Anesthesia-Free Dentistry: Is It Truly a Good Option for Your Pet?

Vet checking dogs teeth
Dreamstime

Here’s a question I get asked a lot. "Is anesthesia-free dentistry better than the traditional anesthetic approach for my pet?" Well, here's my answer, slightly testy though it may be.

The answer to the above question is a no-brainer for me: Although it may be less risky, so-called anesthesia- or sedation-free dental cleaning is not a good way to manage the dental health of  pets. I get asked this question so often because a variety of companies are now offering the service in South Florida (where I live), as well as in a number of U.S. metro areas.

It’s a surprisingly popular trend, which makes sense. No reasonable person would want to subject a pet to an anesthetic procedure if an equivalent alternative is available.

But is it equivalent?

Here’s what I have to say on the subject: Sure, anesthesia always carries risks (any medical provider who claims otherwise should be avoided), so it makes sense that it should be avoided whenever possible. The health benefits have to justify it.

The problem is that anesthesia-free dentistry has not been shown to be anywhere near equivalent to traditional anesthetic dentistry. In fact, in some cases, nonanesthetic dental cleanings can even be harmful to pets.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s why board-certified veterinary dentists, the specialists in this field, advise against this approach:

1. Under-the-gum scaling of teeth (the necessary removal of plaque) is painful and poorly tolerated by pets. It also requires minimal movement for effectiveness, which is generally considered impossible without anesthesia.

2. Polishing the teeth after a thorough scaling is essential to the continued health of teeth and gums, and this is considered very difficult to achieve without anesthesia. Failing to polish well after scaling just leads to more tartar buildup.

3. Pets struggle and stress during dental procedures. As a trial, mine underwent an anesthesia-free cleaning, and consequently, I’ve come to believe it’s unfair to expect any animal to deal with that level of discomfort while awake.

4. The intent of nonanesthetic dental cleaning services is to remove visible tartar for cosmetic reasons. These companies don’t — and can’t — promise health benefits for our pets. So why subject them to the stress?

For pets with potentially serious dental issues, there’s no denying it: Teeth must be evaluated carefully with dental probes and X-rays. This cannot be achieved in pets without anesthesia. Period. In fact, more than half of the teeth I recommend for further treatment (including root canals and extractions) are those that I had not identified as problem teeth prior to an examination and dental X-rays.

What does that tell me? It says a full dental assessment isn’t possible without anesthesia. So what’s the upshot?

Don't fall for the anesthesia-free approach. It takes twice as long, and it can’t deliver what you’d assume it would.

Bad breath and periodontal disease? They’re not treatable via these means. Sure, you may think I’m biased, given the fact that I make money anesthetizing pets. Would it help you to know that I’d never, ever subject my pets to this procedure again? I hope so.

I'm as interested in not knocking my dog out as the next person (probably more so), but there are limits to how low I’m willing to go on the risk vs. reward scale.

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