Is an 'anesthesia-free' dentistry for your pet?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Updated: January 27, 2011
Published: October 13, 2008
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Fear and loathe veterinary anesthesia though you might (and I wouldn’t necessarily blame you), the answer to the above question is a no-brainer for me: the so-called "anesthesia-free" dental cleaning is NOT an appropriate approach to managing our pets’ dental health.

A variety of companies are now offering this service in a bunch of states. California seems especially targeted (according to Pet Connection’s Christie Keith, who provided the impetus for this post with her own from last Saturday). The procedure’s gained some traction among pet owners as a result of…

1) our heightened understanding of the need for dental care for our pets,

2) the fear of anesthesia, since most of us also know that anesthesia carries risks, and

3) the reduced expense such a service requires relative to the standard, anesthetic dental cleaning procedure veterinarians urge our pets to undergo.

I’m often in a position to field the question, "Is there any way I can clean my pet’s teeth without anesthesia?"

Though I’m loath to hit my client with a rapid-fire answer in the negative, I’m firm on my stance: No anesthesia-free dentistry has yet been shown to do more good than harm.

Yes, it’s true. Non-anesthetic dental cleanings have actually been proven to be harmful to pets. Here’s a run-down on why:

1) The stated goal of this service is typically to remove visible tartar for cosmetic reasons. These companies don’t (and can’t) promise health benefits for our pets.

2) The necessary, below-the-gumline cleaning of teeth is painful, requires minimal movement for accuracy, and is generally considered impossible without anesthesia.

3) Polishing the teeth after a thorough cleaning and scaling is absolutely essential to the continued health of teeth and gums and cannot be properly undertaken without anesthesia.

(Polishing is necessary because the invisible damage done to teeth during the cleaning process must be mitigated by the smoothing action afforded by the polish. Otherwise, the teeth and gums become more susceptible to bacterial infection than before cleaning.)

4) Pets don’t tolerate even basic cleaning and scaling well. They struggle and stress. Even if they do hold still enough, the results are always unsatisfactory relative to the anesthetic version of the procedure.

How do I know? Not only do I have cause to believe the respected, board-certified dentists who have evaluated the anesthesia-free procedure, I’ve got my own dog’s example to consider.

My Frenchie, Sophie Sue, became the reluctant guinea pig for this anesthetic-free dental cleaning a couple of years back when a company began making the rounds of our South Florida neighborhood.

Though our practice had pretty much decided against the service (which would be performed at our hospital by "dental specialists" trained in the procedure) based on the advice of the veterinary dental establishment, we thought it would be only fair to see how it worked.

Sophie Sue carried a very mild tartar buildup, despite her advanced age, because of my weekly brushing and (I believe) because I offer her raw, meaty bones on a regular basis. Nonetheless, I didn't think it unreasonable to subject her to a free cleaning.

Not only did Sophie Sue (generally a model patient) resist quite impressively, her teeth suffered an unreasonable buildup of tartar in the months that followed (in spite of my unchanged home-care protocol). I may be wrong, but I attribute that to an inability to polish her teeth effectively during the procedure.

Even if you discount my anecdotal findings, its clear that the academically-inclined veterinarians among us are in opposition to anesthetic-free dental cleanings based on similar evidence: Incomplete (purely cosmetic) dental cleaning is worse than no cleaning at all.

And yet the practice seems to be gaining some ground. Instead of targeting veterinary practices with this service (which seemed to yield no fruit after vets became aware of its consequences), the companies offering anesthesia-free dentistry are now looking to groomers to partner with, as Christie Keith’s post points out.

The California company she mentions, Canine Care, has been called out for its practices (at one point it was enjoined against providing this procedure), despite its contention that this version of dentistry is only offered for cosmetic purposes and claims no health benefits (the latter which might place it in violation of a law prohibiting non-vets from offering healthcare services).

However you feel about the ability of unlicensed laypersons to offer healthcare services to pets, this concept is a dud any way you slice it. It’s just not reasonable to expect any pet to suffer a complete dental cleaning without anesthesia. And the resulting halfway approach clearly does more harm than good.

Considering that responsible veterinarians guide themselves by the "above all do no harm" mantra, it seems self-evident that this practice deserves to die once and for all.

See Christie's three articles on this subject for [much] more information.