You may have seen advertisements online, in pet supply stores, or at grooming businesses, offering teeth cleaning services that are performed without anesthesia on cats and dogs. On the surface, these services seem to offer a quick, painless, and low-cost option for dental care, without the worry over anesthesia risks. After all, we humans undergo dental cleanings all the time without sedation. The tartar is removed, the teeth look cleaner, and therefore our cat must be healthier, right? But have we really addressed our cat’s dental health needs?
Some important questions we need to answer:
1. Is a comprehensive examination performed to determine your cat’s oral health needs?
A complete oral examination, including the inside surfaces of the teeth, the gingiva, tongue and throat, is not possible in an awake patient. Most cats very much resent and resist having their faces touched and their mouths opened, finding these events highly stressful.We can’t ask them to open wide, move their tongue, or tolerate instruments probing their teeth and gums. Evaluation for oral and periodontal disease must to be performed by trained veterinary professionals who can recognize abnormalities besides tartar buildup and develop specific treatment plans for each individual cat’s needs. In the United States, pet dental services can legally only be provided by licensed veterinarians and trained veterinary nurses and technicians who are supervised directly by veterinarians. People performing the anesthesia-free cleaning procedure may call themselves “pet dental hygienists” or “pet dental technicians” but there are no formal training programs or regulation of these services, and there is no certification or registration necessary.
2. Isn’t the cleaning the same as that performed by veterinarians?
Dental tartar is very firmly adhered to the teeth. Ultrasonic scalers or metal hand instruments which have a sharp edge are necessary to fully remove tartar. If the cat moves during the procedure, the scaling instruments could injure the oral tissues, and pain may cause the cat to fight back and bite the operator. The anesthesia-free procedure is similar to getting a cosmetic whitening, the results may look pretty, but there is no benefit to our cats when their periodontal disease is left untreated. Instruments used in anesthesia-free cleanings are generally softer, and cannot effectively remove all tartar.
Some who provide this service actually use an ultrasonic scaler on the pet’s teeth. Imagine the sound of your dentist’s ultrasonic scaler or drill, just two or three inches from your cat’s ears, and how he or she would react to that stress.
3. Does removal of tartar from the tooth crown provide a complete cleaning?
Professional dental scaling includes cleaning both above and below the gum line. The gingival pocket areas between the gum and tooth are not accessible when the patient is awake, and scaling these areas causes pain. The tooth surfaces facing the tongue cannot be cleaned when the patient is awake. We humans can cooperate with our dental professional to allow access to these areas, but cats cannot provide this level of cooperation. Removal of tartar on the outer surface may give a good cosmetic effect, but does not take care of important problems which have a much greater impact on the cat’s health and comfort.
4. What if my cat has other conditions besides tartar buildup?
Cats frequently have serious problems which are common for them and which cannot addressed by removing tartar.
Feline tooth resorption causes damage to the cementum, dentin, crown and roots of cat’s teeth, and affect at least 60% of cats at some time in their lives. Touching these lesions during the tooth cleaning process causes pain! While tooth resorption may be visible on a tooth’s crown, radiographs (X-rays) are necessary to detect lesions below the gum line and in the tooth roots. These teeth cannot be repaired, and the crown or entire tooth must be removed to stop pain. Cleaning the teeth does nothing to address this painful disease.
Feline stomatitis is a condition of severe inflammation or ulceration of the oral epithelium (or mouth lining) and can be debilitatingly painful for cats. Large areas of the oral cavity may be covered with raw, irritated surface, but these areas are not visible if we just lift the cat’s lips to look at the teeth. This condition requires aggressive treatment, and cats may need to have teeth extracted to cure the problem. Removal of tartar from the teeth will not improve this condition.
Fang or canine teeth are often fractured in cats. Radiographs are needed to evaluate these teeth to determine if extraction or root canal therapy is needed.Â Examination under sedation or anesthesia is necessary to allow full inspection of broken teeth. It is never OK to leave teeth with broken crowns in the mouth, they are painful, are sensitive to hot and cold, and eventually can abscess. Broken teeth either need to be removed or undergo root canal therapy.
5. Anesthesia is risky, isn’t it?
Anesthesia has become much safer with the use of modern gas anesthesia and monitoring equipment. While anesthesia can never be completely and 100% free of any risk, our veterinarians thoroughly evaluate each cat to identify potential risk factors and health conditions which need to be addressed before anesthesia is performed. We always evaluate organ function with preanesthetic blood tests, and other screening tests are determined for every individual. We use the most up-to-date anesthetic techniques, comprehensive patient monitoring by our professionally-trained staff, and aggressive pain prevention methods to ensure the safest and most comfortable procedure possible.
Inhalation anesthesia uses a cuffed tube in the cat’s airway to deliver gas anesthetic, and provides three primary advantages. The cat does not experience the stress and discomfort of a procedure he or she needs, but cannot understand. Pain which arises from the examination and treatment procedures is eliminated.Â The cat’s airway is protected from aspirating tartar pieces, debris, bacteria and rinsing fluid. Keeping this material out of the lungs prevents infection that can cause pneumonia.
The risk of frightening or injuring your cat by attempting a dental procedure without anesthesia is definite. And we are not doing your cat any favors in limiting thorough evaluation and appropriate treatment of oral pathology because we are trying to avoid a properly monitored and safe anesthesia.
6. Where can I find more information about oral health care for my cat?
Read our articles on our dental services: Dental and Periodontal Surgery Under Anesthesia and A Guide to Comparing Veterinary Dental Services. The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) has general information for veterinary patients. Please visit their website at http://www.avdc.org/dentalscaling.html. The Veterinary Oral Health Council also has information on effective products for oral disease prevention.Â Their website is www.VOHC.org.