Dear Dr. B,
My vet recently recommended a dental cleaning for my six-year-old dog. She says my dog needs to be put under anesthesia for the procedure, and that worries me. Is it safe? I don’t need anesthesia to get my teeth cleaned, so why should she?
C. Ciarmello, New York
In my opinion, a lot of vets use the expression dental cleaning inappropriately. And you are right–simply cleaning the teeth does not always require anesthesia. However, if your vet is recommending dental work, it is probably because your dog has periodontal disease. That means that she has an infection in the gums, and possibly the ligaments and bones around the teeth. And that can be a serious matter.
Periodontal disease is by far the most common medical problem I see in my patients. Since animals don’t brush their teeth after each meal, food sticks to the teeth. Bacteria grow on the food, and then spread into the gums and the tissues around the teeth. That infection is the basic problem with periodontal disease.
To remove the infection, and to properly inspect each tooth and perform extractions (pull teeth) or other advanced treatments, anesthesia is necessary. The good news is that anesthesia is nowhere near as risky as it used to be. Good vets take a number of precautions to minimize risk to pets during anesthetic periodontal work, and you should not hesitate to ask your vet what precautions she intends to take with your dog.
In my experience, in most instances the benefits of performing dental work on pets far outweigh the risks. In fact, there are significant risks in not performing dental work when periodontal disease is present. Dental disease has been demonstrated to contribute to (and I swear I’m not making this up): chronic pain, decreased lifespan, infections in the heart and possibly the liver and kidneys, loss of the ability to smell, autoimmune disease, malaise, lethargy, aggression, pathological weight loss, skin problems, and death. In case that’s not bad enough, in people periodontal disease has been associated with stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. Yikes.
I perform a lot of dental work on my patients, in part to avoid the problems listed above. However, in the vast majority of cases, my clients report that after dental work, their pets are livelier, more active, and simply seem happier. In my opinion, that alone is reason enough to do it.