Why is Anesthesia Necessary for Dogs and Cats to Have Their Teeth Cleaned?

Why Anesthesia is Necessary for Dogs Pets to Have Their Teeth Cleaned

Why is Anesthesia Necessary for Dogs and Cats to Have Their Teeth Cleaned?

– Written by Patrick Vall, DVM, DAVDC


Two big reasons why is anesthesia necessary for dogs and cats to have their teeth cleaned are safety and comfort. Going to the dentist for a human is rarely a fun experience, but we recognize it is a vital part of our oral and overall health. For many it is a visit filled with no small amount of anxiety and stress. We have imaging performed, most often in the form of dental radiographs, and then sit in a specially made reclining chair for an hour or so during an oral examination and professional cleaning. Most of the time we sit with our mouths wide open.


Why Anesthesia is Necessary for Pets to Have Their Teeth Cleaned

Who could imagine that our pets would lie on a table with their mouths open to have radiographs and an oral examination performed, and then their teeth cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler and hand scaling instruments. I’m sorry, but that is not going to happen. Our dogs and cats would not tolerate that and reasonably respond with aggression. 

Let’s briefly go deeper into the reasons anesthesia is necessary for pets to have their teeth professionally cleaned

  1. Patient Comfort: Dental procedures can be uncomfortable or even painful for animals, especially if they involve extractions or extensive dental work. Anesthesia ensures that the animal is not aware of the procedure and does not experience pain or distress during it.
  2. Immobilization: Anesthesia keeps the animal still and prevents movement during the procedure. This is crucial for the safety of both the animal and the veterinarian and their team members performing the procedure. It allows for precise work without the risk of the animal moving unexpectedly. It also allows for the taking of diagnostic imaging in the form of dental radiographs or cone beam computed tomography (CBCT). Most board-certified veterinary dentists are now utilizing CBCT technology that provides diagnostic images in 3D and is most often faster than taking full mouth dental radiographs. Veterinary patients need to be perfectly still while these images are taken and it is impossible to provide quality veterinary dentistry without them. Also, a dog or cat would likely damage highly expensive equipment if imaging was attempted without general anesthesia. 
  3. Safety: Anesthesia allows the veterinarian to thoroughly examine and clean the teeth, perform extractions if necessary, and address any other dental issues without the risk of injury to the animal or the veterinary staff. It also reduces the stress and anxiety that the animal might experience during the procedure, which can help prevent complications. 
  4. Effective Treatment: Anesthesia ensures that the veterinarian can access all areas of the mouth and perform a thorough examination and treatment. This is especially important for dental procedures that require X-rays or involve deeper issues like periodontal disease or root canal treatments.

Anesthesia also allows for a complete oral examination, which is not possible, as it is with humans, on an awake patient. When a board-certified veterinary dentist performs an oral examination, every structure in the oral cavity, not just the teeth, is thoroughly evaluated. This includes the tongue, palate, oral mucosa and deeper structures such as the tonsils. Each individual tooth is probed and checked for abnormalities. All abnormal findings are spoken by the veterinarian and recorded by the dental technician. You can see that this is truly a team effort. I can also say that well over half of the pathology (abnormalities) that I have diagnosed in my patients has been with them under anesthesia during an oral examination and evaluation of dental images. Without an anesthetized oral examination abnormalities would be missed and dogs and cats would be left in pain.


The Reasons “Anesthesia-Free Dentistry” is Condemned

Many pet owners have heard about procedures referred to as “Anesthesia-Free Dentistry” for pets. This involves significant restraint of the pets, often involving completely immobilizing them while wrapped in blankets or towels, while their teeth are “cleaned” with hand scaling instruments. There are so many reasons why these procedures, often performed outside of a veterinary facility, have been thoroughly condemned by the American Veterinary Dental College. Time does not allow a complete discussion of AFDs, but I will quickly state the main reasons.

  1. It is impossible to thoroughly clean their teeth. The gingival sulcus where gingiva meets the crown of the tooth is the most important area to clean, but is impossible to do with an awake dog or cat. 
  2. It is impossible to perform a complete oral examination on a non-anesthetized dog or cat. This would leave abnormalities left undiagnosed and left untreated, thus leaving a dog or cat in pain. How inhumane is that? 
  3. It is impossible to perform dental imaging with radiographs or CBCT scanning without anesthesia. Full mouth dental radiographs have become the minimum standard of care in veterinary dentistry. CBCT scanning has built upon this history of the need for dental imaging. Like the oral examination, not performing dental imaging will simply leave patients in pain with undiagnosed pathology.
  4. Patients will suffer stress and pain while being restrained for these procedures and still not have comprehensive dental care.

Many clients have a strong fear of having their much-loved pets anesthetized. Perhaps they have had negative experiences of their undergoing anesthetic procedures. I understand their concerns. I will state that the level and quality of veterinary anesthesia has increased by leaps and bounds over the course of my 32 year career.


Pet Dentistry in Colorado Springs

At Animal Dental Care and Oral Surgery there are always a minimum of three dedicated people for each patient: the board-certified dentist or dental resident, the dental technician, and the anesthesia technician. The anesthesia technician works closely with the veterinarian and has a singular focus on the safely performed anesthetic procedure. There is often a 4th person involved. Well over half of our procedures are performed collaboratively with a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist. We utilize their skills on routine cases, but also more involved patients who have other disease conditions, such as cardiac or renal disease. 

I often stress to my pet owners that I am far more concerned about dental disease causing their dogs and cats harm than a safely performed anesthetic procedure. 

As you can see anesthesia is a mandatory part of a Comprehensive Oral Health and Assessment Treatment (COHAT) procedure. Safely performed it allows a veterinarian and their team members to diagnose, treat, and even prevent painful dental conditions in their patients. 


If you have any questions regarding your pet’s oral health and need for dental care, please reach out to us at Animal Dental Care and Oral Surgery in Colorado Springs. 




Photo by Bob | from Pixabay on 4.12.24 | used under the creative commons license