Are Anesthesia-Free Dog & Cat Dental Cleanings Good?

Some people wonder if anesthesia-free dog or cat teeth cleanings are a good choice for dental care for their pets. In our many years of experience as Board-Certified Veterinary Dentists, we know firsthand that trying to clean the teeth and gums of a conscious pet is a bad idea for a number of reasons.

1. Conscious Cooperation

Think of the degree of cooperation you give the dental hygienist when you have your own teeth cleaned.  For 45 minutes you remain reasonably still while they clean your teeth with sharp instruments, having you hold your mouth open during the process. Dogs and cats don’t brush their teeth 2-3 times a day as people should, so they ultimately have even more dental disease.

Imagine if someone tried to open your mouth and scrape a sharp instrument around your teeth without explaining the process. Imagine if you had a painful area in your mouth, as most dogs and cats do, and you were forced to hold still, unable to communicate your fear.

In many cases, very crude forms of restraint, including tightly wrapping the pet in a towel and using mouth gags, are required to allow access to the teeth. Many pets urinate and defecate during the process,  which is almost never performed in front of the owner. According to a former employee of one of these companies, one anesthesia-free dog teeth cleaning service we are aware of uses orally administered “essence of Bach Flowers”, described as a “natural calming agent”. They claim that the drops relax the patient. They certainly do. They fail to tell owners that the mixture they use is mostly bourbon.

2. Effectiveness

Cleaning under the gumline is the most important part of the cleaning process and cannot be safely accomplished using sharp instruments in an awake animal.  If the patient is conscious, all you can do is remove the visible calculus on the front teeth from above the gumline. You can’t clean the most important back teeth and you certainly can’t clean under the gumline. Unfortunately, when owners see that most of the calculus above the gumline on the teeth toward the front of the mouth has been removed, they believe their pet has received a good level of care.

3. The Oral Exam

A detailed oral exam is an important part of a complete dental cleaning. It is impossible to adequately assess the patient’s mouth without good lighting, magnification and a cooperative patient that doesn’t move. None of this is possible in conscious patients.

4. Hidden Problems

Dental x-rays are a vitally important part of the cleaning procedure, and cannot be taken unless the patient is anesthetized.  Many painful problems are hidden under the gumline, and studies have shown that you cannot identify many of these problems without taking dental X-rays. In fact, dental X-rays of just the normal-appearing teeth show problems that would have been missed in 28% of dogs and 42% of cats!

5. Leaving The Teeth Smooth

Hand scaling with sharp instruments leaves scratches on the teeth that will increase plaque and calculus buildup unless the teeth are polished smooth–this cannot be accomplished in a conscious patient. Failure to polish the teeth actually promotes future dental disease.

6. Fear of Anesthesia

Proponents of anesthesia-free teeth cleaning services prey on an owner’s fear of having their pet anesthetized and maintain that there is a profit motive for vets to recommend anesthetized cleaning. Consider this: how much more profitable would a procedure be if you didn’t require bloodwork, anesthetic drugs, anesthetic machines, monitoring equipment, trained staff and a facility for housing the patients? Yes, there is a profit motive, but it is from the services that offer this substandard level of care using poorly trained staff. These services are incredibly profitable.

We absolutely understand that the thought of having your pet anesthetized can be a very scary thing for many owners. Everyone has heard a horror story about someone’s pet passing away while anesthetized.   The fact is that anesthesia, done well, is extremely safe. There is a wide variation in the quality of anesthesia from practice to practice. In some places, there is little to no input from the doctors on the anesthetic protocols and monitoring of anesthetized patients. That is why it is crucial you take your pet to a facility with high standards for anesthetic safety..

Be proactive and ask your veterinarian about their anesthetic protocols, doctor involvement, and safety record. Our certified technicians have an average of 13 years experience in monitoring anesthesia and one of our doctors received two years of advanced training in anesthesia at a veterinary school teaching hospital. We are happy to share our anesthetic protocols and excellent safety record with you.

Why Don’t We Offer Anesthesia-Free Teeth Cleanings?

Consider this: If the procedure had any value, a board-certified veterinary dentist like Dr. Woodward would be a proponent of anesthesia-free cleaning. In fact, we would have the busiest anesthesia-free dental cleaning service in the US. The fact is, no board-certified veterinary dentist in the US thinks these procedures have any value, and painful conditions are overlooked and continue to worsen.

To make matters worse, dogs and cats almost never complain about painful dental disease. They don’t have any options and just learn to live with the discomfort.

To summarize, anesthesia-free teeth cleanings for dogs and cats is uncomfortable, scares the pets, provides a substandard level of service, preys on an owner’s fear of anesthesia, misses many painful dental problems, allows hidden dental problems to worsen, does not allow a thorough oral exam, actually speeds up future calculus accumulation and gives owners a false sense of security about the quality of the service provided.

Dog & Cat Dentist in Montana

If it has been a while since your dog or cat had a teeth cleaning (COHAT), bring them in to see us at Montana Pet Dentistry. Dr. Woodward is the only board-certified veterinary dentist in all of Montana. Pet owners drive hundreds of miles to place their furry-companions in his expert hands for all forms of dental procedures. Give us a call today and ask about our dog and cat teeth cleaning package.


Photo by Pauline Loroy on Unsplash (3/12/2021)