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Does Dry Food Actually Clean Your Cat's Teeth?

Feb 9, 2013 · Updated Sep 4, 2013 · ·
  1. Anne
    Cat food is always a hot topic on our forums. There are so many things to consider when deciding which diet is best for your cat that debates can be lengthy, and occasionally heated. When dry food is brought up, we sometimes hear people mention its anti-plaque qualities, often tooted by their veterinarian.
    Up until a decade or so ago, it was commonly believed that dry cat food helped prevent tooth and gum disease. There was little research to back this up, but the theory behind it made some sense. In order to understand the underlying logic, let's take a look at how dental problems develop.

    Plaque, tartar and dental problems in cats

    The process is actually fairly similar in cats, dogs and even humans. As the cat eats, its teeth get covered in a thin film consisting mostly of microscopic food debris and germs. This bacterial cocktail is known as plaque. It’s soft and can be removed from the teeth by mild abrasive action such as tooth-brushing.

    When plaque is not removed, it hardens into a substance called tartar or calculus. Tartar is made of calcified remains of bacteria. It adheres to the teeth, creating a stronghold where later additional layers of plaque will be created, and the process is repeated until the teeth are covered with a visible layer of tartar. Tartar can be removed only by dental polishing and scaling, a procedure performed by a veterinarian under general anesthesia.

    Tartar and plaque trigger an inflammatory response in the cat’s gums and can cause Gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, which can deteriorate into full-blown periodontitis, affecting the inner structures of the gums and teeth. Some cats can develop a condition called Stomatitis where the entire mouth becomes inflamed.

    Clearly, in order to prevent these diseases, we need to regularly remove plaque from the cat’s teeth, before it turns into Tartar. The theory behind feeding dry food suggests that the kibble’s texture helps removes the plaque. But is this really the case?

    Does dry food really help prevent the accumulation of plaque?

    The theory behind feeding dry food suggests that -
    1. The kibble’s abrasive surfaces come in contact with the cat’s teeth, in effect polishing them and getting plaque off.
    2. The pieces of dry food get swallowed dry, so there is less food debris that sticks to the teeth to later form plaque (compared to wet food).

    The problem? There is actually little scientific evidence to back this up. No large studies exist which actually prove that feeding dry food lowers the rate of dental disease. This led to further observations, noting that, in fact, most cats don’t chew kibble. The small and fragile pieces of dry cat food are either swallowed whole, or they break apart too quickly in the mouth, providing little resistance to the teeth.

    Dr. Fraser Hale, DVM, a veterinary dental specialist, summed this up well in his lecture given to the World Small Animals Veterinary Association (WSAVA) -
    In other words: Don’t count on dry cat food to clean your cat’s teeth.

    While there is no conclusive scientific evidence to tell which diet is optimal for feline dental health, it is safe to say that regular dry food does not keep your cat’s teeth any cleaner than other kinds of food.

    Dental Dry Cat Food

    Several pet food companies offer specialty diets that claim to reduce plaque and tartar buildup. These claims are substantiated by studies that show some improvement can be achieved, or at least some deterioration prevented, when these diets are fed as the main source of food (not as treats). The Veterinary Oral Health Council reviews the clinical studies of such foods to make sure they adhere to the required scientific standards. Once approved, they get the official VOHC Seal of Approval. You can find a list of approved dental-care diets here:
    Veterinary Oral Health Council Accepted Products for Cats and Dogs

    The way these dental diets work is usually by providing larger and slightly more “chewable” kibble. The cat needs to sink its teeth into the chunks of food, and they don’t fall apart as easily, providing some actual friction on the surface of the teeth.

    It is worth noting here that there seems to be a strong genetic component involved in the development of dental disease. Some cats tend to develop plaque and tartar, and related diseases, more than others. Other cats will have healthy teeth and gums throughout their lives. The bottom line is, you cannot rely on any one kind of diet to “fix” your cat’s dental problems. You should work with your vet on a long-term dental health care strategy, which is likely to include regular brushing of your cat's teeth.


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  1. darren7481
    Genetics do play a huge part in the health of kitty teeth- Siamese cats & mixed-Siamese are prone to dental problems. I believe that dry crunchy food helps, but they also need regular teeth-cleaning  visits @the vet, just like humans need the dentist (even if they brush & floss regularly). This article makes me feel more secure in the way I address my kitties' dental health. Thx!
  2. Anne
  3. paul n steve
    Oh I just clicked on the "Brushing your cats teeth" link and read that article. :)
  4. paul n steve
    So is it possible and feasible to brush your cats teeth occasionally? Has anyone ever successfully brushed your cats teeth? Haha, I don't think my Steve would let me! I lift his lips up sometimes to check his teeth, but they look fine. They are whiter than mine!
  5. lunariris
    I do know dry food is worse for urinary issues, wet is preferred for hydration and nutrients. I do wonder however, if dry is better for teeth. We feed both (Purina ONE Chicken and Rice dry, and Friskies wet.)
  6. cindi406
    I was told by the vet that a wet cat food diet is best for them and especially my neutered male who already had a blockage due to eating dry cat food. I used to give him the option of both dry and wet. Since he has had a blockage, I only give him wet and I still mix water with the wet to make it wetter for him. My vet said their teeth should be brushed to really ensure their teeth are clean.
    Good article and comments NutroMike, PoppyFleur and Ann. I did not know that vets were telling people to give dry kibble. Good to know and good to know that information is wrong.
  7. Anne
    PoppyFleur, unfortunately many vets are still saying just that. I do believe that over time everyone will catch up and a new consensus will be formed - that kibble does not clean the teeth.
  8. poppyfleur
    For a veterinarian to tell a cat owner that kibble will clean your cat's teeth, is equivalent to your dentist giving you a 'toothbrush shaped' cookie, and saying "Here, use this to clean your teeth."
  9. just mike
    Thanks for posting this Anne. I do believe that some companies treat their kibble with the belief that the kibble will render some dental benefits. I have never been a huge fan of the kibble = clean teeth report regarding or feline friends' choppers. I also think genetics plays a huge role in a multitude of other cat issues, regardless of the cat's diet. Thanks for the reference to Dr. Fraser Hale. I don't think anything can beat working with your veterinarian to keep the cat's teeth bright, shiny and clean.
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