How Do Anesthesia-Free Dentals Work for Dogs?

Keeping your dog's teeth healthy requires a trip to the vet.
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Anesthetizing a dog for a medical procedure can be a concern for dog owners. Dental cleanings generally require anesthesia, both for the safety of the pet undergoing the procedure and the veterinarian performing the procedure. Some grooming shops and pet boutiques claim to offer anesthesia-free dental cleanings. There are also companies that visit veterinary offices and perform NADs on pets that a veterinarian identifies as eligible. Not all experts agree that NADs work. Understanding whether this procedure is a good option for your dog requires careful consideration of the science behind the technique and the potential pros and cons for the patient.

The Basic Premise

The general idea behind anesthesia-free dental work is that a dog’s teeth can be cleaned without the need for general anesthesia. In practice, this means the dog is gently restrained while visible tartar and other debris are scaled off the surface of the teeth. Proponents of the procedure say that they are able to clean below the gum line, thus curbing periodontal disease. However, opponents insist that it is impossible to properly scale and polish a dog's teeth below the gum line without sedation, and that attempting to do so can cause harm to the dog's dental tissues, as well as the handler. This service is often advertised as an alternative to traditional dentals, but according to veterinary dentists should not at all be considered an equally beneficial or effective process.

Certification Considerations

According to the American Veterinary Dental College, only licensed veterinarians can practice dentistry on animals. Individuals offering dental services to dogs without veterinary licensure may in fact be in violation of state law. In August 2013, the American Animal Hospital Association mandated that dental cleanings be performed under general anesthesia with the pet intubated with a breathing tube, in part to prevent the release of harmful bacteria and calculus into the pet's lungs. Veterinary clinics certified by AAHA found to be performing non-anesthetic dentals could be in danger of losing their accreditation.

What It Addresses

Anesthesia-free dental cleanings will, at best, handle visible stains or debris on the teeth. Unfortunately, problems with teeth usually run much deeper than what you can see, and clean-looking teeth may in fact still have serious periodontal disease. According to Dr. Steven Holmstrom of the Animal Dental Clinic in San Carlos, Calif., anesthesia-free procedures completely miss plaque and calculus below the gum line. In other words, anesthesia-free procedures may make your dog’s teeth prettier, but offer no tangible health benefit and may allow disease processes, infections or other periodontal issues to be overlooked.

Why Vets Recommend Anesthesia

While it’s true that complications can arise with anesthesia, it's is rare and veterinarians overwhelmingly recommend traditional dental cleanings until evidence-based research is done to show the influences of NADs on pet's health and well being. Cleaning under the gum line is both necessary and uncomfortable, and it requires a high degree of accuracy that's not possible when the patient is awake, say opponents. Additionally, polishing the teeth after scaling is a necessary step to prevent further build-up in the area and is also poorly tolerated by animals. Finally, it’s impossible to get an idea of your dog’s dental health without X-rays and a full below-the-gums examination.