Catie has her A.S. in veterinary technology and has worked in the veterinary field for nine years.
Why Do Dental Cleanings Cost so Much?
It was Scooter’s dragon breath that prompted you to visit the vet, or maybe he was just there for an annual checkup and vaccines. The doctor has recommended a dental cleaning, and you have scheduled one for next week. You were sent home with a $700 estimate! Aah, what the heck? Well, I’m here to explain that $700 to you.
There are so many factors that go into dental cleanings, dental diagnostics, and the treatment of dental disease. Clients can become frustrated by the costs for “just getting his teeth cleaned” once they’re slapped with a $1000 estimate when they heard around town that cleanings only cost $300. This article is going to dive deep into all the nooks and crannies of dental cleaning costs for dogs and cats.
Why an "Average" Cost Can't Be Predicted
The prices of each individual line item on a bill will vary so widely for so many different reasons, so I’m not even going to try to guess what an average is. All I could give you is a large arbitrary range that will probably be wrong. But I can give you something helpful—an explanation of the most typical line items on your bill. I've tried to think of multiple titles that could be used for the same service in no particular order.
The Pre-Anesthetic Examination
Even if your animal was examined the day before, the veterinarian should examine the patient the day of the procedure for any changes in health, even just from overnight.
Grade-IV Dental Mouth
Pre-surgical bloodwork often includes one of the following:
- CBC & Chemistry
- CBC & Comprehensive Chem
- CBC & 12 Pack
- CBC & 6 Pack
This is blood work to determine if the patient is healthy enough to undergo anesthesia and whether anesthesia would be compromising the patient due to any underlying medical conditions. These conditions can include but are not limited to infection, kidney disease, and liver disease. This is typically strongly recommended for all animals undergoing anesthesia.
Pre-Anesthetic Medications (Pre-A or Preanesthetic Meds)
Medications typically include a tranquilizer, pain control, and sometimes medicine to keep the patient’s heart rate up. The medications given preemptively to anesthetic candidates play a defining role in a practice’s fear-free protocol. These medications typically reduce fear, anxiety, and stress in a timely and dramatic manner.
IV Catheter (IVC or Intravenous Catheterization)
The medical team will need access to a vessel to administer anesthetic medications, control blood pressure, and take life-saving measures quickly and effectively if needed. The pre-anesthetic medications are administered prior to an IVC for fear-free reasons (see the topic below, “Why Cost May Actually Reflect Quality of Care"). This is exactly like a human IVC. It is placed in a limb and includes a variety of different medical supplies, experience, training, and typically two people.
Induction (Injectable Anesthesia)
The medications are administered intravenously to induce anesthesia. These are the medications that make it possible to place an endotracheal tube to establish access to the patient’s airway. Some medications used for induction can sting badly if they are not delivered directly into the bloodstream (perivascular), and yet another reason why an IVC is so important.
Before and After
General Induction (Anesthetic Induction, Anesthesia Initial, Gas Anesthesia Initial, Intubation)
Immediately after anesthetic medications are administered intravenously, the patient is considered “under anesthesia” and can no longer rely on voluntary bodily functions or thermoregulate (maintain their body temperature). Part of remedying this is to place an endotracheal tube or ET tube. Not only does this make it possible for the anesthetist to have more control over the patient’s anesthetic depth and oxygen rate, but it prevents the copious amounts of water used during a dental procedure from entering the trachea or lungs.
General Anesthesia (Gas Anesthesia, Inhalation Anesthesia, /0.25hr, Per Quarter Hour, Per 1/4hour, Per 1/4hr)
Usually quantified by time, this charge is to account for the anesthetic gasses (inhalants) that are used to control the patient’s level of anesthesia or anesthetic depth. It takes expertise to be able to maintain a proper level of anesthesia.
An Abscess in a Maxillary Canine Tooth
Surgical Monitor (Anesthesia Monitor, Technician Monitor, Monitoring, Anesthetist)
A veterinary technician monitors the patient’s heart rate, respiratory rate, the amount of oxygen in their blood, blood pressure, the amount of carbon dioxide entering and exiting the patient via their own breath, temperature, oxygen flow rate, anesthetic gas percentage, and fluid administration. Basically, a medical team member keeps things running smoothly (and avoids complications) for your pooch or meow meow until it wakes up.
These are just some parameters that a technician monitors and maintains during a typical procedure requiring anesthesia. If anything goes wrong or the patient needs more assistance than a typical healthy patient, then the number of capabilities needed from the technician skyrocket.
Fluid Administration (Fluid Therapy or IV Fluids)
Fluids are often administered intravenously during anesthesia for several reasons, one of which is to maintain adequate blood pressure.
Dental Scaling & Polishing (Dental Cleaning)
A technician performs dental scaling with an ultrasonic scaler and a variety of other tools to remove built-up plaque, tartar, and calculus. All the tools can cause potential harm to the patient if used incorrectly, therefore training and experience are required for proper cleaning and safety.
The teeth will also be polished to remove any microscopic scratches made to the enamel by scaling. These tiny scratches are the perfect places for future bacteria to call home which leads to plaque and tartar build-up, so that surface needs to be smoothed out.
Dental, Tooth or Mouth Mapping
After cleaning, the technician evaluates every tooth from all angles and records any diseased teeth or other problems in the mouth. This is then presented to the veterinarian.
Full Mouth, Individual, Dental X-Rays (X-Ray, Radiographs, or Rads)
A trained technician takes radiographs of the teeth to evaluate the roots beneath the gum line. A veterinarian then evaluates the radiographs and determines if any teeth need to be repaired or removed.
Nerve Block (Dental Block or Local Anesthesia)
A numbing agent is injected into precise locations around nerves to cause numbness where a tooth needs to be removed. This prevents pain while under anesthesia, which can influence the patient’s anesthetic depth and comfort in recovery.
Surgical Dental Extractions, Pulling Teeth, Removing a Tooth
The phrase "pulling teeth" has always made me cringe/slightly nauseous. A "surgical extraction" is the correct terminology when discussing the removal of teeth from an animal. There are some single-rooted teeth (depending on how loose they are) that can be extracted by gently pulling on them. This is rare and is usually only found in a severely diseased mouth. The rest of the dental extractions consist of making an incision in the gums and using high-speed drills/handpieces as well as a variety of tools to extract a tooth successfully. An unsuccessful extraction (part of a diseased tooth is left under the gum line) can result in further inflammation, pain, and infection.
This procedure is typically billed by the amount of time that is required to remove the tooth. A cat’s incisor (a single-rooted tooth) is simpler to extract than a Rottweiler’s largest premolar (a three-rooted tooth).
The hole left behind once a tooth is extracted needs to be closed. The suture that is used is dissolvable and must be sutured in a certain pattern to prevent the rapid spread of bacteria throughout the incision site.
Post-Op or Postoperative Medications (Meds-To-Go-Home)
Your pet may not require prescription medications to be sent home if there were no major extractions performed. If you do get sent home with some medications for your pet, they may include an antibiotic, a pain and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and possibly additional pain control if the extractions were extensive.
A special diet may be recommended for you to purchase, but usually, soaking your pet’s normal diet in some warm water prior to feeding for a few days is sufficient.
Why Cost May Actually Reflect Quality of Care
Quality of care is the factor that is the most important, by far, when considering a veterinary hospital before they do anything to your furry family member. Maybe the practice that you have been taking Scooter for his entire life is accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association or AAHA. But what does that mean?
Unlike in human medicine, there aren’t the same laws that require certain standards for veterinary practices to uphold and discourage rodeos out the back. AAHA is the only nationwide organization that can accredit veterinary hospitals, signifying that a very high standard of medicine is practiced.
How does this relate to your dental bill? Well, your hospital must meet certain standards such as the number of anesthetic parameters that they monitor, the quality of equipment used, and the training of the staff (plus many, many others). By taking your pet to an AAHA accredited hospital, you know exactly the starting point for the level of care that your animal will receive.
If you were quoted a cheap dental of $50 by the guy in the alley holding a wrench and a frying pan, that is not AAHA-accredited. That’s great and all, but would your animal really be healthier afterward? Without accreditation by AAHA, you have no way of knowing what level or quality of care your animal will receive, and guess what? Your animal cannot report back with the details.
Find more about AAHA now by visiting its website at AAHA.org.
Fear-Free Handling and Techniques
There is yet another standard to consider when choosing a hospital to perform your pet’s dental cleaning: fear-free. Fear-free is a similar accrediting process to AAHA except that it evaluates the treatment of the emotional state of the animals rather than the level of technical skills and quality of equipment. Fear-free is a training program that bases its message from the animal’s point of view. These hospitals will never stuff your animal in a cage, wrestle them for procedures or neglect their emotional needs. Find out more about Fear Free by visiting their website fearfreepets.com.
Because your hospital is both fear-free and AAHA-accredited, your pet’s dental bill will be higher than $50 (a frying pan will not be used as anesthesia, and your pet will be treated as a family member). This is a big deal because, as I mentioned before, your dog or cat can’t tell you all the details about their treatment in the back.
Okay, so my pet was treated well. Does it really matter in the long run? Ummm... yes. Fear, anxiety, and stress, as well as substandard dental work, can delay healing and cause severe reactions such as diarrhea, vomiting, etc. Imagine the last time that you were so anxious, so stressed, and SO frightened that you started pooping everywhere, couldn’t hold anything down, and bit your best friend. How much would you pay to avoid all of that?
Why Does My Pet Need Anesthesia for a Tooth-Cleaning?
Why does my pet have to be under anesthesia? Can’t you just do it while Scooter is awake? Nope, no, nuh-uh. Naughty! No way.
When you go to get your annual teeth cleaning, you sit down in a chair that you don’t usually sit in, have someone flash a bright light in your eyes (but it’s okay because you get to wear those ultra-fancy sunglasses), and are expected to stay still and, “Open and say aah." This is all while some stranger digs around in your mouth with strange devices that pinch, spray water, make a whole lot of noise, and don’t taste so great. No dog or cat is going to be able to hang. Also, when something is sensitive or uncomfortable, there is no warning, and your dog or cat might shut its mouth on my hand or on my tools and possibly injure themselves.
My personal dog has been conditioned from an early age to tolerate some hand scaling—not enough for a full cleaning; this kind of dog is the exception to the rule and extremely abnormal. If your pet was trained well enough to allow this and you’ve been brushing his teeth twice daily, you wouldn’t need a dental now, would ya?
I could go on and on. The answer to the anesthesia question is pretty straight forward: Your dog needs to stay still and not bite me so that I can fix the dental disease in his or her mouth.
Consider Brushing Your Dog's Teeth
Only 2% of owners brush their pet's teeth once daily; twice a day is recommended. I don't even do that. I don't know anybody that does. Something is better than nothing, though! Brushing at home is the only sure way to avoid an anesthetic dental cleaning in your pet's life.
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.