I recently saw an ad posted on a billboard for a local feed supply company: Anesthesia Free Dentals $155. Two things struck me about this announcement
1. The questionable legality of the procedure
2. The cost
Colorado (and most states as far as I’m aware) place dentistry under the classification of the practice of veterinary medicine. This means that only a licensed veterinarian, or a technician under the supervision of a veterinarian, can perform dental procedures on pets.
Posing as a "typical" dog owner, I called the feed supply company to ask a few questions and was given the name of the organization that provides this service for them. I looked up their website and learned that a veterinarian is on their staff, so if she were to be performing the procedures, they would be legal. The other employee that is listed underwent some training in anesthesia-free dental cleanings, but as far as I could tell was not a licensed veterinary technician. If she were to clean a pet’s teeth under the supervision of a vet, I think it would be legal (the language in the statute is kind of vague … the technician needs to be "trained" but I can’t find where he or she definitely needs to be "licensed.") If she were to be treating dogs and cats without a veterinarian present, however, she would be on the wrong side of the law.
Even if these clinics are legal, they have questionable value to the pets that partake in them. The most important part of a dental cleaning is the removal of plaque and tartar from underneath the gums and the complete examination of the entire mouth (including probing for pockets underneath the gum line and even radiographs in many cases). While the website claims that their operators can clean underneath the gum line, I find it very hard to believe they can do this with any kind of thoroughness in an awake dog … to say nothing of an awake cat! The website makes no mention of probing and admits that they cannot take X-rays. Without these diagnostic tools, very serious diseases that "hide" under the gums will be missed.
Another concern is that dental instruments are sharp! I shudder to think of what might happen to a pet’s mouth if he or she were to move suddenly while a dental scaler was being used.
I am sure that a dog or cat’s teeth look better after one of these procedures, but I doubt that their mouths are actually much healthier. The website I looked at recommends that the anesthesia-free procedure be repeated every 3-12 months, depending on a pet’s condition. For a purely cosmetic procedure, $155 is a lot to spend that frequently. I think these pets would be better served if their owners saved the $155 and sprung for a real dental cleaning when they had enough in the bank.
Anesthesia is scary, I understand that. But, under most circumstances (even when pets are being managed for some types of chronic disease), it can be done very safely. Veterinarians can use nerve blocks so that the level of general anesthesia needed is actually very light, even if teeth need to be removed. This helps pets maintain good blood pressure, cardiac output, etc., and decreases the risk of complications.
If you want to talk to a dental specialist about your pet’s care, take a look at the listing of board certified veterinary dentists provided on the American Veterinary Dental College’s website, or ask your primary care vet for a referral.