Do Dental Treats Really Clean Your Cat’s Teeth?


Dental disease is extremely common in cats, with studies showing 50-90% of cats over 4 years old suffering from some form of dental problem like gingivitis, resorptive lesions, or tooth decay.[1] If left untreated, dental disease in cats can lead to tooth loss, oral pain, and systemic illness. Dental treats for cats aim to reduce plaque and tartar buildup through mechanical action and specific ingredients. While not a replacement for professional dental cleanings, dental treats may help maintain better oral health between vet visits.

Causes of Dental Disease in Cats

Dental disease is very common in cats, with studies estimating around 70% of cats over 3 years old having some form of dental disease. The main causes are:

Tartar buildup – Plaque, a colorless film that forms on teeth from bacteria, saliva, and food debris, becomes tartar when minerals in the saliva harden it. Tartar buildup leads to inflammation and receding gums, exposing tooth roots and causing pain and infection.

Gingivitis/periodontal disease – The inflammation of gums around teeth is called gingivitis. When it becomes severe and spreads below the gumline, it is called periodontal disease. This painful condition damages tissue and bone, and can lead to tooth loss. Cornell Feline Health Center states periodontal disease affects around 70% of cats by age 3.

Fractured or abscessed teeth – Cats can fracture or chip teeth from hard foods or trauma. Untreated fractures allow bacteria to infect the tooth’s inner pulp, forming painful abscesses and root infections.

Ingredients in Dental Treats

Dental treats for cats often contain special ingredients designed to clean teeth and control plaque and tartar. Some common ingredients include:

Mechanical cleaners – Many dental treats contain specially shaped kibble or crunchy textures that scrape plaque off the tooth surface as cats chew. The abrasive action helps physically remove buildup. Greenies and other leading brands use X-shaped kibble for optimal teeth cleaning.

Chemical cleaners – Enzymes like glucose oxidase and lactoferrin are commonly added to chemically prevent plaque. They help disrupt the bacterial biofilm and prevent tartar formation. Enzymes may also have anti-inflammatory properties.

Antimicrobial ingredients – Some treats include natural antimicrobials like chlorophyll, zinc, and coenzyme Q10 to kill bacteria in the mouth. These ingredients create an unfavorable environment for plaque bacteria.

Abrasives – Finely ground shells, minerals, or vegetable fibers give some treats a gritty texture to mechanically scrape plaque. However, overly abrasive ingredients could potentially damage tooth enamel with excess scrubbing.

Do Cats Like the Taste?

Manufacturers of dental treats perform extensive palatability testing on their products before bringing them to market. According to some studies, strong flavor profiles and enticing aromas are key to driving palatability for cats (Pekel, 2020). Foods with high protein content from animal sources tend to be most preferred. Cat food manufacturers have increasingly focused R&D resources on understanding and optimizing flavor and texture to appeal to feline taste preferences.

Anecdotally, most cat owners report that their cats go crazy for dental treats and see them as a highly desirable food item. On forums and review sites, owners say their cats will readily eat certain dental treats over regular cat food. Some report having to lock up or ration the treats since their cats beg incessantly for more. However, as with any food item, there is individual variation – some finicky cats may reject dental treats if the taste, texture or aroma does not appeal to them.


Pekel, A. Y., González-Vega, J. C., & Steinmetz, A. B. (2020). Taste preferences and diet palatability in cats. Animal Feed Science and Technology, 267, 114410.

Effectiveness of Dental Treats

Several clinical studies have shown that dental treats can be effective at reducing plaque and tartar in cats when used consistently. One study published in the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry in 2002 ( found that cats fed dental treats daily in addition to their regular dry food had a significant reduction in plaque and gingivitis compared to a control group fed only dry food. The dental treat used in the study resulted in a 15% reduction in plaque and a 36% reduction in gingivitis over a 28 day period.

Another clinical trial published in 1998 ( showed that a specific dental chew reduced tartar accumulation in cats by 56.5% over a two-week period. The chews were most effective for reducing tartar when administered daily.

Veterinary dentists generally recommend using dental treats as part of a complete at-home dental care routine for cats. While treats alone cannot take the place of professional cleanings, they can reduce plaque and tartar buildup when used regularly between vet visits. Dental treats are most effective when they contain ingredients like sodium tripolyphosphate, which help break down tartar, and hexametaphosphate, which prevents plaque from hardening into tartar.

Risks and Downsides

While dental treats can provide some oral health benefits for cats, there are some risks and downsides to consider before giving them regularly:

Choking Hazards – Some dental treats can be quite hard or chunks may break off while chewing. This poses a choking risk, especially for older cats or cats with dental issues. It’s best to monitor cats when first trying treats and stop use if any choking is observed.

Allergies or Upset Stomach – As with any new food, some cats may be allergic or intolerant to ingredients in dental treats. This could cause vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation or other symptoms. It’s advisable to introduce slowly and watch for any adverse reactions.

Not a Substitute for Cleanings – Dental treats help reduce tartar buildup but do not replace professional veterinary dental cleanings and exams [1]. Severe gum disease, abscesses, and tooth extractions can only be properly diagnosed and treated by a vet.

Overall, dental treats provide some oral health benefits for cats but have limitations. They should be used cautiously and under veterinary guidance, not as a replacement for proper dental care.

Tips for Success

When introducing dental treats to your cat, it’s important to transition slowly to increase the likelihood your cat will accept them. Start by offering just a small amount of the treat each day, gradually increasing over time. Giving the treats during playtime or as rewards for good behavior can also help cats make positive associations.

Proper storage is key to keeping dental treats fresh and appetizing for cats. Keep treats sealed in an airtight container, and store in a cool, dry place. Check expiration dates and don’t offer treats that have gotten stale or hard. For best results, follow any specific storage instructions on the packaging.

Being patient and persistent is crucial when transitioning cats to dental treats. If your cat initially refuses, keep trying different flavors and textures until you find one they like. Offer treats at different times of day and reward with praise or petting when your cat shows interest. With time, consistent positive reinforcement will help make dental treats a regular part of your cat’s routine.

Other Home Dental Care Tips

There are several other steps cat owners can take at home to promote good dental health for their cats:

Brushing Teeth

Daily brushing with a soft toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste is the gold standard for preventing plaque buildup and tartar that can lead to gum disease (source). Focus on the outer surfaces of the teeth and avoid going too far back into the mouth. Introduce brushing slowly with positive reinforcement.

Dental Diets

There are specialty dry food formulas designed to help control tartar. The kibble texture also helps remove plaque as cats chew (source). Ask your vet for recommended dental diet options.

Chew Toys

Providing safe chew toys can satisfy cats’ natural chewing instinct while scraping away plaque buildup. Look for textured toys made of rubber or rope (source).

Water Additives

Oral rinses and water additives containing chlorhexidine may help inhibit bacteria growth. Consult your vet before using these products.

Signs Your Cat Needs a Vet Cleaning

There are several signs that indicate your cat may need a professional dental cleaning from a veterinarian. The most common signs include:

Bad Breath: Persistent bad breath or halitosis in cats is often a sign of advanced plaque and tartar buildup. As plaque accumulates, it allows bacteria to thrive, which can lead to infection and tooth decay (Source). Bad breath indicates a cleaning is needed to remove the built up plaque and tartar and reduce bacteria.

Red or Inflamed Gums: Red, swollen, or inflamed gums signal gingivitis or periodontal disease. This inflammation is the result of plaque and bacteria irritating the gums. A vet cleaning will remove the plaque and help restore gum health (Source).

Loose or Damaged Teeth: Teeth that are loose, damaged, or missing may indicate advanced periodontal disease. Bacteria from plaque can damage the tooth sockets and supporting structures. A vet cleaning and exam allows evaluation and treatment of any dental disease (Source).

Difficulty Eating: If your cat is reluctant to eat or chew or seems to be in pain when eating, dental disease may be the cause. Professional cleaning can remove plaque, tartar and bacteria to help restore oral comfort and function.


In conclusion, dental treats alone should not be relied upon as a complete oral health care solution for cats. While certain dental treats may provide some benefit, they do not replace professional veterinary dental cleanings and exams. The most effective dental treats tend to be larger in size to encourage chewing, made of specific abrasive ingredients, and contain therapeutic compounds that reduce plaque and tartar.

However, treats only clean the visible outer surfaces of teeth. Bacteria can still accumulate below the gumline and cause dental disease. Additionally, some cats may not be motivated by treats enough to chew them consistently. Owners should monitor for signs of dental problems and schedule regular veterinary cleanings as needed, usually once a year.

Dental treats can be a helpful supplement to other home care like toothbrushing, but they should not be the sole oral hygiene strategy. With vet exams to monitor dental health, professional cleanings when necessary, plus home care, cat owners can best support their pet’s dental health and prevent serious disease.

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