Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: November 1, 2022 by Crystal Uys


You may have heard about anesthesia-free dental cleaning from a pet store, groomer or even your veterinarian. Anesthesia-free dentistry involves scaling (scraping off tartar) a cat’s teeth without putting the cat under anesthesia. Sounds too good to be true? That’s because it is.

What happens during an anesthesia free dental cleaning?

Anesthesia-free dentistry is essentially a cosmetic procedure. A sharp instrument is used to scrape tartar and plaque from the visible part of the teeth. Your cat’s teeth may appear whiter after the procedure, but it is impossible to clean beneath the gum line without anesthesia, and that’s where the bacteria that cause bad breath, periodontal disease and damage to roots and supporting bone structure occur.

“Unfortunately, Anesthesia Free Dental Cleaning has been marketed as an attractive alternative that touts the same benefits as professional scaling without the cost and risks,” says Dr. Thomas P. Chamberlain, MS, DVM, a Diplomate of the American Veterinary College of Dental Surgeons and owner of Animal Dentistry and Oral Surgery in Leesburg, VA.

Why anesthesia-free dental care can be harmful

When humans get their teeth cleaned by a dental hygienist, the process takes about an hour. Does anybody really believe that a cat, who will most likely have considerably more dental disease and pain than a human, will allow a stranger to poke around her mouth with a sharp instrument without sedation?

Without the use of an endotracheal tube during anesthesia, there’s also the possibility of your cat aspirating tartar and other debris that is produced during the cleaning. Additionally, the procedures can launch bacteria into the bloodstream, causing infections in organs like the heart and kidneys.

Dental x-rays and a thorough dental exam are critical

A thorough dental procedure includes examination of every single tooth, probing for tooth mobility, and dental radiographs – and none of that can be done without anesthesia. 60% of the tooth is located below the gum line. Cats can’t tell us where the pain comes from. By not performing a thorough dental assessment, cats, who are masters at masking pain, will continue to suffer in silence.

“In spite of claims some individuals make, it is technically impossible for anyone to perform a complete, comprehensive and thorough oral assessment on our companion animal patients without the assistance of general anesthesia,” says Dr. Chamberlain. “As a corollary, proper treatment of any oral problem is even less possible to perform in a conscious patient.”

Just say no to anesthesia-free dental cleanings

I believe that proponents of anesthesia-free dental cleanings prey on cat guardian’s fear of anesthesia. While anesthesia is never without risk, anesthetic protocols have advanced and can be tailored even to the needs of older animals or animals with a medical condition. Proponents of anesthesia-free dentistry also frequently cite cost as a reason, arguing that some dental cleaning is better than none at all. While it is true that veterinary dental care can be expensive, it’s part of the responsibility of being a cat parent. I believe that anesthesia-free dental cleanings are not only a waste of money, they are doing a terrible disservice to the health of our cats.

Image via the American Veterinary Dental College

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14 Comments on Anesthesia Free Dental Cleaning May Do More Harm Than Good

  1. This is an interesting post. I always wondered why, years ago, scraping teeth was a normal part of a wellness visit, but then teeth cleaning became a huge industry in itself. Cat care has come a long way!
    My cats have all had cleaning with anesthesia. There’s a wellness exam and blood tests first. My older cat had an ultrasound to make sure his heart was strong enough to weather the procedure. There is no substitute for a good vet and preventive care!

    • Maggie, how did you afford it, or did you have pet insurance? Does it cover anethesia and dental cleaning?

  2. We had our kitty, Doodles, in for her routine wellness exam on March 3rd of this year. As part of the exam the vet checked Doodles teeth and said she needed her teeth cleaned and so I made an appointment for her to get her teeth cleaned at the beginning of April. When I got home a short while later my husband said that the vet clinic had called and that they had just had a cancellation and could get Doodles in the next morning if we wanted. Seeing no reason to put it off, we scheduled her cleaning for the next day.

    The next day I got a phone call from the doctor saying that while cleaning Doodles teeth, she noticed that her bottom jaw was very “mobile” and that they wanted my permission to do an x-ray to see what was going on. Long story short, Doodles had a broken mandible and if she hadn’t been under anesthesia it would not have been diagnosed as obviously the vet the day before, who did a thorough exam, did not detect the broken jaw. Cats are very good at hiding their pain and we had NO idea that there was anything wrong with her. To this day we have no idea how this happened but, without anesthesia, who knows how much longer she would have suffered before her broken mandible was diagnosed.

    • Cathryn (wow, what an interesting way to spell it), didn’t they do an x-ray in the exam? BTW, having an ultrasound is a good idea, but here it costs $480 or so plus exam (which is about $60 and up), plus a follow up exam to tell you what the ultrasound found, Plus cost of x-rays, etc.,etc. Dental work with anesthesia is very, very expensive, over $1,000…

    • Yet another reason why anesthesia is necessary for proper diagnosis – and also a testament to how well cats hide pain! All my best to Doodles for a quick recovery.

  3. All of my kitties have had dental work with anesthesia (two of them cannot even undergo their semiannual physical exams with bloodwork without being sedated as they are so freaked out) and one of them had a sarcoma discovered under her tongue which would probably not have been discovered otherwise.

  4. Actually, there is a lady who goes around to various pet stores and does this. Some of our cats are elderly, so we are afraid to have anesthesia. That and the cost are a major factor for people not doing it. Some vets will do an exam and x-rays, another option. Plus, we have our teeth scraped without anesthesia, and you can have Orajel-like stuff put on the gums beforehand. Tell vets to lower their prices, and we will take our younger cats there, otherwise, we won’t!

  5. Dear Ingrid,

    This article needs a corollary about what options ARE available for those of us who are hesitant to anesthetize our cats again after a tragic event.

    Eight years ago, I adopted two sisters (Nola and Velma) who were diagnosed with FORLs after their dental cleaning at age 3. Both cats had multiple teeth pulled at that time with an explanation that over time, they would probably lose more teeth due to this disease. Neither Nola or Velma had any problems while under anesthesia or post operations, until last year.

    Having had 3 procedures over 5 years, I had no concern about the level of care my fur-babies were receiving, including the anesthesia. So on Velma’s last visit for teeth cleaning, I was devastated when she died at the vet’s office within a couple of hours after an apparent successful cleaning and removal of one tooth. According to my vet (who I trusted absolutely for over 20 years), Velma died due to cardiac issues that were never caught during regular annual exams. A biopsy of the heart confirmed “underlying hypertropic cardidomyopathy” which brings me to my question:

    What is the likelihood of Nola (Velma’s sister) to suffer a similar demise? This question has not been adequately answered by my vet or articles online. Should Nola continue to be anesthetized to remove her remaining FORLs when a potential threat of cardiomyopathy may take her life? I do not want Nola to suffer but I’m concerned she may have underlining health issue like her sister Velma.

    Thank you for any options that may be available as I look for a dental specialist who can ensure a successful outcome.

    Thank you very much for this excellent blog!

    • I’m so sorry about Velma, Tricia. A good veterinary dentist will be able to detect any potential heart conditions, or other conditions that may increase anesthesia risk, and proceed accordingly. Dr. Chamberlain, who is quoted in this article, and who is absolutely amazing dentist I use for my own cats, requires a cardiac ultrasound prior to anesthetizing any cat if he hears a heart murmur during his pre-procedure exam. Once he has the results of the scan, he will determine whether it’s safe for the cat to undergo anesthesia, and tailor anesthetic protocols accordingly. In your case, I would probably have a cardiac ultrasound performed on Nola prior to any dental procedures, even if there are no murmurs present, just to be on the safe side. There’s also a blood test that can indicate the potential for heart disease, which I would also recommend for Nola:

      Unfortunately, FORLS are extremely painful for cats, and because of that, they present a quality of life issue. I know it’s a difficult decision, and I can completely understand just how nerve-wracking it will be for you if you decide to go ahead with dental surgery for Nola.

      I hope this helps!

      • I took my mom’s cat in for a Wellness exam, paid extra, etc. No problems. Then she threw a blood clot, and another, and then passed away. The emergency vet said she had a heart murmer. This was NOT detected by the exam. So not all heart problems can be diagnosed with an exam.

        • I’m sorry about your kitty, Nancy. It takes a skilled veterinarian to detect heart murmurs, and they can also vary from one exam to the next. Here’s more information on heart murmurs:

  6. I’ve had my Ben’s teeth cleaned twice w/out anesthesia. He had no issues and appeared to be very happy with me afterwards. I get the point about under the gums and hadn’t really thought about that before this article. But forgive me for being skeptical, but the AVDC has a vested interest in steering pets owners to their members.

  7. Your timing of this article regarding dental procedure with or without anesthesia was purr-fect! My new rescue cat Sally will be having her teeth cleaned with anesthesia thanks to YOUR article. We thank you so much, keep up the good work.

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