Dentistry Myth Busters: Anesthesia-Free Dentistry


February is National Pet Dental Health Month in North America and while we focus on dental care and its importance in pets everyday at West Kootenay Animal Hospital, having a month dedicated to pet dental health is a great way to educate the public on this important part of your pets overall health.

The term “anesthesia-free dentistry” is used by a group of lay people offering above the gum line dental scaling.  Perhaps you have heard of this or even taken your pet to the pet store or grooming parlour to have their teeth cleaned.  The purpose of this months veterinary myth buster article is to provide pet owners with accurate information on  veterinary dentistry to help you make informed decisions regarding your pets health care.

In the United States and Canada, only licensed veterinarians can practice veterinary medicine. Veterinary medicine includes veterinary surgery, medicine and dentistry. Anyone providing dental services other than a licensed veterinarian or a trained veterinary technician, working under the supervision of a veterinarian, is practicing veterinary medicine without a license.  

The first myth to “bust” is that anesthesia free “dentistry” is dentistry - it is not.  What is done at the groomers or pet store, is simply scaling or removal of surface tartar from the teeth.  Sure, this is the yucky brown stuff you can see, and yes, your pets teeth will look visibly cleaner once it is done but don’t be fooled into thinking this is “dentistry”.  Veterinary dentistry requires both diagnosis and treatment of diseases in the oral cavity, it requires an understanding of anatomy, physiology and pathology.  Complete physical examination of the patient, appropriate laboratory testing, thorough dental evaluation and charting of the mouth and identification of pathology are all key components of veterinary dentistry.  Veterinarians who preform dental procedures have specialized equipment, advanced training and are committed to attending continuing education courses to keep their training current in this rapidly evolving field.  So please, do not call “anesthesia free dental cleaning”, at the pet store, dentistry.  Call it what it is, non-professional dental scaling.  It is worth asking yourself this question:  who do you want taking care of your own teeth?  The professional team at your dental office or your beauty salon?  Dentistry is medicine, it is the same for our pets.

The second myth to address, is the belief that preforming dental scaling, without anesthesia, is less stressful and safer for your pet.  Consider for a moment how many people are frightened by the smells, sounds and experience of visiting the dentist.  Now imagine the feelings of your pet.  It is unreasonable to expect a dog or cat to allow charting of their mouth, probing of each tooth individually, full mouth dental x-rays, cleaning above and below the gumline, and polishing the teeth, all while sitting quietly and holding their mouth open!  Add to this the water, suction and polishing noises and you can understand why it is impossible to do a thorough job when a pet is awake.  Consider too how difficult this would be if they also have periodontal disease, broken teeth or abscessed and painful teeth.  All pets, young or old, need general anesthesia to preform dentistry safely, comfortably and in accordance with current standards set out by the American Veterinary Dental College.  Anything less, is a disservice to you and your pet.  If the thought of anesthesia scares you, talk to your veterinarian. Careful screening of patients, newer safer anesthetic drugs and constant monitoring of pets during and after anesthesia, has made general anesthesia safer than ever in veterinary medicine. Ask your veterinary team questions and come up with a plan that helps alleviate your fears and still allows your pet to get the professional dental care they need.

The final myth is that non-professional dental cleaning is so much cheaper than what your veterinary team will charge.  Well, I guess to “bust” this myth, you really have to look at what you “get” with each procedure in order to look at the true value to you and your pet.  At the pet store or grooming parlour, your pet gets superficial removal of tartar on the outside of the teeth and above the gumline only.  Period.  That is it.  At your veterinary hospital you get the following:  physical examination prior to the procedure, laboratory testing to screen for other underlying disease, carefully selected, monitored and safe anesthesia, intravenous fluids, full mouth radiographs, comprehensive oral exam and charting of the pets mouth, cleaning of all surfaces of the teeth, (above and below the gumline and between teeth) and finally, polishing of all teeth.  At the end of the procedure, your veterinary team will discuss any pathology or disease found during the dentistry and make a treatment plan to deal with these findings.  So yes, it does cost more at your veterinary hospital, however remember that you are also getting the expertise, experience, training and specialized equipment your veterinary team employs to deliver state of the art dental care to your beloved family member.

Finally, check out the American Animal Hospital Associations Dental care Guidelines for dogs and cats to learn more about pet dentistry and the standards your veterinarian upholds.