Bad Breath? — 15 Tips to Clear the Air

cat with her mouth open
If your pet's breath packs a potent punch, chances are the culprit is plaque.

Do you suddenly lose your appetite when your cat gives you a kiss? Oooh, that smell. It’s enough to make a grown cat wince.

If your pet’s breath packs a potent punch, chances are the culprit is the plaque, the same bacteria-laden film that develops on your teeth if you don’t brush for a while and can lead to a smelly and sometimes dangerous gum infection.

With a little care, however, you can help prevent your pet’s breath from turning too pungent.

Attack the plaque

“Think of how your mouth would smell if you didn’t brush your teeth for a few days, much less a few years,” says Anthony Shipp, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Beverly Hills, California, who specializes in dentistry and is the co-author of The Practitioner’s Guide to Veterinary Dentistry. Brushing twice a day would be ideal, says Dr. Shipp, but twice a week is okay.

Start ’em young

Brushing your pet’s teeth may sound like a scene in a horror flick, but if you begin when your  cat is only a few months old, the experience can quickly become a pleasant one, says Dr. Shipp.

Begin by gently handling and stroking your pet’s mouth for a few minutes a day. “Reward with plenty of love or a treat,” says Dr. Shipp. After a few days, lift her lip on one side and, with a piece of gauze on your finger, begin brushing in a circular or back-and-forth motion on the outer surface of a few teeth. You should soon be able to graduate to more teeth. Eventually, you may be able to use a miniature brush that fits over your finger or even a regular soft-bristled brush designed for pets.

Tickle their taste buds

 Some pet toothpastes come in flavors like poultry, beef or malt to make the experience more palatable for your pet. “Meat-flavored pastes may not sound tasty to a human, but mint-flavored toothpaste doesn’t sound tasty to most cats, either,” says Albert S. Dorn, D.V.M., professor of surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. Don’t use a human toothpaste that foams, warns Dr. Dorn. Pets can’t spit, and if they swallow the foam, it can upset their stomachs.

Get in the groove

 If your cat doesn’t take kindly to having her teeth brushed, some vets recommend getting a hard rubber toy that has grooves in it. These toys are specially designed with your pet’s teeth in mind. Smear a little meat-flavored toothpaste in the notches, and your cat may end up brushing her own teeth. “Nothing beats a toothbrush, but this is better than nothing,” says Dr. Dorn.

Floss with an ox

 The next time you make oxtail soup, give your pet the cooked oxtail. Dr. Dorn says the tail’s tendons and fibers help massage the teeth and gums and may help clean those hard-to-reach places.

Quell it with carrots

 A little bit of raw carrot, given as a midday treat, can act as a mild-mannered tooth scraper, scouring away stink-causing plaque, says Cheryl Schwartz, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Oakland, California.

Reach for a spray

There are mouth sprays for cats, which do the same thing as the minty sprays people use. “They’re purely cosmetic,” says Dr. Shipp. But cosmetic isn’t such a bad thing when your pet’s breath is petrifying.

Can the canned food.

“Switching to dry food may help to improve mouth odor because it scrapes the surface of the teeth,” says Lisa Freeman, D.V.M., clinical instructor and a fellow in clinical nutrition at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Massachusetts.

Nix nibbling

 If you allow your cat to munch on her food throughout the day, the harmful bacteria in her mouth are always active, says Dr. Dorn. He advises picking up your pet’s food bowl if she doesn’t finish her meal within 30 minutes to an hour. “If you only feed a cat once or twice a day, you only feed the bacteria once or twice a day,” Dr. Dorn says.

Rice to the occasion

 Whole grains, like cooked brown rice, can help food move through the digestive tract more readily, says Dr. Schwartz. “Better digestion can play a role in a better breath,” she says. She recommends replacing a small portion of your pet’s regular food with rice at every meal.

Scrap the scraps

 Breath often reflects the diet, and if you’re feeding your cat things like leftover spaghetti flavored with lots of garlic, you may have found the cause of her bad breath.

Go for the green

 Chlorophyll tablets can aid digestion and sweeten your pet’s breath, says Dr. Schwartz.

Or blast it with black

The next time you’re choosing biscuits for your cat, opt for the black variety. They may not be as pretty as the pinks or golds, but they usually have one thing the others don’t — a dash of charcoal. Charcoal is a binding agent that can absorb bad odors. But don’t go overboard, since charcoal can also bind up essential nutrients. Limit treats to one or two a day, vets advise.

Suspicious Odors

Just as the eyes are windows to the soul, the mouth is a window to your pet’s health. While a little stinky breath usually isn’t cause for alarm, there are a few serious conditions that can cause distinct mouth odors, says Albert S. Dorn, D.V.M., professor of surgery at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. In fact, your vet can often make a preliminary diagnosis based on your cat’s breath. Here are some examples.

  • A sweet, fruity scent could indicate diabetes, especially if your cat is drinking or urinating more than usual and is losing weight.
  • A urine-like smell might mean kidney disease, particularly if it’s accompanied by increased thirst and urination and decreased appetite.
  • A mouth odor that vets simply describe as foul, when accompanied by vomiting, loss of appetite, swelling of the abdomen or yellowing of the eyes or gums, could indicate a liver disorder.


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