Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning: Does It Work?

It’s natural to have concerns about general anesthesia, whether for ourselves or for our beloved dogs.

After all, no matter how young and healthy the patient, there is always some associated risk. For this reason, anesthesia-free dental cleaning for dogs has become more and more popular. And with no anesthesia, the cost of cleaning Fido’s or Fluffy’s teeth is significantly reduced- clearly another attractive feature.

Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning

Sounds good

Anesthesia-free dental cleaning for your dog sounds rather tempting, doesn’t it?

Before you jump on this bandwagon I encourage you to consider whether or not this option truly serves your dog’s or your cat’s best health interest.

I’m a big believer in regularly brushing your pet’s teeth at home.

Is it beneficial?

Thoroughly removing dental tartar on an awake animal, however, is a whole ‘nother ball game! 

Even with highly skilled hands and a super-cooperative animal, it is impossible to successfully and painlessly remove tartar from underneath the gum lines and along the inner surfaces of the teeth (the surfaces in closest proximity to the tongue).

And, if the end result of cleaning is anything other than polished, super smooth, dental surfaces, tartar will quickly re-accumulate. 

Anesthesia-free dental cleaning definitely gives the outer surfaces of the teeth a cleaner look. While this may be pleasing to your eye, there is no significant benefit to your dog’s health. For all of these reasons, if and when dental cleaning is warranted for your dog or cat, I strongly encourage that it be performed with the aid of general anesthesia.

Some caveats

Now, there are some caveats that accompany my recommendation.

For some animals, the risks associated with general anesthesia clearly outweigh the benefits, for example, a dog or cat with advanced heart disease or kidney failure. Even for the healthiest animals, general anesthesia should be accompanied by careful monitoring of the patient’s status at all times. A list of important questions to ask your veterinarian about general anesthesia can be found in Speaking for Spot within the chapter called “Important Questions to Ask Your Vet…and How to Ask Them.”

The American Veterinary Dental College also advises against anesthesia-free dental cleaning. Here is an excerpt from their recently drafted position statement:

Owners of dogs naturally are concerned when anesthesia is required for their dogs. However, performing nonprofessional dental scaling on an unanesthetized dog is inappropriate for the following reasons:

  1. Dental tartar firmly adheres to the surface of the teeth. Scaling to remove tartar is accomplished using ultrasonic and sonic power scalers, plus hand instruments that must have a sharp working edge to be used effectively. Even slight head movement by the patient could result in injury to the oral tissues of the patient, and the operator may be bitten when the patient reacts.
  2. Professional dental scaling includes scaling the surfaces of the teeth both above and below the gingival margin (gum line), followed by dental polishing. The most critical part of a dental scaling procedure is scaling the tooth surfaces that are within the gingival pocket (the subgingival space between the gum and the root), where periodontal disease is active. Because the patient cooperates, dental scaling of human teeth performed by a professional trained in the procedures can be completed successfully without anesthesia. However, access to the subgingival area of every tooth is impossible in an unanesthetized canine or feline patient. Removal of dental tartar on the visible surfaces of the teeth has little effect on a pet’s health and provides a false sense of accomplishment. The effect is purely cosmetic.
  3. Inhalation anesthesia using a cuffed endotracheal tube provides three important advantages- the cooperation of the patient with a procedure it does not understand, elimination of pain resulting from examination and treatment of affected dental tissues during the procedure, and protection of the airway and lungs from accidental aspiration.
  4. A complete oral examination, which is an important part of a professional dental scaling procedure, is not possible in an unanesthetized patient. The surfaces of the teeth facing the tongue cannot be examined, and areas of disease and discomfort are likely to be missed.”

How do you feel about anesthesia-free versus anesthetized dental cleaning?

Related articles:
Dental Health in Dogs

Further reading:

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Dr. Nancy Kay

Dr. Nancy Kay wanted to become a veterinarian for just about as long as she can remember. Her veterinary degree is from Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, and she completed her residency training in small animal internal medicine at the University of California-Davis Veterinary School. Dr. Kay is a board-certified specialist in the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine and published in several professional journals and textbooks. She lectures professionally to regional and national audiences, and one of her favorite lecture topics is communication between veterinarians and their clients. Since the release of her book, Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life, Dr. Kay has lectured extensively and written numerous magazine articles on the topic of medical advocacy and veterinarian/client communication. She was a featured guest on the popular National Public Radio show, Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Dr. Kay's newest book is called, Your Dog's Best Health: A Dozen Reasonable Things to Expect From Your Vet. Her award-winning blog, "Spot Speaks" is posted weekly ( Dr. Kay was selected by the American Animal Hospital Association to receive the 2009 Hill�s Animal Welfare and Humane Ethics Award. This award is given annually to a veterinarian or nonveterinarian who has advanced animal welfare through extraordinary service or by furthering humane principles, education, and understanding. Dr. Kay was selected as the 2011 Leo K. Bustad Companion Animal Veterinarian of the Year, an award presented every year by the American Veterinary Medical Association to a veterinarian whose work exemplifies and promotes the human-animal bond. Dr. Kay has received several awards from the Dog Writer�s Association of America. Dr. Kay's personal life revolves around her husband (also a veterinarian), her three children (none of whom aspire to be veterinarians) and their menagerie of four-legged family members. When she's not writing, she spends her spare moments in the garden or riding atop her favorite horse. Dr. Kay and her husband reside in Hendersonville, North Carolina.

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