Anaesthesia-Free Teeth Cleaning for Dogs

In the past few years I have come across a few incidents of an individual practicing anaesthesia-free teeth cleaning and every time, it has been very hush-hush. I wondered about the safety aspect, but also about the qualifications of the individuals who are practicing.

Recently this practice has become a little less hush-hush and clinics are being advertised openly. The marketing is enticing and the details sound credible to the average pet owner. Those of us who actively and reputably work in the industry (trainers, veterinarians, groomers, etc…) know that this practice is highly dangerous, not to mention technically illegal. Even if the practitioner claims to be trained and “certified” – it doesn’t matter.

In Ontario, only veterinarians may practice veterinary dentistry. What might surprise you is that cleaning is also part of veterinary dentistry, according to the College of Veterinarians of Ontario: Veterinary dentistry includes provision of oral health care including but not limited to: the cleaning (other than simple brushing), adjustment, filing (“floating”), extraction, or repair of animals’ teeth; and to medical treatment of and surgery performed on any part of the oral cavity. 

What is Anaesthesia-Free Teeth Cleaning?
Anaesthesia-Free Teeth Cleaning, or Non-Professional Dental Scaling (NPDS), is the practice of cleaning an animal’s teeth without the use of a general anaesthetic, which involves holding the (awake) animal’s head still for a period of time (30  to 90 minutes at a time), scraping the plaque and tartar build-up off each tooth, cleaning the mouth of all debris, and brushing the teeth.

This sounds enticing especially to those whose pets are showing signs of periodontal disease.

What are the health risks?
While we go in for regular dental cleanings with our dentists, we are cooperative patients and will hold our heads still during the procedure. Animals do not do this willingly. If the animal turns their head suddenly, even just slightly, they can be easily injured or the handlers can be bitten.

Bacteria that rests on our teeth is not necessarily sitting politely atop each tooth – more often than not, the bacteria has found its way under the gum line. If the person performing this procedure must scrape below the gum line, one can guarantee that the animal will respond out of pain and there is great risk of the bacteria being pushed deeper into the cavity and worming its way inevitably into the blood stream.

Brachycephalic dogs (short-nosed, flat-faced dogs such as Pugs, Pekingese, Boston Terriers, Bulldogs, Boxers, etc…) and dogs with pre-existing heart conditions can be at great risk while restrained and put under even minor stress or exertion. Ocular injuries from improper restraint, abscesses developing near the root of the tooth, cuts that lead to infection, loose plaque can easily be inhaled causing aspiration, and the list goes on…

Lastly, as this is a cosmetic procedure, the results are very misleading and the owners who partake are far less likely to see their regular veterinarian regarding their pet’s dental health. This means that all the real dental issues that are not addressed during NPDS are left to fester for much longer, causing more damage. 

What are the behavioural risks?
Behaviourally, the risks far outweigh the benefits here as well. Unless you have trained your pet to sit still with their mouth open for up to 90 minutes and tolerate sharp instruments poking, prodding, and scraping, this is going to be a traumatic nightmare for your pet.

Many pets are not taught to be properly restrained for a brief veterinary exam that lasts less than five minutes.

Is it fair for us to expect them to tolerate an hour and a half of discomfort?
The risk for biting is extremely high, but even if they do not bite, they will have learned that any duration of restraint is uncomfortable and even painful. How do you think they will respond at their annual vet check when your veterinarian investigates their mouth? Now we have put our veterinarians at risk  for a bite too.

These types of traumatic incidents are called “single event learning” and this is one of the most effective types of learning in the sense that whatever happens in that situation will likely cause long term changes in behaviour. This is not ideal especially if the behaviour the animal is learning is that they are helpless and bad things happen when people touch them.

What about anaesthesia?
Anaesthesia is not 100% risk-free, but then again, what is? What we do know is that anaesthesia has become much safer over the years and that protocols are put in place to reduce risk, and to manage each patient safely.

When anesthesia is used, “One trained person is dedicated to continuously monitoring and recording vital parameters, such as body temperature, heart rate and rhythm, respiration, oxygen saturation via pulse oximetry, systemic blood pressure, and end tidal CO2 levels,” according to the AAHA Anaesthesia Guidelines.

I urge you to avoid these dangerous cosmetic procedures and instead have an open discussion about dental care with your veterinarian. No one is more qualified to discuss this with you than your licensed veterinarian.

Want your dog to have better teeth?
It’s not as hard as it sounds. A few ideas:

  • appropriate chew toys (not tennis balls!)
  • daily brushing with a pet safe toothpaste (do you brush your teeth every day?)
  • regular veterinary exams (see below for chart)
  • a healthy diet (high quality kibble, home-cooked or raw) – be sure that it is professionally balanced
  • utilizing a Healthy Mouth product in your pet’s water

How often should I see my vet?
Here is a great chart from Dr.Karen Overall, MA, VMD, PhD, DACVB, CAAB. When dogs hit developmental milestones, it is paramount that we make appointments with our veterinarian and our trainer in order to assess the physical and behavioural health of the dog, preventing future problems and addressing current ones.

I compare this to how often we visit our family doctor or bring our children to their paediatrician. If we do this for ourselves, why wouldn’t we do this for our pets? It certainly is worth it to me!

AGE OF DOG = FREQUENCY OF VET VISIT
<16 weeks = every 2-3 weeks
16 weeks – 1 year = every 2-4 months
1-2 years = every 6 months
2-8 years = once per year (minimum)
8> years = every 6 months (minimum)
12> years = every 3-4 months

Your veterinarian will occasionally suggest a full dental cleaning that involves anaesthetic which will actually prolong your dog’s life. Oral health is the keystone to our health too. Many people say that it is too expensive or that they don’t need it. Logically, if that were true, we wouldn’t either.

Please take care of your dog’s teeth as well as you take care of yours, and do so responsibly. Cosmetic procedures like anaesthetic-free cleanings are far too risky for any dog. Don’t believe the hype.


Come to Tom&Sawyer on Sat February 25th, 2017 to see Caryn Liles, Certified Professional Dog Trainer and Fear Free Certified Professional speaking about fear free handling for your dog's daily care. Click here to get on the list!