Are Anesthesia-Free Dental Procedures Worthwhile?

What's your view on anesthesia-free teeth cleaning? I see it offered at all the pet stores and groomers in my neighborhood, but I recently had...


What’s your view on anesthesia-free teeth cleaning? I see it offered at all the pet stores and groomers in my neighborhood, but I recently had a bad experience where my dog’s teeth and gums ended up in very poor condition.

Santa Monica, CA

I think anesthesia-free teeth cleaning is, in general, a rip off. Most people who pay for the procedure don’t get their money’s worth, even though the procedures are cheaper than those that involve general anesthesia. More on that in a minute.

First, some background.

Dogs and cats don’t brush their teeth. Therefore, food and bacteria adhere to the surface of the teeth. Bacterial waste products (known as calculus or tartar) form on the teeth and discolor them. Ultimately, the bacteria move into the gums and cause an infection. Infection is the root of dental disease.

Over time the infection spreads from the gums to the ligaments and bones surrounding the teeth. Later, infection can spread into the blood and throughout the body. Dental disease has been linked to diabetes, kidney problems, heart disease, and cancer. Dental disease causes bad breath.

The simplest way to prevent dental disease is to brush your pet’s teeth daily. It’s cheap and effective (my pal Buster is almost six and his teeth and gums are in excellent shape thanks to tooth brushing). But most people don’t do it.

Dental disease is common because tooth brushing is rare. In fact, a large majority of dogs and cats over three years old have medically relevant (meaning at least the gums are infected) dental disease.

Medically relevant dental disease can be treated only with anesthetic dental work.

Most people don’t like going to the dentist even though they brush their teeth. But if you consider that animals don’t brush their teeth, and that they generally go years between dental procedures, and that one year for them is the same as several years for us, you will start to get an understanding for why vets anesthetize animals for dental work. If you went 15 years (roughly the same as a few years for a cat or dog) without brushing your teeth and then went to the dentist you would beg for anesthesia.

Professional anesthetic dental work involves removal of tartar and bacteria from the teeth above and below the gumline. The tooth roots and gums are treated for problems as necessary. Dental radiographs may be taken to assess and address dental issues beneath the gums. Antibiotics may be administered to prevent seeding of dental bacteria into the bloodstream. Extractions, root canals, and other advanced treatments may be performed. All of this is done, by law in California (and most states), under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian.

Anesthesia-free dental work involves removal of tartar and bacteria from the visible portions of the teeth. And that’s it.

Worse, many (note: I did not say all) of the people performing anesthesia-free dental work at pet stores and grooming facilities aren’t properly trained. Do they know that scaling the teeth causes microscopic fissures in the enamel surface that must be smoothed by polishing to prevent accelerated bacterial growth in the future? Do they have the equipment to polish the teeth properly? Do they know that fragments of calculus can be aspirated and cause fatal pneumonias? Are they aware of the risk of endocarditis (infection inside the heart) when dental bacteria enter the bloodstream? Can they prescribe antibiotics to prevent endocarditis? (The last question is rhetorical. The answer is no.)

I think anesthesia-free dental work generally is a waste of money. It’s better to spend four or five times as much for the real deal. If you want to avoid anesthesia, or if you’re really interested in saving money, then brush your pet’s teeth and your pet may avoid dental work altogether.

As your story illustrates, anesthesia-free dental work at pet stores and boarding facilities also poses a health threat to pets. Because there aren’t set standards for anesthesia-free dental practitioners, there is no way to know whether the person working on your pet’s teeth is competent.

And why aren’t there set standards for anesthesia-free dental practitioners at pet stores and grooming facilities? Because there are no legal standards for illegal activities. Anesthesia-free dental work, like all dental work, is illegal in California unless it is performed under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. Brenda, your story illustrates why.

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