome with persistence, patience, and time, and brushing your cat’s teeth is really important for their health! The bacteria that builds up along a kitty’s gum line can eventually cause pretty horrific problems, ranging from tooth loss to excruciatingly painful gingivitis-stomatitis (inflammation of the gums and mouth). Periodontal disease can also be bad for a kitty’s heart and other organs.

For that reason, you are to be commended both for your desire to care for Tabigail’s oral health and your courage in going into a cat’s mouth with nothing but a toothbrush between you and total exsanguination!

HA HA HA. Just kidding!

In all seriousness now: you were ALMOST right when you thought stepping up the frequency might help Tabigail adjust to the process, but your technique was definitely as wrong as can be. You never want to grab a cat and hold her down against her will for something like this – that makes her associate tooth brushing with terror, which is the exact opposite of what you want to do.

Instead, let’s start over and slow this process way, way down. (And, of course, I’m hoping it goes without mention that you should only be using cat-friendly brushes and toothpaste for this.)

What you want to do is introduce the task in stages, with several days (or even longer, depending on her reaction) in between each step. Break the process of brushing her teeth down into components: there’s the brush, there’s the toothpaste, there’s pulling her lips back, and there’s making actual contact.

Each one of these components needs to become more familiar and less scary to her before you can actually do a real brushing job.

So, first, put the toothbrush out in the middle of the living room, or wherever she likes to hang out. Let it start to become something she’s used to seeing in her territory.

After a few days of that, pick it up and show it to her in your hand. Let her sniff it, your hand, your arm pits (I don’t know), whatever. Give her a treat. Do that a few times a day for a few days.

Then introduce her to the toothpaste similarly – let her sniff the tube, put some on your finger and let her sniff that, and always a treat after each exposure.

Next up, spend a few days periodically pulling her lips back just for a moment to expose her teeth. Lips back, you get a treat. Lips back, you get a treat.

Now try pulling her lips back while you’re holding the brush (no paste). Then try lips back, holding the brush, touch the brush to her teeth for a moment (no paste). Treats! Always with the treats!

When you’re finally able to touch the brush to her teeth, try brushing them without paste, and then try it with.

With enough time and patience, Tabigail will start to learn that none of these things are scary, and all of them come with the reward of treats, praise, and attention. We like treats, praise, and attention, which means ultimately, we might even come to like having our teeth brushed.

Just in case, though, don’t forget that tourniquet prep. And if you could just sign this waiver absolving me of liability in case of your hospitaliza. . . KIDDING!

Love and nose boops,
Tabigail van Purrin’

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