Anesthesia-free dentistry is available in many locations, from pet stores to grooming facilities to mobile vans. This hand scaling involves using a small sharp instrument to remove tartar and plaque from the surface of the pets’ teeth while it sits in the lap of the person performing the process. It is tempting to dog and cat owners to have this service performed on their pets as it is less expensive than the dentistry services provided by veterinarians and it does not require general anesthesia. Veterinarians, for the most part, do not recommend this service of a number of reasons.
First, cleaning the teeth without anesthesia is ineffective at detecting or treating dental disease. The lack of anesthesia prevents the provider from scaling underneath the gumline where the majority of disease occurs. Removing the tartar from the visible surface of the tooth is cosmetically pleasing, but does little to prevent periodontal disease which leads to discomfort and tooth loss. In addition, the inside surface of the tooth cannot be scaled or polished in an awake patient no matter how skilled the person performing the scaling is. Veterinarians use sonic or ultrasonic scalers which are designed to clean under the gumline. Any form of scaling etches the surface of the tooth which then needs to be polished to prevent plaque from adhering to the tooth surface too quickly. Most hand scaling is followed by ineffective polishing. Pockets between the teeth and gums cannot be cleaned or measured and dental radiographs (x-rays) cannot be taken to evaluate the tooth root and surrounding bone so painful tooth abscesses go undetected.
Secondly, anesthesia-free dentistry may be harmful to your pet. Scaling of the teeth in an un-anesthetized patient can cause pain. Cats develop a type of tooth defect called tooth resorption and scaling a resorbing tooth will be extremely painful to that cat. The sharp scaling instrument used can cause trauma to the gums or tongue if the pet moves during the process. We have seen lacerations caused by scaling that require surgical repair, and we had one dog die due to an abscess that formed under the tongue secondary to trauma that occurred during hand-scaling. If an animal inhales a piece of tartar or calculus during the process it can develop pneumonia. The airway and lungs are protected by a breathing tube during anesthesia which prevents this from occurring.
Lastly, the practice is illegal unless provided by or directly supervised by a licensed veterinarian. Most anesthesia-free dentistry is performed outside of a veterinary hospital without any veterinary supervision.
The best thing that you can do for your pets teeth is to brush them regularly to prevent tartar from forming in the first place. Use dental chews, treats and diets on a daily basis. Have your veterinarian examine your pet yearly including the teeth and if a teeth cleaning is recommended, have it done properly by your veterinarian.