Is A Professional Dental Cleaning Important – What about Anesthesia- Free Dentals?

Written by Dr. Jeffrey Evans, Medical Director,Boston Animal Hospital

Periodontal disease is the most common clinical disease we veterinarians see in companion animals and is oftentimes overlooked and undertreated by pet owners. Frequently, by the time our clients come to us to specifically ask about it, it can be too late. If preventative measures aren’t put in place, the large majority of our pets are going to have some degree of periodontal disease by age three – the most recent statistics are 75% of cats and 85% of dogs. It’s important to be informed and know what questions to ask when speaking to your veterinarian – after all, if your pet is otherwise healthy, you’ll probably only get this chance once a year.   Let’s get started.

Dental disease is easy to miss, and there isn’t a lot of evidence that’s obvious to pet owners until it’s too late, which can lead to irreversible damage and, ultimately, loss of the affected teeth. Dogs with dental disease will still wag their tail and greet you at the door and be their happy selves around you.  Some will even go on without any overt symptoms at all – even with several loose or missing teeth.

Here is a list of myths I hear most frequently, so I’d like to go through these and set the record straight:

Myth – “Pet’s don’t need dental cleanings – their chew bones and dental treats are all they need.”

Answer – If you think of it – we brush our teeth twice a day, go to the dentist twice a year, and our dentists still manage to scrape our teeth for 20 minutes and shame us about how we’re not flossing enough… Animals don’t have that reliably unless the owner is doing their part at home to prevent it and getting them in for regular check-ups and professional dental cleanings.  

Myth – My pet doesn’t seem painful, therefore a dental is not necessary at this time.

Answer – Pets don’t always show that they are uncomfortable because most periodontal conditions are a gradual process, so the pain tolerance will continue to rise until one day it becomes unbearable, leaving a lot of these animals to suffer silently.

Myth – Brushing my pet’s teeth at their grooming appointment is enough, and if calculus builds up, I can just pick it off with my finger.

Answer – It’s important to note that brushing will not get off the tough, mineral form of tartar known as calculus, and you should never “pick” it off your pet’s teeth.  This can cause micro-fractures on the enamel, which in turn leaves more surface area for plaque to accumulate. Brushing should be done at least 3 times weekly.


Myth – Anesthetic-free dental cleanings (AFD’s) are safer and are just as effective as dental cleanings under anesthesia.

Answer – There is a lot of controversy among pet owners regarding this, but not much among veterinary professionals.  There are actually quite a lot of reasons why anesthesia-free dentals (AFDs) have higher risks and are less effective.  

  1. Because of the restraint involved and the use of sharp objects in both procedures, there is significant risk of damage and lacerations to the gums and tongue if the pet moves.
  2. During anesthesia- free dentals there is no airway protection like there is when your pet is intubated under general anesthesia, which raises the risk of aspiration pneumonia when bacteria and cleaning fluids are in the back of the mouth.  
  3. There is no way to take radiographs to look at disease below the gum line in an awake animal, leading to an incomplete examination of the periodontal spaces and improper assessment of disease.
  4. A thorough cleaning below the gum line in an awake animal is essentially impossible. The American Veterinary Medical Association has put out an official statement regarding AFD’s and included “…cleaning a companion animal’s teeth without general anesthesia is considered unacceptable and below the standard of care.”

So What Can I Do?

Know that periodontal disease is inevitable and be proactive.  I highly recommend that anytime you are looking for a dental product, be sure they have the Veterinary Oral Health Council stamp on them, or go to on your smartphone next time you are shopping and find their list of approved products.  There are lots of resources online to show you how to properly brush your pets teeth. That being said, brushing is the single best thing pet owners can do at home, but know that that is only half of the battle and speaking with your veterinarian and setting reasonable expectations will lead to a long and healthy life for your pet.

About Dr. Jeffrey Evan, Medical Director for Boston Animal Hospital

Dr. Evans found his passion for working with animals at a young age.  After growing up in West Des Moines, Iowa he moved to Colorado where he earned a Biology Degree before transferring to Cornell College where he earned a Bachelor’s of Special Studies in Biology with a focus in Animal Sciences.  He attended St. George’s University and was then clinically trained at the Ohio State University. He’s spent years in private practice working on the North Shore of Massachusetts and now is the Medical Director at Boston Animal Hospital in Boston’s South End.  He has a special interest in soft tissue surgery and dentistry and works with numerous dog and cat rescues around the state. When not helping animals, Dr. Evans can be found paddle boarding, kayaking or hanging out with his fiancée, Abby, and his rescue animals – a Pit Bull named Ollie and his two rescue cats, Charlie and Jackson.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.