Cats are known for having pearly white teeth and pristine oral health without much dental care from owners. But why exactly don’t cats need daily tooth brushing and dental visits like humans? The reasons trace back to cats’ evolutionary adaptations, anatomy, natural behaviors, and dietary and grooming habits.
Cats possess a unique oral structure and function that minimizes plaque buildup and promotes self-cleaning. From their tooth arrangement to their sandpaper-like tongue to their tartar-inhibiting saliva, cats have several natural mechanisms that keep their teeth clean and cavity-free.
In this article, we dive deep into cat dental structure and hygiene. We’ll compare cats’ teeth and gums to those of humans. We’ll analyze how cats’ eating, grooming, and saliva maintenance habits contribute to good dental health. And we’ll look at how cat teeth anatomy and composition make them less susceptible to plaque and periodontal disease. Understanding cats’ exceptional oral qualities helps explain why they are so successful at avoiding tooth decay and maintaining health without brushing.
Cats’ natural hunting and eating behaviors clean teeth
Cats in the wild are obligate carnivores, meaning they subsist entirely on a meat-based diet. Their jaws and teeth have evolved for grabbing prey, tearing meat, and crunching bones. This natural way of eating provides dental benefits that help explain why cats don’t need daily brushing.
Wild cats use their elliptical-shaped incisors and canine teeth to grip prey tightly and deliver killing bites. Their sharp, serrated edges help slice cleanly through fur, hide, flesh, and sinew. This action saws meat from bone, exercises jaw muscles, and provides a thorough cleaning scrub to all surfaces of the teeth.
Cats also utilize their molars and premolars to shear and grind meat off the bone. These post-canine teeth have flattened surfaces that meet together when cats bite down. This creates a scissor-like shredding function ideal for cutting and chewing meat efficiently. The meat fibers act like floss as they get forced through the small spaces between contacting upper and lower molars.
In addition to flesh, cats gnaw on the bones of their prey. Hard bone is abrasive and serves to mechanically scrub the plaque off their teeth right down to the gumline as they gnaw. Eating whole small animals including innards, organs, connective tissues, and hide provides the most intensive natural teeth cleaning for wild cats.
Domestic cats are removed from this ideal whole prey eating. But dry commercial cat foods provide some substitute abrasive action. Dry kibble’s crunch works like bones and hide to scrape cats’ teeth mostly clean as they chew. So while not perfect, kibble helps mimic some of the dental benefits cats get from consuming whole prey.
Cats have remarkable tooth, gum, and jaw anatomy
Beyond behavior, cats also possess remarkable tooth, mouth, and jaw anatomy that promotes good oral health. While human teeth are prone to plaque buildup, cavities, gingivitis, and heavy tartar, cats’ teeth are naturally resistant to these dental problems.
Tooth arrangement and surfaces
Looking inside a cat’s mouth, a few key differences arise compared to humans. Cats have fewer total teeth with 30 permanent teeth compared to an adult human’s 32. Significant to plaque prevention, cats entirely lack the bicuspid and molar teeth found in humans.
These posterior grinding teeth in humans have rough biting surfaces and deep crevices perfect for trapping food debris. Cat molars, in contrast, have relatively smooth surfaces and shallow depressions that don’t retain plaque.
The types of teeth also differ. While humans have incisors, canines, premolars, and molars, cats lack premolars altogether. Their smaller tooth types include incisors, canines, and molars which all feature mostly flat or convex biting surfaces. These smooth surfaces have fewer pits and grooves for plaque to adhere to and collect in.
The periodontal structure also differs in cats to inhibit plaque formation. The junction between tooth and gum known as the gingival sulcus is shallower in cats. Humans have a deeper pocket which allows more plaque to accumulate along the tooth root hidden from abrasive chewing forces.
Cats’ shorter crown height also means less exposed tooth area below the gumline for tartar to build up on. Their tighter tooth-gum interface limits areas for bacteria to colonize compared to humans’ more open vulnerable crevices.
Jaw and chewing motion
A cat’s hinged jaw motion also promotes good dental health. The jaw joint of cats is classified as a non-locking orrisodont ligament. This type of connection allows only vertical motion of the jaw, rather than side-to-side grinding motion possible in humans.
Because cats’ jaws move strictly up and down when chewing, their occlusion results in teeth making point-to-point contact rather than sliding across surfaces. This causes a self-dislodging mechanism where food particles get pressed out from between teeth with each bite instead of jamming in crevices.
In humans, the lateral grating of upper and lower rows of teeth often traps food. So cats’ exclusively vertical chewing action produces a scrubbing and cleaning effect not achieved in human chewing.
The structure of cats’ tongues clean teeth
A less obvious reason cats don’t require brushing is the structure of their tongues. Like other aspects of their anatomy, cats’ tongues have adapted to serve a teeth-cleaning function.
The upper surface of the tongue contains small barbs or hooks called filiform papillae. These hair-like growths face toward the back of the tongue. This natural grain acts like a bristle brush.
As a cat licks its fur and face during grooming, the backward-angled filiform papillae scrub and help detangle. The semi-abrasive texture also works to scrape bacteria, food debris, and plaque off teeth as the tongue makes contact. The papillae remove built up dental plaque but are not so rough as to damage tooth enamel.
So regular self-grooming provides an ongoing teeth cleaning benefit for cats. Their built-in tongue brush is always handy!
Researchers have observed outdoor feral cats with less tartar buildup compared to indoor cats. More frequent grooming and teeth cleaning from the filiform papillae is likely an important reason for feral cats’ better dental health.
Cats’ saliva composition reduces plaque
Cats’ natural saliva chemistry also prevents plaque accumulation and promotes dental health. Cat saliva contains unique enzymes, proteins, and compounds that have anti-bacterial, anti-plaque, and enamel-strengthening properties.
Several constituents of cat saliva inhibit the growth of bacteria most responsible for plaque and periodontal disease. The enzyme lysozyme, for example, breaks down cell walls of gram-positive bacteria. It acts as a disinfectant in the mouth.
Calcium and phosphate compounds in saliva also help defend cat teeth. These minerals redeposit on tooth surfaces they contact, strengthening enamel against decay. Cat saliva further contains immunoglobulins, antiviral interferon, and lactoferrin which all fight bacteria growth and infection.
So as cats lick and coat their teeth while grooming, they apply natural plaque-retarding and enamel-fortifying chemistry. Cat saliva acts to “remineralize” and “re-brush” teeth after eating, neutralizing acid and scrubbing away bacterial colonies before they form into plaque and tartar.
Risk factors for dental problems in cats
While their natural adaptations keep most cats’ teeth healthy, they are not bulletproof. Plaque and tartar can still accumulate, especially in older cats or those with certain medical or dietary conditions. These include:
- Kidney disease – impairs mineral balance and saliva production
- Diabetes – increases plaque bacteria growth
- Dry food only diet – lacks abrasion of bones, hide, etc.
- Dehydration – reduces cleansing saliva flow
- Medications – some drugs reduce saliva secretion
- Mouth injuries or genetic defects
Signs like bad breath, inflamed gums, loose teeth, reduced eating, and behavioral changes can indicate dental problems in cats. While not all cats need intensive teeth brushing and cleaning, some may benefit from additional dental care methods.
Options range from dental treats and chews to antiseptic rinses to plaque-removal gels applied to the teeth. For cats with severe tartar, professional cleaning by a vet may be needed. Annual dental checkups help monitor for problems. But for most cats, their natural mechanisms keep their pearly whites healthy and brushing-free.
Why cats are dental superstars
Cats’ remarkable oral health stems from the total package – their evolutionary adaptations, tooth and jaw anatomy, inherent behaviors, and dietary and grooming habits. This suite of specializations equips cats with natural physical and chemical means to control plaque and maintain healthy teeth and gums without human intervention.
From their vertically-closing jaws, to their sandpaper tongues, to their bacteria-neutralizing saliva, cats possess delicately balanced, self-sustaining dental defenses. While cats may suffer dental disease at times, their high rate of success avoiding such problems is owed to this integration between biology and behavior. Appreciating this synergy provides insight into why cats typically don’t require toothbrushing and remain dental superstars.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do cats not get cavities like humans do?
Cats get fewer cavities than humans for several reasons. Their saliva contains compounds that strengthen enamel and fight bacteria. The smooth surfaces of cat teeth also limit areas for cavities to take hold. Cats’ high-protein diet does not feed the acids and sugars that decay teeth like human diets can. Additionally, cats’ faster tooth replacement rate helps prevent drilling cavities.
Is it safe to brush a cat’s teeth?
Yes, brushing is safe if done gently and gradually introduced. Use a soft small-bristled brush and toothpaste formulated for cats only. Make it a positive experience with praise and treats. Brush for 30-60 seconds daily on the outer surfaces. It may take time for a cat to accept brushing but can become part of their routine.
Do dry or wet cat foods clean teeth better?
Dry food is better for cleaning cat teeth. Its crunchy kibble texture provides abrasion to scrub off plaque. Wet foods do not provide this mechanical abrasive action. But dental treats, chews, or specially textured foods pair well with wet food to add teeth-scrubbing benefits.
How can I tell if my cat has a dental problem?
Signs of cat dental disease include yellow or brown tartar buildup, red or swollen gums, loose or infected teeth, drooling, bad breath, reduced appetite, and difficulty eating. Lethargy and behavioral changes can also indicate mouth pain or infection. Annual vet dental exams help detect problems early.
What home remedies clean cat teeth?
Some home options to clean cat teeth include: dental treats and chews, plaque-removing gel applied to teeth, tooth wipes, raw bones to gnaw, abrasive kibble, plaque-fighting oral rinse water additive, and coconut oil rubbed on teeth and gums. Gently brushing with cat toothpaste is also effective for plaque removal.