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Anesthesia-Free Teeth Cleaning for Dogs: Is It Safe?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Does your dog need a non-anesthesia dental cleaning?

Does your dog need a non-anesthesia dental cleaning?

Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning for Dogs: Good or Bad?

Considering anesthesia-free dental cleaning for your dog? If so, chances are that you just came home from seeing your vet, and after he took a peek at your dog's teeth, he suggested a dental cleaning. You are probably wondering if there are any alternatives to consider. Whether you got sticker shock from the estimate your vet gave you or you don't feel like putting your dog under anesthesia, you may be on the lookout for alternative dental cleaning options.

Making an Informed Decision

One popular option seen a lot lately is anesthesia-free dental cleanings. This may sound like a cost-effective solution, and from reading the reviews and information provided on websites, a marvelous one, too, but there are always two sides to the story. This article will reveal what vets have to say about these cleanings and what can be done to ensure your dog's safety.

What Is Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning?

First and foremost, what are anesthesia-free dental cleanings and how do they work? As the name implies, these are dental cleanings that do not use anesthesia. The idea seems promising: Your dog gets his teeth cleaned at a fraction of the cost, and you have no need to worry about your dog going under. Your dog then goes home with beautiful white teeth, and you feel much better now that you have finally taken care of the problem.

Is It Too Good to Be True?

Many people are intrigued by the idea and lured by the before and after pictures provided by those who offer these services. In one picture, you see yellow-brown teeth full of tartar, and in the next, you see pearly whites attained just minutes after going into a facility that provides such services. It truly seems magical.

What You Are Not Told

As promising and alluring as anesthesia-free dental cleaning may appear, there are some things that you may not have been told about that you really need to be aware of before using these services. Knowledge is power when it comes to dealing with your dog's precious teeth and making important health decisions. This article is meant to be an eye-opener for what anesthesia-free dental cleanings for dogs actually entails.

Anyone providing dental services other than a licensed veterinarian, or a supervised and trained veterinary technician, is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and is subject to criminal charges.

— American Veterinary Dental College

Hygienists should wear gloves during the procedure, but this demonstrates appropriate intubation during a dental cleaning.

Hygienists should wear gloves during the procedure, but this demonstrates appropriate intubation during a dental cleaning.

Why Veterinary Professionals Oppose These Procedures

We refer to dental cleanings performed when the dog is wide awake as anesthesia-free dental cleanings, but the American Veterinary Dental College refers to them as "non-professional dental cleanings." Why?

When conducted independently by non-veterinarians and outside of a veterinary hospital, these services are unprofessional. Veterinary medicine is conducted by licensed veterinarians who legally perform surgery, prescribe medicine, diagnose, and offer dentistry services. According to the American Veterinary Dental College:

"Anyone providing dental services other than a licensed veterinarian, or a supervised and trained veterinary technician, is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and is subject to criminal charges."

However, this practice becomes acceptable if a dental cleaning is done by a veterinary technician or veterinary assistant when working under the direct supervision of a veterinarian.

The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) is so deeply convinced that non-professional dental cleanings pose no benefit to pets that it has made it mandatory that all its affiliated hospitals must perform dental procedures with anesthesia or else they risk losing their certification.

Many people are not surprised that veterinarians and veterinary associations would frown upon these cleanings because they take away business from them, but before making such assumptions, it's important to see why so-called non-professional dental cleanings may cause more harm than good.

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A thorough dental service should include dental radiographs, according to the American Animal Hospital Association.

A thorough dental service should include dental radiographs, according to the American Animal Hospital Association.

6 Reasons Not to Do Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleanings

Here is why you may want to avoid anesthesia-free dental cleanings.

1. There Is a Risk for Aspiration Pneumonia

Anesthesia and required intubation of the airway actually protects your dog from inhaling dangerous aerosolized calculus, blood, plaque, and oral bacteria. Dogs that are not intubated and anesthetized are actively breathing in bacteria, which can lead to aspiration pneumonia.

Before and after a dental cleaning and polishing, vets will perform an antiseptic flush to rid the mouth of bacteria, according to Parkway Animal Hospital, and the insertion of an endotracheal tube during anesthesia prevents the accidental aspiration of debris. Companies performing dental cleanings with no anesthesia only use tissues to wipe off debris as it accumulates. Their rationale is that since the dog is awake, his gag reflex will prevent accidental aspiration, which is true to a good extent, but accidents can always happen, so this remains a possibility.

2. It's Hard to Reach Certain Areas

Generally, the outer sides of the dog's teeth are the ones most heavily encrusted with tartar, and thankfully, these are also the easiest to reach. These areas are generally worse because saliva is less likely to flow here and the tongue doesn't come in contact with these sides of the teeth. However, surfaces of the teeth facing the tongue are also important to clean and these areas are challenging, if not almost impossible to clean on a fully conscious dog.

Also, in order to perform sufficient under-the-gum cleaning, you will need a dog that stays still, even if things get uncomfortable or painful. Under-the-gum cleaning is the most important part of dental care since periodontal disease thrives underneath the gums. In humans, cleaning under the gums is easily accomplished because we know what is going on and we are aware of the benefits. Despite this, consider that many humans find the procedure hard to tolerate and even painful!

3. Ideal Dental Tools Cannot Be Used

When a dog is put under anesthesia, the noisy ultrasonic scaler and the polisher can be used to effectively clean and polish teeth. An awake dog will be very reluctant to allow noisy, scary tools in his mouth. Hand-held scalers must be used on awake patients, but in order to work, they must have a sharp working edge. Any movement from a non-collaborative canine can potentially cause injury. Polishing the teeth after tartar is removed is important as the smoother surfaces will help prevent the adherence of more plaque and tartar.

4. A Thorough Evaluation Cannot Be Done

When a dog goes under anesthesia, his teeth can be evaluated carefully with a probe to measure pockets in the gum line and necessary x-rays can be taken to evaluate what cannot be seen by the naked eye (under the gum line). If anything is discovered during this time, it can be taken care of since the dog is anesthetized. Veterinarian and dental specialist Brett Beckman claims, "Without radiographs, the cleaning is cosmetic only."

5. Preventive Care Isn't Initiated

In some cases, dogs may need antibiotics before having a dental cleaning. This is more often seen when dogs have advanced dental disease with bleeding gums and a high number of bacteria in the mouth, or in dogs with underlying health conditions that predispose them to a high risk of complications from dental procedures.

According to the American Veterinary Dental College, dogs considered high risk are those who are immune-compromised, have underlying cardiac, hepatic, and renal disease, and dogs with severe oral infections. During a dental cleaning, bacteria risks entering the bloodstream when the gums bleed, and once there, it can affect the dog's heart valves, kidneys, and liver, and cause serious infections.

6. Owners Get a False Sense of Security

One of the worst aspects of anesthesia-free dental cleanings is that it gives dog owners a false sense of security. They bring a dog with yellow-brown teeth to the office and pick up a dog with white teeth. However, they fail to understand that yes, the teeth look good, but they're only looking at the tip of the iceberg as 60% of the remaining teeth are located under the gum line in those hard-to-reach areas.

Within the pockets underneath the gum lines, debris will still accumulate, the bad breath will soon make a come-back, and the pet will suffer, explains Jan Bellows, a veterinarian and specialist in veterinary dentistry. This is a disservice to patients and to their owners.

Are Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleanings Truly Bad for Dogs?

Now that you have seen different opinions on the topic, you may think anesthesia-free dental cleanings are very bad, but there are also some cases where they may provide some benefit. As with most controversial issues, there is always two sides to the same story.

One good thing about anesthesia-free cleanings is that more and more veterinarians are offering them in their clinics. This means that even if the dental cleaning is done by a veterinary technician or veterinary assistant, they're working under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian who may monitor and intervene as necessary.

Anesthesia-Free Services Offered by Veterinary Professionals

Pet Dental Services is a popular option that is growing steadily. Their services are not intended to substitute for the deep cleaning, extractions, and radiographs done under anesthesia, but they can be helpful as a maintenance program after the dog undergoes a traditional cleaning under anesthesia. Their website also claims that services may be rendered in some cases for high-risk anesthesia cases such as old dogs or dogs with chronic kidney, liver, or heart disease. These cleanings, of course, are not appropriate for dogs suffering from severe gingivitis, abscesses, caries, or loose and fractured teeth.

There was also a study conducted on the efficacy of anesthesia-free dental cleanings. The study refers to such cleanings as "Professional Outpatient Preventive Dentistry" (POPD). In this study, the technician was able to perform scaling both over and under the gums thoroughly and safely on 12 dogs and 12 cats. The study details that though such cleanings are not intended to be a substitute for anesthetic dentistry, they may be a valuable supplemental treatment.

An Informed Decision Is the Best Decision

As seen, there are several risks associated with anesthesia-free dental cleanings. One of the biggest is undetected periodontal disease after years of anesthesia-free pet dentals.

So as seen, there are risks to be aware of, and dog owners should absolutely avoid dental cleanings performed out of the veterinary office by non-professionals. Research is a must for the safety of our pets.

For Further Reading

  • The Best Bones for Cleaning Dog's Teeth
    What dental bones are best for your dog? Your dog's teeth need the right types of bones to keep them in good shape and prevent the harmful accumulation of plaque. Let's see what vets recommend.
  • Understanding Puppy Teeth Stages
    Confused by the puppy teeth stages? No need to be! This guide will reveal the whole process clearly and will provide some interesting, little-known facts about your pup's teeth.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Rachel on August 03, 2020:

I have had all my 10 dogs have holistic dental work done with nothing but great results. There is always a risk with anesthesia. My doggies were all happy and healthy and all lived to be over 14 years old and kept their teeth until they passed away never had a problem with dental issues. I did have them cleaned every 6 months and not over a year. Thank you for making a way for us not to put our pets at risk by having to put them under.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 26, 2019:

Funkymut, in order to understand why non-anesthesia dental cleanings in dogs aren't effective, it takes learning more how plaque and tartar works (the video above explains that clearly).

A thorough dental cleaning requires going under the gum line which is something that requires a dog to be very still as it can be uncomfortable.

This usually can't be done in an awake dog for safety of the dog and dental cleaning staff, and to prevent a dog from enduring in an unpleasant procedure which will make the dog likely reluctant in having his mouth touched in the future. On top of that, it would be difficult to reach the back molar teeth which in dogs are very deep.

Vets who miss huge chunks of tartar are doing something very wrong. I am not sure which vets do this, but a vet doing that is certainly one I would run away from. My dogs had their teeth cleaned a few times (we religiously brushed their teeth every day) and they were perfect and polished.

Funkymut on October 24, 2019:

The writer is a Vet Tech so of course is not going to be bias in her opinion. Non-anesthesia is an alternative to many who otherwise would not have anything done at all. it might be the fear of anesthesia or the high cost. Certainly Vets will also be bias because it threatens them. I have seen first hand dogs that had vets do their cleanings and miss huge chunks of plaque and tartar! The poster below had her dog's teeth done at, "age of 2 or 3" and then states fallowing that at age 8 that 15 teeth were extracted! Well what happened in those 5-6 years? She states she had 3 other teeth cleanings done "by the vet", well if that is true then why didn't the vet eradicate the periodontal disease going under the gumline or noticing it sooner? I believe the issue is with the poster's vet and 3 the poster doing only cleanings in 6 years is not enough, but had it been if she went more often this all could have been avoided. Periodontal disease does not happen overnight and a quick look in your "baby-dog's" mouth would have been an indication. It must have smelled and looked like the bottom of a sewage tank for 15 plus 16 teeth to be pulled. Stop it and take ownership for your own


CS18 on May 16, 2018:

PLEASE, PLEASE DO NO do anesthesia free cleaning. I had my dogs teeth done at a local pet shop when she was about 2-3. Just yesterday my dog had 15!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! teeth taken out from periodontal disease at the age of 8. (5/15/18) She had 16 teeth taken out in two previous under-anesthesia teeth cleanings with vets since 2016. I have brushed her teeth all her life, given her good food, and had 3 teeth cleanings now with vets. There is no explanation from them BUT I think it is from having this non-anesthesia, teeth scraping which CAUSED my baby-dog to now only have 10 teeth let at the young age of 8. DO NOT DO THIS. RUN. SAVE YOUR DOG!

If you get full work-ups of blood work for your dog, before a teeth cleaning with your vet, they should be just fine. It is the safer and more healthy way to go. ~devastated Chris, parent of a cocker.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 31, 2017:

Eddie, good point but would you like to see a dog being forced to keep his mouth open for a long time while awake and risk getting injured with sharp instruments in his mouth? The vet is also at great risk from getting bitten, especially when trying to reach the back teeth which are far back inside the dog's mouth.

Eddie on December 31, 2017:

I always ask the proponents of using anesthesia for tooth cleaning if they would like to see their young human child put under for a tooth cleaning

Usually they mutter, ' of course not - anesthesia has serious risks'. But for an animal they say 'no problem'. Uh hunh...

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on December 31, 2014:

I like the photo and you always inform us best about our good friends.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on December 31, 2014:

Great informative hub. I use the anesthetic free dental cleaning. It seems to help maintain Trixies teeth. My dalmatian loved to go to the vet and get his teeth cleaned. He also loved to get his teeth brushed. He lived to be over 15 years old. Stella

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