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Do dogs really need dental cleanings?

By Sarah Sypniewski

vet looking at jack russell teeth

My family used to be so good about getting our dogs’ teeth cleaned by our vet on a regular basis. Every year, we’d alternate which dogs went so that it was no more than a couple of years between dentals for each pooch. Somehow, we fell way behind in that routine, but we are finally getting back in the swing of things.

As we speak, our beloved Sammy is at our vet getting her teeth cleaned. Since it’s been years since her last cleaning, and because she’s a small dog, I’ve set the estimate of necessary extractions at 10. I’ll let you know how it turns out.

But in all seriousness, dog dental care shouldn’t be taken lightly because dogs can face real problems that go beyond teeth without it. This is why dog teeth cleaning is necessary, even though not all pet owners do it.  

Do dogs need anesthesia for teeth cleaning?

While not all canine teeth cleanings include anesthesia, it's highly recommended so your vet can give a full and effective treatment to your dog. Professional cleanings require scaling above AND below the gum line. Without anesthesia, dental scaling does not go below the gum line resulting in a cosmetic-only treatment with no benefit for the pet.

What is involved in a professional anesthetic dental cleaning?

Pre-cleaning Visual Exam and Blood Work

The vet will inspect your dog’s teeth to see if there is visible tartar, decay, loose teeth, or other issues brewing. They’ll also take a blood sample and run a full panel to make sure your dog is healthy and stable to undergo general anesthesia. If everything checks out, you’ll schedule a dental cleaning.

On the Day of the Procedure

The vet will take X-rays to look for broken teeth, abscesses, periodontal disease, and other issues. Once the vet has a full understanding of your dog’s mouth, they can prepare for the procedure. They put an IV line in your dog’s leg so your dog will receive supportive care fluids. The IV also carries the pre-procedure sedative enough to intubate your dog. Once intubated, general anesthesia is an inhalant that is administered via the endotracheal tube (along with oxygen) and the procedure begins.

During the Procedure

Your vet will clean under the gum line (which is the biggest reason the cleaning needs to be done under anesthesia), scale the tartar and plaque off the teeth, and then polish the teeth. They will also extract teeth that cannot be saved. As your vet works, there is a team of other vets and/or techs in the room to monitor vital signs, assist with instruments, and adjust anesthesia as needed to make sure your dog is safe from pain, remains anesthetized, and that his organs continue to function as they should.

What happens after the procedure?

If no extractions were needed, your dog will sleep off the anesthetic at the hospital and be good as new within a few hours for discharge. If extractions took place, your dog will be prescribed pain killers and antibiotics upon discharge.

Your dog may cough because the intubation tube can cause throat irritation, and he may whine or cry because anesthesia side effects include disorientation and discomfort. They will also be extremely tired and thirsty, and possibly a little constipated. Any other specific concerns should be relayed by the vet during a post-procedure debrief and/or paperwork.

What are the risks of getting your dog’s teeth cleaned?

Although extremely rare, dog teeth cleaning risks do exist. As with any living creature under general anesthesia (including humans), there is always the risk of organ failure or death. For example, if there is an underlying health condition, anesthesia could have an adverse effect. The pre-procedure blood work and exam is in place to prevent this, but freak reactions can occur.

If your pet does have an underlying health condition, it doesn’t necessarily preclude them from going under anesthesia for a dental cleaning; there are many ways to adjust the anesthesia for your pet. But this is why you must use a vet who knows what they are doing.

Our oldest dog, Kali, had a heart condition for years. She had to be put under twice during that time for unavoidable procedures and our vet consulted with our cardiologist well ahead of time to make a specific protocol that would keep Kali safe during surgery. It worked both times, and I credit that entirely to the communication, diligence, and knowledge amongst members of her medical team.

What are the risks of not having a full dental done?

The main concern is tooth decay that could eventually lead to infection that spreads to the bloodstream and travels to their organs. This is a serious concern and can lead to organ disease and failure. Plus, the level of pain poor oral health can bring to your dog can be extreme. It’s not uncommon for owners to think something is terribly wrong with their dog only to find that they need a dental cleaning.

It can be scary to put your dog under anesthesia for any procedure, but if you have routine dentals done when your pup is healthy, it sets them up for success. If you put it off until it becomes an emergency, they’re at risk for more complications. You may not need to do it every year, but doing it regularly is an important part of their overall wellness. Depending on several factors, you and your vet can create a schedule that makes the most sense for your doggo.

Well, our vet just called – Sammy’s all done, and she only needed five extractions! Although that’s way under what I thought she would need, we have vowed to not wait as long between cleanings in the future. It’s time for me to pick up our groggy little pup and help her recover in a cozy blanket nest for the next 24-48 hours.

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