All in the Name of the Tooth: Does Anesthesia-free Dentistry Have a Place in Veterinary Medicine?

This pup's smile might not last
long if you try to touch his teeth.

Multiple times a week I find myself ten minutes into a struggle that I will clearly not win. A normally friendly fifteen-pound terrier mix is hell-bent on keeping me from examining her mouth. Her owner may have brought her to me for any number of oral problems - worsening bad breath the most common of them. The pet parent suspects their pet's teeth need some TLC but I can't complete a thorough exam of the dog's mouth to even begin putting together an accurate estimate for dental cleaning and work-up. And this struggle is just for the oral exam! That doesn't involve scaling below the gum line, poking and probing for gingival pockets (aka gum recession), or any of the dental surgery that may be needed.

It makes a veterinarian wonder, where did the idea that anesthesia-free dentistry was even an option come from?

Still, it's a question I hear frequently. “Hey doc, isn't anesthesia-free dentistry better, or at least a good alternative to a full dental cleaning with my animal asleep? Won't it do, ya know, for now?”

Well, for starters, this idea is largely coming from unlicensed feed store employees (not veterinary professionals) that are preying on pet parents' fear of anesthesia. Many state veterinary boards have  found these cosmetic “dental cleanings” to be not only wrong or part of a phony marketing gimmick, but  often illegal. Why? Because this procedure is harmful to the pet. From a legal standpoint, according to the American Veterinary Dental College, “anyone providing dental services other than a licensed veterinarian, or a supervised and trained veterinary technician, is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and is subject to criminal charges.” Most often these cosmetic dental cleanings are performed by pet stores without veterinarians.

Why is the veterinary community so adamant against this new availability? While I do believe that the veterinary community as a whole tends to drag their heels when it comes to change, this is not the case here in any shape, form, or fashion. Non-anesthetic dental cleanings are simply dangerous for several reasons.

  • Professional dental cleaning requires scaling both above and below the gum line. Without anesthesia, non-professional dental scaling does not go below the gum line resulting in a cosmetic-only treatment with no benefit for the pet. Scaling below the gum lines hurts! I've often wanted to jump out of the dental chair myself when this happens, and I know why I'm there! This is where a tremendous amount of pet tartar and calculus accumulates and this is where the real damage is done. If this is simply left behind, it gives an artificial sense of oral health.
  • Polishing is skipped or left incomplete, setting up the teeth for rapid tartar and calculus development. Polishing requires the pet to be asleep, as the vibrations it causes are frightening to the pet. Without this crucial step, the scaling leaves enamel scattered with numerous tiny abrasions. These holes and surface scratches are a sheltered breeding ground for bacteria-causing tartar. This actually sets the stage to hasten the development of tarter and dental calculus that is detrimental to the pet's dental health. Skip the polishing and you now have a pet that will develop dental disease more quickly than if you had done nothing.
  • When the pet is not anesthetized, a proper oral exam cannot be performed. We will miss dangerous pathology, and there is no way around it. It's not just tumors that can go undetected. There are far more common oral troubles that occur as a result of periodontal disease, such as tooth root abscesses. Much of our pets' dental disease is hidden. We simply don't have x-ray vision, much less the ability to see what is behind snapping or simply uncooperative jaws without chemical assistance.
  • If goes without saying that if children and adults alike are scared of going to the dentist, your pet probably doesn’t want to go through the experience either. Anesthesia prevents this fear and negative experience entirely.

Sadly, non-anesthetic dental cleanings are becoming more and more commonplace in the pet industry. The availability of misinformation on this service has unfortunately made it across news channels throughout the US, but trust your veterinarian before your local feed store associate. Non-anesthetic dental cleanings are far more harmful than no cleaning at all.

Back to my original question, does anesthesia-free dentistry have a place in veterinary medicine? YES!!! It's called brushing your pets teeth at home—before and after your veterinarian performs a full dental cleaning under anesthesia. Drop by your vet's office and they will be happy to show you how.

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