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AAHA standards strive to keep pets safe during dental procedures

Dental care of dogs and cats is one of the most commonly overlooked areas of pet health care; however, it is necessary to provide optimum health and quality of life. Diseases of the oral cavity, if left untreated, are often painful and can lead to more serious health problems including heart, lung and kidney disease. Accredited veterinary hospitals follow dental standards designed to promote optimal health for your pet's mouth

What is important for my pet's dental care?

There are two critical components of your pet’s veterinary dental care: oral examinations and dental cleanings. Veterinary dental care begins at the puppy and kitten life stage. As your pet ages, your veterinarian will look for developmental anomalies, the accumulation of plaque and tartar, periodontal disease and oral tumors. Veterinarians can perform a basic oral examination on patients that are awake. However, when a cleaning is required, your pet will need to be induced under general anesthesia wherein a thorough examination will be done prior to the cleaning. Dental cleanings performed while your pet is awake is not only dangerous for the team member performing the cleaning but dangerous to your pet as well.

Since there is an element of risk associated with any medical procedure, it is important that safety precautions are used. Among the many standards in the dentistry section, AAHA accreditation requires that veterinarians perform thorough examinations of the teeth and structures of the oral cavity in patients presented for dental procedures and only properly trained practice team members perform dental procedures. Additionally, AAHA standards recommend that dental procedures are accompanied by pain assessment and appropriate pain treatment. Another mandatory dental standard requires veterinary hospitals to perform dental procedures under general anesthesia with patients intubated (breathing tube).

What is the mandatory dental standard regarding anesthesia during dental procedures?

The AAHA standard states that all AAHA-accredited practices must perform dental procedures under general anesthesia with patients intubated using a properly placed breathing tube. AAHA accreditation is voluntary, so only practices seeking accreditation are required to comply with this standard of care.

Why did AAHA approve a standard mandating general anesthesia with intubation for dental procedures?

The introduction of the 2013 AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, approved and endorsed by the American Veterinary Dental College prompted AAHA to update the Dentistry Section of the standards. The Guidelines state that cleaning a companion animal’s teeth without general anesthesia is considered unacceptable and below the standard of care. General anesthesia with intubation is necessary to properly assess and treat the companion animal dental patient. The use of general anesthesia allows for the necessary immobilization without discomfort, periodontal probing, intraoral radiology, and the removal of plaque and tartar above and below the gum line including polishing to ensure patient health and safety. Because AAHA accredited practices are expected to practice the highest level of veterinary medicine, AAHA’s leadership felt it necessary to update the standards to reflect best practices outlined in the Guidelines.

Why is general anesthesia necessary for companion animal dental procedures?

At least 60% of cats and dogs’ normal tooth structure is under the gum line. Partially removing plaque and tartar from the exposed crown is more cosmetic than therapeutic. Removing the plaque and tartar from both above and below the gingiva on the lingual and buccal surfaces requires general anesthesia and results in a cosmetic as well as therapeutic outcome. General anesthesia also facilitates proper pain- free probing of each tooth’s support and the required immobilization necessary to take intraoral dental films. Finally, intubation during general anesthesia protects the trachea and prevents aspiration of water and oral debris.

What support is there for general anesthesia and intubation during dental procedures?

The 2013 AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, approved and endorsed by the American Veterinary Dental College, advocate the use of general anesthesia with intubation for dental procedures. A thorough tooth-by- tooth exam and removal of plaque and tartar cannot be performed without general anesthesia. Thanks to AAHA-mandated anesthesia standards, the risk of adverse anesthetic events is minimized. 

Do other organizations support general anesthesia with intubation for dental procedures?

The American Veterinary Dental College, recognized as the expert voice in pet dental care, agrees with and endorses AAHA’s mandatory dental standard regarding anesthesia with intubation for dental procedures. The American Veterinary Dental College has also approved and endorsed the 2013 AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats.

I’ve heard that anesthesia can be a risk for my pet – why should I take the unnecessary risk of anesthetizing my pet for a simple dental cleaning?

A veterinary professional is unable to effectively and safely get to the most problematic areas in a pet’s mouth without anesthesia. Thanks to AAHA-mandated anesthesia standards for accredited practices, the risk of adverse anesthetic events is minimized in an accredited practice. A properly placed breathing tube, patient-tailored anesthesia, and closer monitoring actually reduces the risks to your pet’s health.

People don’t have to be anesthetized for dental cleanings – why does AAHA think pets need to be anesthetized?

People don’t usually have to be anesthetized because we understand what is going on during a dental procedure – we understand when someone asks us to keep still in order to avoid being hurt. However, even some people react so strongly to dental procedures that they need to be sedated. In people, a trip to the dentist most often means cleaning clean teeth; with dogs and cats, painful periodontal disease is commonly present which needs to be treated with anesthesia.

Why do I need to go to the veterinarian for dental work? Can’t I just brush my pet’s teeth at home?

While brushing your pet’s teeth at home helps manage your pet’s dental health in between cleanings at the veterinary hospital, it does not replace a full dental cleaning. With at least 60% of a pet’s tooth structure lying below the gum line, it is imperative that veterinary professionals are able to remove plaque and tartar from both above and below the gum line in order to properly clean a pet’s teeth. Diseases of the mouth can be painful and can contribute to additional health problems for your pet.

Is this just about veterinary professionals trying to make more money?

No. Just like you, veterinary professionals are pet owners who care about pets. Veterinary professionals are committed to providing quality care for pets to the best of their ability. Accredited hospitals follow this mandatory standard because it keeps your pet still during a procedure, which helps protect the safety of your pet and allow a thorough examination including x-rays of all the teeth. This enables them to produce a more accurate diagnosis of your pet’s health when they are able to get below your pet’s gum line and truly assess your pet’s mouth. Without anesthesia, a veterinary professional is unable to fully treat and assess your pet’s teeth.

Why does AAHA have a mandatory standard requiring anesthetic dentals while there is no mandatory standard addressing dental x-rays?

The AAHA standards are always evolving – it is possible there could be additional changes to the standards in the future based on best practices and/or based on the AAHA Guidelines.

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