One of the most frequent sentiments that we hear from clients is that they are scared of anesthesia. In many cases, this fear is the reason that they have delayed pursuing treatment for their pets. The irony in these cases is that eventually, the oral disease can become so severe and take away from “quality of life” so much that they have no choice, and by this time, the pet is older and the treatments are generally more involved and expensive. While it’s true that anesthesia does pose some risks for animals(as in humans), that risk is minimal, and should not be a huge source of anxiety or a reason for delaying appropriate treatment.
As a board certified specialist, we often see older animals and pets with pre-existing diseases(heart murmurs, kidney disease, cancer, immune system disorders, etc..). These animals, like all animals, deserve to live a life free from the pain and discomfort that can accompany dental disease. Age is NOT a limiting factor in the decision of whether or not we pursue treatment on a pet. We are interested in providing all the animals in our care with a functional, comfortable oral cavity that is set up for long term success. Our perspective is that for as long as you have your pet, they should enjoy as much quality of life as possible.
A complete oral examination, with diagnostics such as dental x-rays, can only be completed with the aid of general anesthesia. Without it, many things would be missed, and proper treatments cannot be carried out. The goal is always to tailor the anesthesia to the individual animal and to minimize or eliminate the risks. Towards this end, we start with a complete physical examination on every animal.
The Truth about Anesthesia-Free Dentistry
There has been a growing, and dangerous, trend towards dental cleanings performed without anesthesia. Proponents of this technique make the claim that this is a safe alternative to anesthesia for dental care. In fact, this can be a very dangerous and stressful procedure for your pet. Without the aid of general anesthesia, which is extremely safe, even for older pets, there simply is no possibility of examining all surfaces of the teeth. The soft tissues and back of the mouth are not able to be examined without anesthesia either. A necessary part of the dental examination includes probing around each and every tooth, which is impossible to do in an awake animal. Dental x-rays, which can elucidate disease in 1/3 of all animals with normal looking teeth, are not possible without the aid of anesthesia. When it comes to the actual cleaning, again all surfaces of the tooth can not be accessed while the animal is awake. Further, attempting to do so requires the use of sharp instruments that can cause pain when used. If your pet happens to squirm while being restrained for the “non-anesthetic dental”, there is also the risk of lacerating the soft tissues if they do so while the instruments are in their mouth. With dental disease, the plaque mineralizes into calculus, which we can see on the teeth, but it is also moving beneath the gum line. This is the essence of periodontal disease, and is where the destruction of periodontitis occurs, leading to gum recession, root exposure, bone loss, and mobile teeth. It is these areas, underneath the gums, that require the most attention, and this is simply not possible if an animal is awake during the procedure. Cleaning the crowns of the teeth(the visible portion of the teeth) is nothing more than a cosmetic procedure, and can give a false sense of security that your pet’s teeth are clean and disease free, when in reality, the periodontal disease has not been addressed. Finally, it’s important to protect the airways when performing dental procedures. This reduces the risk of your pet aspirating dental calculus into their lungs, which can cause chronic inflammation and respiratory issues.