Anesthesia-free dentistry for dogs

Many people feel anxious about having their dogs put under for teeth cleaning. Anesthesia-free dentistry is a growing option, but it’s vital to find someone who is properly trained in the procedure.

Dental disease is the number one problem facing dogs. Regular veterinary cleanings are nearly always necessary to maintain canine tooth and gum health. Unfortunately, a lot of people avoid or postpone them because they feel nervous about having their dogs anesthetized. That means many dogs aren’t getting the dental care they need, and this can lead to severe discomfort and health problems down the road. In recent years, more and more people have been exploring the option of anesthesia-free dentistry. Although not widely available, this form of dentistry can be done by veterinarians, vet techs, or companies using properly-trained technicians.

The right training is crucial

Some veterinarians are opposed to dentistry without anesthesia, mainly because of the problems that arise from inadequate training among some laypeople offering the service. Other vets have found great satisfaction in a well-performed anesthesia-free dental done in the veterinary clinic – as long as it is done professionally.

Dr. Pema Malu of Veterinary Holistic Care in Maryland, for example, reports that their anesthesia-free service does an excellent job of cleaning teeth and caring for gums. They use hand instruments and an ultrasonic scaler, as well as ozonated water on the gums to promote healing. When they encounter more severe issues that require antibiotics or extractions, or spot severe periodontal disease, neck lesions or fractures, they refer to the veterinarian. Many clients opt for regular anesthesia-free dentistry, thus avoiding periodontal disease in the future.

“Scaling teeth is a veterinary procedure, and should only be done with veterinary supervision,” adds Dr. Michael Borin of Animal Dental Care. “Often in pet stores, only superficial cosmetic cleanings are accomplished, and this can give people a very false sense of a healthy mouth. It can be very disheartening for someone to think that their animal’s mouth is clean, only to find out later that there is severe underlying disease.”

What are the benefits?

The primary benefit of anesthesia-free dentistry, of course, is that dogs don’t have to be put under, which can be an important consideration for at-risk animals. “Many people with older geriatric animals are extremely grateful to have access to this procedure,” says Dr. Borin. “People whose animals have cardiac or renal disease also greatly appreciate having this procedure to control plaque, calculus and bad breath.”

Another benefit some veterinarians are seeing is that it’s cutting down on the incidence of advanced periodontal disease. Dr. Jennifer Ramelmeier, who has a homeopathic and house call practice, does anesthesia-free dentistry at her monthly clinic. She says is very pleased with the improved dental health she sees in her patients and adds there is no difference in the tartar accumulation between dentals, with or without anesthesia.

“Through this procedure, along with education and the support of other appropriate therapies, including treatment under anesthesia and radiology, we are improving and advancing the oral health of our hospital’s patients,” adds Dr. Borin. “We can keep calculus and plaque controlled and really cut down on the development of periodontal disease. In fact, it’s a tremendous step in the prevention and slowing of periodontal disease. There are many instances where people have had regular anesthesia-free cleanings done for their animals, and have greatly reduced tooth loss due to periodontal disease.”

What can be done during this procedure?

During an anesthesia-free dental, Dr. Ramelmeier chunks off big pieces from her patients’ teeth, then puts the scaler up into the gum to get the tartar off. She polishes teeth with no problem, and can even occasionally pull teeth if they are very loose.

“The intention of this procedure is to perform a dental prophylaxis cleaning to help prevent the development of periodontal disease,” says Dr. Borin. “Supra and sub-gingival scaling is performed on all tooth surfaces using either a hand scaler or an appropriate powered device followed by a hand instrument (i.e., scaler or curette). The teeth are then polished with a low speed hand piece using prophy dental paste. Next, sub-gingival irrigation is performed to remove all debris.”

How are animals kept calm during the procedure?

Dr. Ramelmeier says that if she feels an animal is too nervous during the procedure, she will give him herbal California poppy or Bach Rescue Remedy.

“Our technicians are well trained in how to make the animal comfortable and relaxed,” says Dr. Borin. “They go through a minimum of six months of training before they work unsupervised. They are well trained in animal handling (they become dog/ cat whisperers), and they gain a thorough knowledge of dental anatomy and pathology. The technicians are very patient and spend a lot of time working to make the patient calm. Sometimes doctors will choose to try a light sedation to calm the animal. If the animal still cannot be calmed, we will stop and recommend anesthesia. If the animal is uncomfortable, we would not force the procedure. We use gentle, loving handling. We will not force it on a stressed animal.”

What are the limitations?

In cases of severe disease or difficult extractions, anesthesia-free dentistry is not the best choice. In fact, one of the reasons Dr. Malu likes the anesthesia-free dental service that works with her practice is that they will refer to her for antibiotics, extractions, severe periodontal disease, neck lesions and fractures.

“The technician may find pathology, such as severe periodontal disease where deep sub-gingival therapy and/or extractions are needed, that the doctor feels cannot be treated by this procedure, and anesthesia may be recommended,” says Dr. Borin. “Anesthesia-free dentistry should be used as an adjunctive therapy to a whole dental program that utilizes anesthesia and dental radiology.”

Though it can’t be used for every procedure, anesthesia-free dentistry done by properly trained professionals is becoming more popular for regular cleaning. Because many people feel more comfortable with it, they’re less likely to avoid having their dog’s teeth looked after, and that leads to better overall dental health.


Ann Brightman is Managing Editor for Animal Wellness Magazine and Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A lifelong animal lover, she has also been a writer and editor for over 25 years. Ann is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and is also a Tai Chi instructor.