Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: February 7, 2023 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
About the author
Ingrid King is an award-winning author, former veterinary hospital manager, and veterinary journalist who is passionate about cats.