Updated on November 28, 2011
Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning
It’s natural to have concerns about general anesthesia, whether for ourselves or for our beloved pets. After all, no matter how young and healthy the patient, there is always some associated risk. For this reason, anesthesia-free dental cleaning for pets has become more and more popular. And with no anesthesia, the cost of cleaning Fido’s or Fluffy’s teeth is significantly reduced- clearly another attractive feature. Anesthesia-free dental cleaning for your pet sounds rather tempting, doesn’t it? Before you jump on this bandwagon I encourage you to consider whether or not this option truly serves your dog’s or your cat’s best health interest.
I’m a big believer in regularly brushing your pet’s teeth at home. Thoroughly removing dental tartar on an awake animal, however, is a whole nother ball game! Even with highly skilled hands and a super-cooperative animal, it is impossible to successfully and painlessly remove tartar from underneath the gum lines and along the inner surfaces of the teeth (the surfaces in closest proximity to the tongue). And, if the end result of cleaning is anything other than polished, super smooth, dental surfaces, tartar will quickly reaccumulate. Anesthesia-free dental cleaning definitely gives the outer surfaces of the teeth a cleaner look. While this may be pleasing to your eye, there is no significant benefit to your pet’s health. For all of these reasons, if and when dental cleaning is warranted for your dog or cat, I strongly encourage that it be performed with the aid of general anesthesia.
Now, there are some caveats that accompany my recommendation. For some animals, the risks associated with general anesthesia clearly outweigh the benefits, for example a dog or cat with advanced heart disease or kidney failure. Even for the healthiest animals, general anesthesia should be accompanied by careful monitoring of the patient’s status at all times. A list of important questions to ask your veterinarian about general anesthesia can be found in Speaking for Spot within the chapter called “Important Questions to Ask Your Vet…and How to Ask Them.”
The American Veterinary Dental College also advises against anesthesia-free dental cleaning. Here is an excerpt from their recently drafted position statement:
“Owners of pets naturally are concerned when anesthesia is required for their pet. However, performing nonprofessional dental scaling on an unanesthetized pet is inappropriate for the following reasons:
- Dental tartar is firmly adhered to the surface of the teeth. Scaling to remove tartar is accomplished using ultrasonic and sonic power scalers, plus hand instruments that must have a sharp working edge to be used effectively. Even slight head movement by the patient could result in injury to the oral tissues of the patient, and the operator may be bitten when the patient reacts.
- Professional dental scaling includes scaling the surfaces of the teeth both above and below the gingival margin (gum line), followed by dental polishing. The most critical part of a dental scaling procedure is scaling the tooth surfaces that are within the gingival pocket (the subgingival space between the gum and the root), where periodontal disease is active. Because the patient cooperates, dental scaling of human teeth performed by a professional trained in the procedures can be completed successfully without anesthesia. However, access to the subgingival area of every tooth is impossible in an unanesthetized canine or feline patient. Removal of dental tartar on the visible surfaces of the teeth has little effect on a pet’s health and provides a false sense of accomplishment. The effect is purely cosmetic.
- Inhalation anesthesia using a cuffed endotracheal tube provides three important advantages- the cooperation of the patient with a procedure it does not understand, elimination of pain resulting from examination and treatment of affected dental tissues during the procedure, and protection of the airway and lungs from accidental aspiration.
- A complete oral examination, which is an important part of a professional dental scaling procedure, is not possible in an unanesthetized patient. The surfaces of the teeth facing the tongue cannot be examined, and areas of disease and discomfort are likely to be missed.”
How do you feel about anesthesia-free versus anesthetized dental cleaning? Keep in mind, for some folks this is a rather heated topic. Let’s keep the conversation civilized!
Happy holidays to you and your loved ones,
Nancy Kay, DVM
Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine
Author of Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life
Author of Your Dog’s Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet
Recipient, Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year Award
Recipient, American Animal Hospital Association Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award
Recipient, Dog Writers Association of America Award for Best Blog
Recipient, Eukanuba Canine Health Award
Recipient, AKC Club Publication Excellence Award
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Please visit http://www.speakingforspot.com to read excerpts from Speaking for Spot. There you will also find “Advocacy Aids”- helpful health forms you can download and use for your own dog, and a collection of published articles on advocating for your pet’s health. Speaking for Spot is available at Amazon.com, local bookstores, and your favorite online book seller.