The mouth is thought to be the dirtiest part of the human body, but what about in our cute and fluffy cats? As a cat owner, you will probably have witnessed your cat cleaning himself with his tongue practically every minute of the day! Does that mean a cat’s tongue is cleaner than ours? Or the opposite even. Here is everything you are going to want to know.
So, how clean is a cat’s mouth? A cat’s mouth is just as dirty as a human mouth. But, only 15% of the bacteria in a cat’s mouth is present in humans. Thus, humans can develop an infection if they these bacteria were able to get into the bloodstream. Most people are at low risk but people with a weakened immune system will need to be more cautious.
Sound’s a little scary, right?
But unless we have open wounds or cuts, the chances of bacteria getting in are slim.
Nevertheless, it does mean we need to be a little mindful during, and after handling our cats, and washing our hands regularly with soap is always advised.
With this all in mind, let us continue to explore the hygiene of a cats mouth, how dangerous their saliva really is, if you should allow your cat to lick you and most importantly, how to keep your cats mouth lean.
Is a Cats Mouth Cleaner Than a Human’s Mouth?
There is a common misconception that a cat’s mouth is cleaner than a humans, but this is not true. Studies have shown that cats have just as much bacteria in their mouths as we do, the types of bacteria are just different.
Think about it, humans are omnivores so the bacteria present in our mouths will not be the same as those of an obligate carnivore that is designed to break down meat and bone.
As predators, cats may also eat animals that contain their own bacteria which can harbor in the mouth.
Between 50-90% of all cats over four years old suffer from some form of periodontal disease which is believed to be caused by certain bacteria in their mouths, including Porphyromonas and Moraxella.
Similar findings were found in dogs with oral health issues.
But what does this mean for us humans? Can these bacteria harm us?
Zoonotic Diseases Cats Can Carry
It’s not necessarily something to panic about but some zoonotic diseases can be passed between cats and humans through the bacteria present in their saliva.
Also known as Cat Scratch Disease, this bacterium can be transferred via a bite or scratch from your feline companion.
Around 40% of all cats will carry Bartonella henselae at some point in their lives but they often don’t show symptoms.
In humans, Cat Scratch Disease can cause swelling and blistering on the affected area, as well as a fever, vomiting, lethargy, and swollen lymph nodes.
Preventing scratches and bites, keeping your cat up to date with flea/worm treatments, and washing your hands after every interaction with your cat will help to keep Cat Scratch Fever at bay.
This bacterium is a common cause of infection in humans following a bite by a cat. It is present in up to 90% of all cats.
Symptoms of this type of infection include pain, redness, and swelling at the site of infection.
It is relatively rare but if you believe you have contracted this infection is essential that you seek medical advice because the bacterium can travel through the bloodstream and cause more severe illness.
So, if a cat’s mouth is full of harmful bacteria, how do cats keep themselves clean through grooming?
Well, this all has to do with the way the tongue is structured.
A study conducted in 2018 found that a cat’s tongue is covered with hundreds of tiny spines called filiform papillae.
They use these spines, which are made of keratin (the same substance our nails are made from), to brush saliva deep into the fur when they groom.
The saliva itself actually contains a natural detergent-like substance that has antibacterial, antimicrobial, and healing properties.
Pretty cool huh?
Domestic long-haired cats such as Persians often struggle to get their tongues all the way through their fur which is why they often need daily grooming with a suitable slicker brush.
Is Cat Saliva Harmful To Humans?
Most humans are not at risk of developing adverse reactions to cat saliva. However, you may want to be more cautious if you have a weakened immune system. Children and pregnant women are also vulnerable.
If you suffer from cat allergies you will want to steer clear of cat saliva too.
Contrary to popular opinion, cat allergies are not caused by a reaction to fur, they are caused by the Fel d 1 protein found in cat saliva.
This is distributed over the fur during grooming. The Fel d 1 protein can also be found in a cat’s urine and dander (dried flakes of skin).
Cat allergy symptoms include a runny nose, sneezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath, but the severity of the symptoms will vary between individuals.
During grooming, cats are actually coating themselves in bacteria; both good and bad.
In fact, one study found nearly a million living bacteria on a single gram of hair! This sounds slightly terrifying, doesn’t it?
However, cats have evolved to be able to deal with these bacteria.
Humans are less able to deal with them which is why bites and scratches become infected. Only around 15% of bacterial similarities have been found between cats and humans.
So, your body will likely try to fight off the other 85% because they will be identified as foreign.
Especially if they get into your bloodstream via a cut.
To be on the safe side, it’s always best to wash your hands after touching your cat, especially if you are vulnerable to infection.
Should I Let My Cat Lick Me?
It is ok to allow your cat to lick you. At the end of the day, the choice is completely up to you. Cats groom each other as a sign of affection so by licking you they are saying they love you!
However, there are also plenty of other ways to interact with your cat if you are worried about infection. Particularly if you are immunocompromised.
Alternatives To Licking For Affection
Here are just a few ways you can show affection to your cat without getting licked:
This is the ultimate sign of trust for a cat. So, by returning his slow blink you are showing that the trust is reciprocated.
This behavior stems from their wild ancestry when closing their eyes would leave them vulnerable to attack.
Cats are hunters by nature so there is nothing better than having a good run around to burn off all that pent-up energy!
Use wand toys or laser pointers to interact with your cat on a daily basis. Particularly if they are indoor-only felines.
As well as being a good way to bond with your feline, regular play sessions have also been proven to prevent behavioral problems, relieve boredom, and reduce the risk of future health problems such as obesity.
Provide Plenty Of Safe Hiding Places
This one may sound a bit odd but safety is very important to our feline companions.
By providing a number of safe spots in your home, you are helping your cat to feel more relaxed, loved, and secure.
Depending on your cat’s preferences, you can use boxes, tunnels, hides, cat trees, or high-up shelves so they can escape from any potential threat.
Sit With each Other
When they are not playing, cats are generally lounging and they prefer to do this with their favorite people.
Depending on the type of cat you have, some will be content just sitting near you on the sofa, others will want to be on your lap.
Either way, this is a clear sign of affection and trust.
Many cats are food orientated.
So, maybe try setting up a training schedule and reward your cat with tasty treats.
Just remember to keep training sessions short so your cat doesn’t lose focus and become frustrated!
Hybrid breeds, such as Bengal’s, particularly love this type of interaction because of their high intelligence and dog-like personalities.
Accept A Head Butt
Cats have scent glands on their cheeks, lips, and forehead, as well as on various other parts of the body.
When they butt you with their heads, they are basically saying that you belong to them. This might sound a bit conceited but it is a positive sign.
The good thing about cats is that they are not shy about telling us where they want to be stroked!
Watch for these signs and follow their instructions. They will thank you for it!
But what can you do if your cat persists on licking you even when you don’t want them to? The best thing to do in this situation is to re-direct their behavior onto something else.
Try distracting your cat with their favorite toy or stroke them in their favorite spot.
If the licking becomes obsessive, simply walk away. Your cat will eventually get the message!
Remember that excessive licking can also be a sign of anxiety or stress so always seek the advice of a vet if you are concerned.
How To Keep Your Cat’s Mouth Clean
Cats are vulnerable to developing dental problems later in life. So, to combat this you will need to brush your cat’s teeth regularly.
You may be wondering why you need to brush your cat’s teeth as wild cats don’t do it.
However, there is a good reason.
Wild cats chew on the bones and skin of carcasses which keeps their teeth clean. Domestic cats have to rely on kibble and wet food which doesn’t work as well.
It’s best to get your cat used to teeth brushing when they are young because older cats tend to be a bit more stubborn!
Here are a few helpful tips to get you started:
Take it slow. Your ultimate aim is to make the whole teeth brushing procedure fun and relaxing for both you and your cat.
While this may seem a little far-fetched, it is possible! Start slowly by introducing the brush to your cat.
Let him sniff and rub it.
Then, when he is comfortable, you can move it closer to the mouth and start brushing.
These first sessions need to be short and break them up with plenty of fuss and love. In the beginning, it may be helpful to have something tasty on your finger or on the brush itself.
Let your cat lick it and gently rub two or three teeth.
This way, you are building up a positive association, which will make your cat more eager to engage next time!
Use The Right Products
Many cat owners opt for small brushes that are designed to slip onto your finger.
Make sure you use a cat-specific toothbrush as these are often shaped to fit in your cat’s mouth easily. These finger toothbrushes from Amazon are absolutely ideal.
When it comes to toothpaste, pick a vet-approved product that is flavored. This poultry flavored one from Amazon is the one to get.
NEVER use human toothpaste on cats as these contains ingredients that can be harmful to your feline.
Remember, cats don’t know that they need to spit the toothpaste out so they will just swallow it. Specific cat toothpaste is suitable for this, human ones are not.
Your cat may be resistant at first but be patient. Even twice-weekly brushing is better than nothing! If your cat point-blank refuses then there are a few alternatives that you can investigate:
These are like the feline version of mouth wash (but they don’t need to be spat out).
Simply add them to your cats drinking water to reduce plaque and prevent periodontal disease.
If this sounds like something you want to try, this is the product to get from Amazon.
These are designed to scrape plaque off your cat’s teeth as they play.
Dental Cat Treats
These work in a similar way to chew toys – they just taste better!
Remember to always read the guidelines on the packaging as too many treats can lead to obesity.
Our cat’s mouths are not the cleanest of places.
But to be fair, neither are ours.
Nonetheless, if you own a cat it is essential to be mindful of best hygiene practices.
Can they lick you, sure. But you do need to regularly wash your hands and you will want to ensure they cannot lick an open wounds or cuts.
At the same time, do proactively take the steps above to keep your cat’s mouth as clean as you can.
Besides, we have domesticated them. We owe it to them to maintain their dental hygiene now that they cannot do this instinctively out in the wild.
I am a practiced pet owner with decades of experience owning a number of different pets. I am also the main writer and chief editor here at Pet Educate; a site I created to share everything I’ve learned about pet ownership over the years and my extensive research along the way.