By Christie Long
Several years before veterinary school, I worked at a small animal practice outside of Mobile, Ala.
When dogs had thick accumulations of tartar on their premolars, the technicians frequently used a plier-like tool to “crack” it, so that it flaked off. Owners were often impressed with this trick; after all, prior to the tartar removal, there had been only gray, yucky tartar, and now the tooth was visible.
Recently, the concept of anesthesia-free dental cleanings for pets has gained popularity. The idea is not so different from what happened at my first veterinary job: tartar is removed from the teeth of an awake patient.
I understand why owners are attracted to this idea. Proper dental care is expensive, and the idea of general anesthesia frightens many people.
But the reality is that this technique gives owners a false sense of security that their pet’s dental disease has been addressed. Much like cracking the tartar away from the teeth with pliers, the disease remains under the gumline, where you can’t see it.
Anybody who’s left cresent-shaped fingernail divots in the armrests of their dentist’s chair knows that dental cleanings are uncomfortable at best and downright painful at worst. But we sit still for it because we know it’s ultimately good for us.
As someone who expends a lot of energy every day trying to get animals to cooperate when they don’t necessarily want to, I can tell you that getting an animal to sit still, open wide and submit to a thorough cleaning, polishing and exam is impossible. And the operative word here is “thorough.” The most uncomfortable part of a dental is cleaning and scraping the tooth below the gingival margin, or gumline. It’s an extremely sensitive area, especially if the gums have recessed.
One of the things my technicians learned in school is how to do a thorough dental cleaning. After this is done, my job is to examine all of the surfaces of the tooth, the gum tissue, and the rest of the oral cavity for problems. Many times a tooth looks gorgeous with the tartar removed, but when I place the dental probe into the space between the gum and the tooth it sinks deeply into the pocket, revealing a detachment between the tooth and gum. This tooth is likely abscessed, and may need to be extracted.
Many times the only way to tell that a tooth is abscessed is to take an x-ray. This is something I am trained to perform and interpret, and again, it’s something no animal will tolerate while awake.
I appreciate that owners get nervous when their pets go under anesthesia. It’s not without risk, but done properly, it is safe, and it allows us to do what is necessary to treat dental disease.
Animals should have bloodwork and a full physical examination before undergoing anesthesia, to ensure that they are healthy. Monitoring should include oxygenation, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate, electrocardiogram, and temperature. And most importantly, the entire procedure should be performed under the supervision of a veterinarian.
Christie Long is a veterinarian at the VCA Animal Hospital in Fort Collins, CO. Long left her job in software sales in 2000 to travel for 13 months. Along the way, she was touched by the plight of the animals she saw and somewhere in the Nepalese Himalayas she vowed to return to school to become a veterinarian. While she often finds end-of-life situations heart-wrenching, she considers herself blessed to be called upon as a trusted adviser to families during difficult times. Dr. Long’s family includes her husband and travel partner, Wiley, their son, Wiley IV, their dogs Pancake and Gizmo and cats Sneaky and Sidh.