Have you ever heard from a vet or a fellow pet owner that dry food is actually better for a cat’s teeth? Is this statement a true one or is the verdict still out when it comes to what’s best for a cat’s teeth? I wanted to find out, so I did some digging, and here are my findings.
Now, I’m trying to be as unbiased as possible here. Anyone who’s been around this blog for long enough will undoubtedly know that I use kibble to feed Avery – have for ages and will continue to use kibble for how many ever cats I get in the future. I do so for a variety of reasons that aren’t dental health related, but if kibble actually is what’s best for a cat’s teeth, I wanted to know.
For those of you who want to skip ahead and learn what I discovered without having to bother to read all the information in this article, know that in my search I discovered that dry cat food isn’t necessarily better for a cat’s teeth – but not just that, wet cat food wasn’t actually better either. Surprisingly to some, raw cat food diets barely seem to help out in terms of feline dental health either. They all seem to be around the same in terms of a feline’s overall dental health. But why? For the explanation, continue reading and you’ll quickly find out.
As with nearly everything in the pet community, more research is needed. Human beings barely know what nutritional advice is true or false when it comes to the health of other human beings – let alone what is true or false when it comes to advice being thrown around in the feline and canine communities. But give the vets some serious weight when you ask them for their advice. We might not know exactly what is or is not better, but if anyone’s seen enough pets to make these kinds of judgement calls, or to know whether all options are pretty evenly ranked, it’s the vets who see and fix our sick animals day in and day out. Some of them disagree with each other, yes, but overall, if there are plenty of vets vouching for all sides of a debate (such as the wet food vs dry food vs raw food debate) with science to back them up, I personally take it to mean that any option is a good one, so long as you deal with it responsibly (i.e. use high quality cat food no matter what type of food you end up buying).
Alright, that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get into what I found out about specifically dental health when it came to feeding a cat dry food, wet food, or raw food.
So as I told you – the verdict seems a little unclear, with most vets these days coming on the side of “it doesn’t matter too much.” This either means that there’s such a slight difference in benefit from one type of food over another that there’s no real point in choosing a cat food on the basis of better dental health, or it could mean that there is in fact actually no benefit to choosing one type of cat food over another when it comes to a cat’s teeth. Either way, to drill it in further, there’s no point in choosing your pet’s food based on dental health benefits. But let’s break things down further.
Dry Food Cleans a Cat’s Teeth: Myth?
Dr. Eric Barchas, a vet who often writes for the amazingly helpful cat blog and magazine, Catster, wrote an article about whether wet or dry food is better for cats, and in it, described what he’s seen in the pet healthcare industry over the years:
For many years, a predominant school of thought held that dry food was better for cats’ teeth. The theory was that the chewing involved in consuming dry food helped to clean debris off the teeth and reduce the severity of dental disease.
Great. So we have a place to get started. The theory that dry food is better for a cat’s teeth exists because, supposedly, chewing dry food helps clean debris off feline teeth and that in turn reduces dental disease in the long run for a cat. Sound cut and dry? Well it isn’t.
Dr. Eric Barchas goes on to point out that if your cat has ever vomited food, you’ll notice that pretty much all the kibble your cat has eaten has come back out totally un-chewed. My cat personally does not vomit up food (empty-stomach regurgitation being another story), but I know that Dr. Barchas is right about cats pretty much never chewing kibble because I’ve watched my cat eat kibble for years. Different sizes of kibble, different speeds at which a cat eats kibble: no matter what way that kibble’s going down it’s all pretty much the same. Cats do not sit there chewing kibble at all. If they do any “chewing” it’s an initial bite and then a swallow, or skip the bite completely and just swallow the darn thing whole from the beginning. It’s part of why I never understood the benefit of dental treats. How on earth are cats supposed to benefit if the treats never actually touch their teeth besides some initial contact for less than a split second? Either way, here Eric Barchas seems to be dead right.
The internet agrees with him, as should you if you feed your cat dry food. Cat’s just down’t chew dry food. So if the first step doesn’t take place – the second step (the benefit from cats chewing on dry food) can’t take place either. So that’s one theory out.
Is Sugar in Wet Cat Food Causing Dental Issues?
Another school of thought that I’ve heard of personally from one of my vets is that dry cat foods are much better for a cat’s teeth specifically because of their low-in-sugar composition compared to many wet cat foods. He insisted that high levels of sugar were the main culprit of dental issues for cats just the same as they are for humans.
But if you’re buying high quality wet foods, those added sugars should be fairly low, so here, I feel the issue becomes whether you’re feeding your cat high or low quality cat food. Feed your cat good food, and it looks like the field is level again between dry and wet cat food in terms of dental health.
Isn’t Wet Food More Natural & Therefore Better for Cat Teeth? Doesn’t That Mean Raw is Best?
I’ve seen many on the net that argue on behalf of wet food and raw foods being most beneficial for a cat’s teeth, though all the arguments pretty much always go the same way.
The “nature” argument, as I like to call it: Lions and other wild cats do not eat kibble, and so for our cat’s dental health, we should not feed them kibble but something as close to what they would eat in the wild as possible.
When eating raw meat and bones, the act itself of chewing and gnawing serves as a polisher of the surface of the teeth preventing the buildup of plaque and tartar. This is the equivalent to us humans brushing and flossing our teeth. This happens every single day with each meal, which means felines consuming raw meaty bones get a daily dental cleaning and brushing.
Unfortunately, the very opposite occurs when we feed our felines commercial dry food. The shape of the kibble is generally small in size which makes it very difficult for a cat to chew on, so they generally swallow the whole pellet as presented. This has zero polishing effect on the surface of the teeth.
Yes, they’re right about the fact that cats don’t really chew on kibble and that they simply swallow. But are they right about the fact that a lack of more natural raw food or even wet food in a cat’s diet is what leads to dental disease?
I’m not even going to bother to explain this one myself because of how quickly and easily Dr. Eric Barchas explains away the answer. Hitting the nail on the head, he states:
For those who believe that natural diets prevent dental disease in cats: Sorry, but no. Wild cats — truly wild ones such as tigers, African lions, and bobcats — develop dental disease while eating 100-percent natural and species-appropriate diets in jungles, savannas and forests.
Wild cats still get dental disease. Sucks, but it’s true. And it means that no matter how close to natural, wild, and raw your cat’s diet happens to be, he or she still stands a chance of having issues with his or her teeth. It’s really frustrating, but there’s no win for the wet or raw food camps here either.
If Diet Isn’t the Culprit, What’s Causing Dental Disease in Cats?
In her excellent article on why dry food doesn’t clean a cat’s teeth (by the way, this article is well worth a read if you’ve got the time!), Anita Kelsey quotes Jean Hofve, a holistic feline veterinarian, on this issue. Laying things out clearly, Hofve states:
In my experience as a feline veterinarian, I’ve probably examined at least 13,000 cats’ mouths. There was no real pattern to the dental and periodontal disease I saw. If anything, tartar and gum disease seemed to be more attributable to genetics or concurrent disease (such as Feline Leukemia or feline AIDS) than to any particular diet. I saw beautiful and horrible mouths in cats eating wet food, dry food, raw food, and every possible combination. Many of my patients initially ate mostly or exclusively dry food; yet these cats had some of the most infected, decayed, foul-smelling mouths I saw. If there was any dietary influence at all, I’d say that raw-fed cats had better oral health than cats on any type of commercial food. However, the overall effect of diet on dental health appeared to be minimal at most.
So the main culprit to issues with feline dental health can be chalked up to genetics or having another disease, like Feline Leukemia or Feline AIDS.
I’m not going to pretend Dr. Hofve did not say that, in her opinion, raw-fed cats on the whole had better oral health, but I am going to argue that:
- This could simply be because cats on raw-fed diets (i.e. no commercial food – wet or dry) had pet owners that were more attentive to them (let’s be real, not all pet owners are equal in their care of their pets – we know this), and
- Dr. Hofve did argue in the end anyway that “the overall effect of a diet on dental health appeared to be minimal at most.”
Meaning even though she feels she’s seen some correlation where the cats with the worst dental health have been cats who have also been fed dry food, and cats on raw diets seemed to fare best, it’s not so big of a connection that she would state that the cause of the dental problems was dry food, or the cause of dental health was a raw diet. The correlation just was not big enough.
So What Can You Do if You’re Worried About Your Cat’s Dental Health?
It should be fairly obvious, but apparently not enough for me to have written in this staring-me-in-the-face advice the first draft of the article around: getting your cat’s teeth professionally cleaned by a vet whenever he or she needs it goes a ridiculously far way in helping your cat’s teeth stay healthy and clean. (Thank you so much Ellie in the comments for noticing this massive oversight and taking the time to remind me to include this advice in the body of the article).
Besides that? There’s one thing you can do at home to surefire help your kitty keep in tip top dental shape.
It’s actually relatively simple, and something you’ll probably have already guessed yourself. In the words of Dr. Barchas (yes, again, but to be fair he does a good job of getting to the point explaining his reasoning behind cat health):
Most of the veterinary dental experts I know believe that genetics and oral chemistry have a far greater impact on dental health than does diet. Tooth brushing no doubt can make a big difference, but it appears food does not.
Brush your cat’s teeth.
Grab a cat toothbrush & some cat toothpaste, and get to work on those feline chompers!
You can keep feeding your cat whatever you feel is best for him or her.
There are benefits to dry cat food, wet cat food, and raw diets. Some cats are much more picky about what they like to eat, while others thrive on one type of food over the others. So long as it’s high quality food, it’s game.
But when it comes to feeding one type of cat food over another for dental health – honestly, they’re all about even. Don’t pick your cat food based on teeth!
Instead, do your cat a huge favour and take of his or her dental health the only way that really works: brush those chompers!