Biting down on anesthesia-free dentistries

December 29, 2006

My what big teeth you haveThe other day I went to get a haircut, a manicure and pedicure. In order to be licensed to do my hair, my hairdresser had to attend 1,200 hours of training and pass a state board exam, with a couple hundred of those hours spent on issues pertaining to health and safety: Sanitation, recognizing some common diseases of the skin and scalp, how to work safely with chemicals such as bleach, perm solution, and hair color. The manicurist also had to go to school, although only for a few hundred hours total, but much of that was spent learning how to recognize nail and skin diseases and parasites, as well as proper sanitation.

So, knowing all that, I quite naturally asked them if they’d be willing to clean my teeth, because I didn’t have time to get to my dentist before the holidays.

OK, I didn’t, because I’m not, you know, stupid. And yet, it seems that pet owners are thought to be that stupid, and some of us apparently actually are, because there are a few dog and cat groomers who market a service they call “anesthesia-free dental cleanings.”

Your ears perhaps perked up when you heard that. Who doesn’t want to avoid the risks of anesthesia for their pets, especially older or sick pets? We don’t need full anesthesia to get our teeth cleaned, so really, why do our pets? And it would certainly be nice to get all that nasty tartar off your dog’s or cat’s teeth, and have a fresh, clean mouth breathing in your face first thing in the morning again.

It sounds even more appealing, because many of the people offering this service have invented official-sounding names for what they do, such as “pet dental hygienist,” which really does sound an awful lot more qualified than “groomer,” even though it’s not.

Since there is no such thing as a “pet dental hygienist.”

There are, of course, registered and certified veterinary technicians with special training in veterinary dentistry, who work with veterinarians. And one such specially trained vet tech is Nancy Campbell, RVT, VDT.

Nancy has a terrific blog called Vet Techs, and she posted there one day about the dangers of unqualified people doing medical procedures — which is what dentistries are — on dogs and cats. And in the way of the Internets, eventually her post found its way to the attention of the people whose actions she was criticizing, at which point they engaged in a civil discussion of their differences, allowing pet owners to examine all sides of the issue and make up their own minds, right?

Hi, new around here?

No, they descended on her blog with a storm of abuse and vitriol more appropriate for a serial killer than a vet tech. Nearly every one of these posts was, of course, anonymous, because it’s hard to be quite as vicious as some of these people were and then sign your name.

The thing is, Nancy’s position is basically unassailable. The type of tooth scraping that can be done on a dog or cat without anesthesia is cosmetic only; it might make the owner happy, but it does nothing at all to detect or prevent or treat dental disease in pets.

It also runs the substantial risk of infecting the bloodstream with oral bacteria, which can lead to kidney, heart, and other infections and disease — something that no groomer or “pet dental hygienist” can diagnose or treat. And most critically, debris from the mouth can be inhaled, causing pneumonia and other respiratory complications — something that can only be avoided if the pet is intubated during the procedure.

Nancy’s primary concern is that the promotion of such services only makes owner fears of anesthesia worse, making it harder for her to do her job, and setting pets up for serious health consequences. One of the vets who commented on her post included a link to photos of a dog who was getting such “anesthesia-free dental cleanings” for years, who had to have many of his teeth removed, and whose mouth was an infected mess.

The real culprit in dental disease is not the tartar you can see, but the bacterial growth you can’t see, under the gums, in gingival pockets, and in the bone. It’s not possible to properly examine a pet’s mouth while they’re awake, let alone actually probe gingival pockets and detect infection in the bone. Scraping off the visible tartar may make the teeth prettier; it does nothing for the pet’s health. And if it stops an owner from getting proper dental care for a pet who needs it, or masks a serious dental problem, causes aspiration pnuemonia, or worst of all, seeds the bloodstream with oral bacteria, how is this a good thing? How is this safer than anesthesia?

Check out Nancy’s thoughts, and then check out the thoughts of the American Veterinary Dental College … and think long and hard before letting your hairdresser pet’s groomer clean your his teeth.

Filed under: pets, connected,veterinary medicine — Christie Keith @ 6:25 pm


  1. […] you want more details on the problems with these cosmetic dentistries, you can read my articles here and […]

    Pingback by Pet Connection Blog » Anesthesia-free dentistry for pets: Still a bad idea — October 11, 2008 @ 1:33 pm

  2. […] you want more details on the problems with these cosmetic dentistries, you can read my articles here and […]

    Pingback by Anesthesia-free dentistry for pets: Still a bad idea — October 12, 2008 @ 5:32 pm

  3. You write in this article and your Whole Pet article “Biting Down on Anesthesia Free Dentistry” that there is no such thing as a registered dental technician (from your other article):
    “But since there are no recognized licensing, training, certification or registration programs to back them up, those titles are just marketing slogans.”
    However, the AVDC has the following on their website here:
    “Who May Provide Veterinarian-supervised Dental Care
    The AVDC accepts that the following health care workers may assist the responsible veterinarian in dental procedures or actually perform dental prophylactic services while under direct, in the room supervision by a veterinarian if permitted by local law: licensed, certified or registered veterinary technician or a veterinary assistant with advanced dental training, dentist, or REGISTERED DENTAL HYGENIST.”

    I am neither for or against this procedure yet, I just started learning about it this evening, but when you and this vet tech you quote in both articles insist there is no type of registration for dental hygenists, yet I find that there is on a site you referred me to yourself, it makes me skeptical of your fact checking.

    Comment by Lindsay — March 22, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

  4. Lindsay, all that says is that a veterinarian may allow a human dentist or hygenist to perform a dental procedure on a pet in the vet’s office with the vet there in the room, directly supervising. There is no such thing as a veterinary “dental hygenist”; that is a HUMAN dental hygenist they are referring to there, just as it’s a HUMAN dentist.

    Comment by Christie Keith — March 23, 2009 @ 7:23 am

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