Dental disease is a really common problem in our cats and dogs and, understandably, many owners want help by caring for their pet’s teeth. Anaesthetic free dentals certainly sound appealing both in terms of costs, availability and perceived safety; but as is often the case many of their claims really are too good to be true. In this blog we’ll talk about why they can be a problem. And what you as an owner can do to try and maintain healthy teeth and gums in your furry friend.

What is dental disease?

When we talk about dental disease in our canine companions, we are usually talking about a range of issues which include a build-up of tartar leading to plaque, inflamed gums and tooth damage. There are certain individuals that seem more prone to dental disease; and certainly breeds such as greyhounds, Yorkshire terriers, dachshunds and brachycephalic dogs are overrepresented. As an owner, the signs you might notice include bad breath, dribbling, and a reluctance to eat if things get really bad. However, it’s important to remember that many dogs show very few signs. And for this reason regular checks both at home and with your vet or vet nurse are essential.

“A dental”

If the vet or nurse feels that your pet’s teeth and gums are diseased, then they will normally recommend a dental procedure under anaesthetic. Anaesthesia means that your pet’s teeth can be properly assessed; the teeth can be cleaned, both on the visible surface and below the gum lines; any teeth which are very badly affected can be removed; and the remaining teeth are often then polished to try and reduce the recurrence of the problem. This procedure will often be followed up with an appointment with a vet or nurse who will check your pet’s mouth. They will give you advice on how to prevent the problem from recurring.

So what is an “Anaesthetic-free dental”?

Many owners will have seen “anaesthetic-free” dentals advertised, often by local groomers and accompanied by clever photos showing the “before and after” photos. The dental work performed usually includes some basic removal of visible tartar and calculus and usually some polishing. There are several concerns regarding this type of treatment, and this is why it is generally not offered or recommended by trained veterinary professionals.

The dangers

If you have ever had your own teeth scaled and polished, you will know it can be an odd sensation. The machinery used is quite loud and it can often be uncomfortable, especially if your gums are sore. Many dogs find the experience stressful and frightening. Sadly, our pets’ teeth are often in worse condition than our own; removal of calculus and thick tartar can be quite painful. Large volumes of water need to be pumped through descaler machines in order that they don’t overheat and damage teeth. The water itself poses a risk of aspiration – where the fluid is inhaled into the lungs causing inflammation and infection. If the descaler is not kept cool enough, thermal damage can occur to the living parts of the teeth – leading to pain, infection and possible loss of teeth.

And what might be missed

For a start, most of the infection in dental disease is in the gap under the gumline. But in a non-anaesthetised animal, it’s almost impossible to clean that space effectively. This means there is cosmetic improvement, but 90% of the iceberg (as it were) is unaffected. 

The biggest downside, however, is that by having an anaesthetic free dental your pet is missing out on having their mouth and teeth fully assessed by a professional who is trained in veterinary dentistry i.e. a veterinary surgeon or nurse. In a normal dental, a full assessment, often including dental x-rays, will be carried out which can often pick up problems that are not immediately obvious. This means that your pet can get the right treatment and be saved from the discomfort and health risks associated with untreated or partially treated dental disease.

What about the risks of anaesthetics?

Many people are understandably concerned about the anaesthetic part of veterinary dentistry. But for most pets, modern anaesthetics are very safe. Your veterinary surgeon or nurse will be very happy to assess your pet and discuss any concerns that you may have. They may suggest further tests, such as blood tests, prior to the anaesthetic; especially if your pet is older or has underlying health problems. Cost is another factor in many people’s decision to try anaesthetic free dentals. In many cases this is a false economy as untreated problems are harder and more expensive to treat when they are eventually discovered. In addition, they may well have been causing your pet discomfort for a long time before you know anything about it.

Good preventative care is key!

The good news is that there are plenty of things that you as a pet owner can do to help keep your dog’s teeth clean and healthy. The single most effective strategy is regular daily tooth brushing with a pet-safe toothpaste.  There are lots of resources online to help. If you are not sure how to carry this out, or speak to your vet who will be happy to advise. In addition, feed a good quality diet; discourage your pet from chewing hard things that can damage their teeth; and take them for regular dental checks at your veterinary practice.

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