A nervous Labrador enters the veterinary hospital, tugging at the leash to go back out the door. Her owner approaches the desk, stating that Nelly has arrived for her dental cleaning. The client service representative checks her in and lets Nelly’s owner know that she can wait while the procedure is performed, or they can call her when she is ready for pickup. 

Nelly’s owner opts to wait in the lobby. After coaxing her scared pooch to follow the staff into the wet lab area with the dental equipment, she settles in to catch up on emails, unworried about her pet’s procedure. Since anesthesia isn’t used for this type of dental cleaning, it’s a simple, safe procedure for her pet, right?

Nelly, on the other hand, is panicking. She doesn’t understand why she can still smell her mom only a few yards away, but can’t see her. Seeing that Nelly is nervous, the staff team up for her dental cleaning. They back her into a corner, and one person straddles her and holds her head, while another gloves up and approaches Nelly’s face. 

Faced with this threatening approach and restrained in a headlock, Nelly’s anxiety mounts. As a team member holds her face tightly and pries open her lips to peek into her mouth, Nelly flings her head up, smacking the person. Realizing that this will not be a simple dental cleaning, more staff pile on, holding Nelly down. Whimpering and whining in fear, Nelly struggles to escape while sharp instruments scrape her teeth. As she flails, the scaling instruments slip and slice her gums in spots. 

After an intense 15-minute battle, the staff decide the teeth are as tartar-free as they can get them. Dragged by Nelly, they return to the lobby and discuss the procedure with her owner. 

“Was that my baby I could hear whining?” Nelly’s owner asks. The staff quickly reassure her that Nelly was indeed a nervous Nelly and was simply unsure about where her mom had gone. 

As Nelly shakes off to relieve her anxiety, strings of pink-tinged drool spatter the walls. Panting excessively from stress, Nelly lets her owner look into her gaping mouth, showing off her bleeding gums. Horrified that her beloved pet is bleeding, Nelly’s owner snatches her dog’s leash and storms out, vowing never to return. 

Why anesthesia is best for dental cleanings

Halloween may be over, but that tale is enough to send shivers down any pet owner’s spine. All too often, pets are anxious and stressed in a veterinary setting, and attempting to perform any procedure without a mild sedative results in increased fear and potential injury for the pet and the staff. We understand that anesthesia makes many pet owners nervous, but here are several reasons why we do not perform anesthesia-free dental cleanings:

  • Lack of pain control — When we undergo our own dental cleanings, our gums are naturally somewhat tender after a thorough scaling. The same holds true for our pets. If we’re scraping off plaque and tartar, probing under the gumline, and potentially extracting teeth, it’s a blessing to provide multimodal, modern pain control for pets. Your pet will feel significantly better if her oral pain is managed.

  • Lack of anxiolytics — People panic at the dentist, and now sedation dentistry has built a following. Asking your pet to sit still for the same procedure is asking too much. Some pets panic at the touch of a stethoscope, so imagine what happens when a dental instrument is scraping away inside a terrified pet’s mouth. Anesthesia is a relief for scared pets, and can soothe their worries while providing excellent pain and anxiety management.

  • Inability to take dental X-rays — It’s impossible for a pet to politely hold her mouth open while we work inside. Veterinary dental X-ray equipment and the shape of canine and feline mouths make dental X-rays more difficult than simply placing a tiny film inside the mouth and snapping a quick picture. Pets wriggle during standard X-rays and blur the radiographic image, rendering the X-ray unusable. Without anesthesia, we cannot take accurate X-rays and find hidden problems, such as tooth-root abscesses, decay, fractures, and bone loss, in your pet’s mouth.

  • Inability to clean under the gumline — Anesthesia-free dental cleanings touch only the tooth’s visible surface. Removing only the tartar from the crown ignores more than half the tooth that is buried below the gumline. Infection pockets often lurk below the gumline, creating abscesses and decay, and seeding bacteria into your pet’s bloodstream that can infect her heart, liver, and kidneys. Essentially, with anesthesia-free dental cleanings, less than half the job is performed, compared to dental cleanings under general anesthesia.

  • Inability to properly address oral problems — Imagine that your pet sustained a slab fracture on her large upper premolar after chewing on a delightful rock she discovered. When part of the tooth sheared off, the pulp and sensitive nerve were exposed, causing tremendous pain. That tooth cannot possibly be repaired or removed without anesthesia.

  • Increase of fear, anxiety, and stress for pets and people — Unfortunately, many pets do not appreciate the care their veterinary team provides. A new environment paired with strange people and smells can cause unease in the most mild-mannered pet. Needless to say, being forced to hold still while a stranger approaches in a threatening manner can skyrocket a pet’s heart rate and blood pressure. As the Fear Free initiative gains traction throughout veterinary medicine, we want to do our part to reduce fear, anxiety, and stress in our beloved patients. Seeing your pet suffer from these issues takes a huge emotional toll on our team, as well. It’s significantly less stressful for everyone if we can use anesthetic drugs to provide sedation and relaxation for our patients. 

To further discuss why we feel so strongly about the benefits that anesthesia provides for your pet’s dental care, give us a call