Should my pet be anesthetized for dental care?

Is anesthesia really necessary for my pet’s dental cleaning?

Your pet must be anesthetized to allow thorough evaluation of his mouth, clean his teeth above and below the gumline, and treat painful dental conditions. According to the 2019 AAHA Dental Care Guidelines for Dogs and Cats, anesthesia-free dentistry is neither safer nor a sufficiently comparable service to supra- and subgingival cleaning in an anesthetized patient, and is therefore unacceptable. Although owners’ fear of anesthesia is the most common reason pets don’t receive medically necessary dental care, most animals do well under anesthesia and have few complications.

Why is anesthesia needed for dental procedures in pets?

Only a limited oral exam and tartar removal above the gumline is possible without anesthesia. Dental anesthesia is critical for a complete, thorough cleaning for the following reasons:

  • An awake animal is unlikely to allow a veterinarian to poke around in his mouth with dental instruments. A complete exam that allows the veterinarian to fully determine the extent of dental disease and oral problems can only be performed on an anesthetized patient.
  • Dental X-rays should be taken prior to every dental cleaning, and anesthesia is required to keep pets still. Since 60% of a tooth is below the gumline, problems such as retained roots, root fractures, and periodontal disease can only be detected on radiographs. Without X-rays, many dental problems go undiagnosed and untreated.
  • A complete dental cleaning involves evaluation of pocket depth, tartar scaling above and below the gums, and polishing. Subgingival tartar removal, which is critically necessary to prevent dental disease progression, requires the insertion of dental instruments below the gumline, which can be uncomfortable.
  • Most patients will not hold still for tartar removal, which involves poking, prodding, bright lights, and sharp instruments. Even the limited cleaning that anesthesia-free dentistry permits is traumatic for a pet and may make him afraid to visit the veterinarian in the future.
  • Many pets hide painful dental problems, and a proper dental cleaning can hurt sensitive teeth. Anesthesia will allow your pet to rest pain free throughout the cleaning, even if painful procedures, such as tooth extractions, become necessary.
  • A thorough dental exam and X-rays may reveal dental problems that cannot be treated without anesthesia but require immediate action. If your pet is already anesthetized, problems can be addressed immediately so he returns to you with a healthy mouth.

What precautions make anesthesia safe for my pet?

Precautions such as a thorough preanesthetic evaluation, safe medications and techniques, and anesthetic monitoring make anesthesia safe for most pets.

Prior to anesthesia, a thorough physical exam and blood tests will be performed to screen for diseases that could cause anesthetic complications. In particular, the liver and kidneys are assessed, since they break down and eliminate anesthetic medications. Patient evaluation allows the veterinarian to customize the safest anesthetic and pain management plan unique to your pet and his needs.

An intravenous catheter will be placed for fluid administration throughout the procedure, and for emergency medications should complications arise.

Sedation will be administered before anesthesia is induced to relax your pet and relieve any anxiety. About 20 minutes later, your pet will be anesthetized. He will become unconscious and completely unaware of what is happening, will feel no pain, and will have no memory of the procedure.

An endotracheal (breathing) tube will be placed in your pet for airway protection and oxygen administration, which he will receive throughout the procedure to ensure his blood stays oxygenated.

Anesthetic medications slow down the heart and lungs, and each pet is closely monitored to ensure adequate cardiovascular and respiratory function are maintained. From the moment your pet is placed under anesthesia, your AAHA-accredited veterinary team will monitor your pet’s vital signs, including:

  • Heart rate and rhythm
  • Heart electrical activity (via electrocardiogram)
  • Blood pressure
  • Respiratory rate and depth
  • Blood oxygen levels (using a pulse oximeter)
  • Temperature
  • Mucous membrane color and capillary refill time, which indicate adequate blood flow
  • Anesthetic depth

Most pets recover from anesthesia 15 to 20 minutes after the procedure. They then rest comfortably in a cage for a few hours for continued monitoring and usually go home the same day.

With proper precautions, dental anesthesia is safe as well as necessary. All pets should receive the important dental care they need to live the healthy, pain-free life they deserve.