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Plaque & Tartar: An Illustrated Guide

January 31, 2020

Plaque and tartar are words we hear all the time when it comes to our own dental care. But did you know they play a big role in the overall health of your cat too?

To understand how, let’s take a look at…

How plaque and tartar form

If you were to zoom into your cat’s saliva, you’d find a variety of different bacteria swimming around.

As they come into contact with various surfaces within the mouth, the bacteria start to grab on.

As they meet up with other bacteria, they form little colonies and feed off the food particles in your cat’s mouth. From there, they transform into slimy substances called biofilms.

And here’s where plaque comes in – it’s actually a common type of biofilm, and it takes the form of a sticky colorless deposit that gathers around teeth (sometimes it looks like a bunch of gunk stuck between them).

Plaque is a normal part of life. But if nothing is done to actively fight it, this biofilm starts leading to tooth decay and gum disease. That’s because, as plaque accumulates, it reaches below the gum line and gets a tighter grip on the teeth. And since it’s releasing waste products as it grows, it eats away at the teeth and tissues nearby.

The good news about plaque is that it’s actually pretty straightforward to remove – daily brushing sessions will break it up so it can be flushed away. But if it’s ignored, plaque buildup leads to… tougher issues.

Because, as plaque ages, it calcifies into a yellowish rock-hard crust known as tartar.

Tartar’s hardened and porous texture makes it the perfect home for even more bacterial growth. So, when it’s left untreated, it can accelerate dental disease, causing permanent tooth and gum decay, irreversible bone loss, tissue destruction, and the creation of pus-filled cavities in your cat’s gums (yuck, yuck, and yuck!).

From there, bacteria doesn’t have to go far before it gets into the bloodstream. And, once there, it’s able to spread to other internal organs, leading to heart disease, kidney failure, and a host of other terrible conditions. So, we really don’t want it to get that far.

What do we do about it?

A dental checkup

We’re veterinarians, so you could probably expect us to suggest this, but dental checkups are an excellent first step in figuring out a reasonable health plan for your cat’s mouth.

Each cat is unique, and will respond differently to the available at-home-care options, so your local cat veterinarian will be the best place to get started. For example, at a dental checkup, we will examine your cat’s mouth, and talk with you about the best options based on your cat’s physiology and temperament.

A dental cleaning

Time for some real talk. 70% of cats have started to show the subtle signs of dental disease by the age of three. So, there’s a pretty good chance your cat already has significant plaque and tartar buildup in their mouth.

And, unfortunately, once tartar has formed, it’s so rock-hard that it can only be removed by professionals. Your veterinarian will need to use specialty equipment to scale and polish your cat’s teeth (basically, they’ll scrape away the tartar, and smooth out the surface to make it a bit harder for bacteria to grab onto again).

But the good news is that once your cat has had one of these cleanings, preventative care can be a breeze! There are also new anesthesia-free dentistry options which are fantastic for maintaining that squeaky-clean mouth, for less cost and hassle.


Brush your cat’s teeth

We get it, we really do. This is probably the most intimidating option for many owners. The thought of getting your cat to sit still for a brushing can be daunting – but brushing at home doesn’t have to be a big deal.

There are toothbrushes and toothpaste specifically designed for cats, and we can walk you through how to use them. They’re actually pretty neat, as some toothbrushes fit over your finger, and the toothpaste is formulated so it continues to fight plaque even after you’ve finished brushing your cat’s teeth.

Important note: We generally don’t advise using human toothbrushes or toothpaste, as they can irritate a cat’s more sensitive mouth. And, in some cases, they may be toxic to your cat.

Use water or food additives

Since it can be tough to regularly brush, another good option can be food or water additives. Studies have shown that these products can actually be nearly as effective as brushing – making them a fantastic option for owners with busy schedules.

They’re pretty simple to use – as their names imply, you either add them to your cat’s water bowl or sprinkle on top of their food. Then, they get to work doing something similar to brushing – breaking up the plaque so it can’t harden into tartar. They do this by making the environment in your cat’s mouth less bacteria-friendly.

There are a variety of options, but we stock Clenz-a-dent products at T.H.E. Cat Hospital.

Incorporate a dental diet or dental treats

Dental diets and treats are another good option to work into your tooth-care routine, as they are specifically designed to attack plaque in a few ingenious ways.

First, both their shape and size are tailored to help clean the surface of your cat’s teeth. Generally, the kibble is slightly larger than normal, but is a more airy and fibrous texture. This is so that it breaks up more easily, and basically scrubs the surface of the teeth as your cat chews.

Secondly, they are formulated in such a way that they fight plaque similarly to the water and food additives – by making your cat’s mouth less bacteria-friendly. Kind of like a tasty, edible toothbrush and toothpaste combo.

There are a number of studies showing the effectiveness of dental diets, and there’s even a veterinary group that gives a seal of approval to manufacturers that meet high quality standards. We stock a few different prescription diets, and even have free samples of some of them so you can see if your cat likes a particular brand before switching.

Wrapping up

Learning how to deal with plaque before it can calcify into rock-hard tartar is well worth the effort. It will result in lower costs for you – but more importantly, it will help your cat live a longer, happier, and healthier life.

Before making drastic changes to your cat’s diet or environment, we always recommend talking to a professional. That’s to ensure the products you’ve chosen are going to work best for your cat. If you’re in the Southern California area, we’re located in Marina del Rey, and would love to see you!