A lot of people have a tough time understanding why we, as veterinary professionals, require animals to be under general anesthesia for their dental cleanings. It can be a hard concept for us humans to understand, and understandably so. When we go to the dentist, we are told to open wide and sit still, and generally, we comply with ease.
Even small children can generally be convinced, especially because they frequently get little toys at the end of their visit. Unfortunately, when it comes to the dogs and cats that we treat, we cannot get them to comply as they don’t understand the benefits of a dental cleaning, no matter how many toys or treats we promise them. Getting pets to sit still is not the entire issue either. We get a lot of people who say their pet is perfectly well behaved and compliant and would sit still for a dental cleaning, but we still refuse to do them without full general anesthesia. Without anesthesia, we would need to hold the pet down against their will, in order to do something they don’t understand, which quickly turns into an ethics issue and an issue that wouldn’t sit right with any of our team.
Without a pet going under general anesthesia, it is impossible to do a complete oral exam. You cannot examine the sides of the teeth closest to the tongue, or fully examine what is happening along or below the gum line. As part of a dental cleaning, you do something called scaling. This is when we use a sharp instrument to remove plaque from the tooth. Pets frequently have a lot of tartar to remove from the teeth, and this process could be very painful and traumatic for them. The hand scaler is also quite sharp, and the ultrasonic scaler is quite powerful, so if they were awake for the procedure and moved they could easily be accidentally harmed. It is also a huge risk to the person performing the procedure as the animals would be very stressed out without anesthesia and would become frantic and bite or scratch the staff. Even the nicest animals will react when they are put in inhumane situations as they are under extreme stress.
The majority of the problems in your pet’s mouth are not visible to you; they are beneath the gum line. We as veterinary professionals cannot access beneath the gum line unless the patient is anaesthetized. Cleaning only the outer surface of the tooth is proven to have very little effect on the health of the animal, no matter how white the teeth look. The subgingival areas need to be cleaned. Many animals also need dental extractions at the time of their procedure, which would be absolutely cruel to do without anesthesia. It is sometimes impossible to tell if an animal needs an extraction or not until the animal is fully anaesthetized as we cannot fully examine the mouth without it. To the untrained eye a mouth may look totally healthy with nice white teeth, but under the gum surface, a veterinary professional will be able to tell that there is infection, abscesses or disease.
Full general anesthesia for dental cleanings is the most humane way to do them, and they are so beneficial to the animal. Owners often report back to us that their dog or cat is acting like a puppy/kitten after their dental cleaning as they feel so much better. Anesthesia allows us to give the teeth a full physical exam and cleaning without having to worry about traumatizing a patient to do a procedure that they don’t understand. It also eliminates any pain or discomfort they may feel throughout the procedure. It also allows the use of dental radiographs if they are needed, as those cannot be done without anesthesia as we cannot put anything into the mouth to take them due to the risk of aspiration.
Unfortunately, it is relatively common for people to gain access to their own scalers and try to do their own dental cleanings at home or to go to a non-reputable place for anesthesia-free dental cleanings due to their low cost and fear of anesthesia. According to the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC), only licensed veterinarians can practice veterinary medicine. Dental work on animals is a part of veterinary medicine. Anyone who provides dental services to an animal other than a licensed veterinarian or a registered, supervised and trained veterinary technician is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and can be subject to criminal charges. The rule stated above by the AVDC also applies in Canada.
While it may be cheaper to have an anesthesia-free dental cleaning you are still paying to have your pet be put through a painful, traumatic and confusing procedure that they did not sign up for. You are also paying to make the teeth look okay while there is still disease under the gum line which will do a lot of harm in the long run and cause a lot of pain for your animal. These cleanings will allow the disease to get deeper into the tissue and cause more problems down the road. When you agree to an anesthesia-free dental, you are agreeing for someone to pin your pet down and do more harm than good.
Many people worry about putting their pet through general anesthesia, but the pros far outweigh the cons. Before each and every dental we run a full bloodwork panel which tests organ function as well as looks for abnormalities in a complete blood count. We also get an accurate weight on the animal, so we use the right size of equipment and give the appropriate amount of drugs. Anesthesia in both human and animal medicine will never be 100% risk-free, but we take as many precautions as we can and do multiple dental procedures a week with no issues. While your animal is under it is constantly being monitored, and every precaution is taken. The safety of the animal always comes first. If we didn’t believe it was healthy enough to perform the procedure, we wouldn’t do it.
In order to prevent having to worry about dental cleanings at all, it is a great idea to brush your pets’ teeth, preferably starting from a young age. Make sure to use pet-safe toothpaste! We also offer dental diets which are designed to clean the teeth as the pet eats, as well as multiple dental treats and chews. If you have questions or concerns regarding your pet’s teeth or what preventative care you should be using for them, call your vet clinic! We have a lot of dental knowledge that we would love to pass on.
Written by Mikaila Cariou, RVT