Dentistry: Is Anesthesia Necessary?


Pets have teeth too! Oral health can often be overlooked in our four-legged friends for many reasons. It is important that when we care for our pets, we consider all parts of their body, including their oral health. Unlike their owners, pets are not often willing to let their owners or their veterinarian examine their teeth. Most people will sit in the dentist chair for 45 to 60 minutes while the dentist cleans and evaluates their teeth. Some people may not like it, but they understand it is best for their oral health. Our pets can be fearful of having someone look in their mouth, much less allow a person to put an instrument in their mouth to scrape tartar from their teeth.

Our pets don’t understand what is happening and why. This is why it is important to have a proper oral exam and dental X-rays for your pet while they are under anesthesia. Maybe you have thought, “Wow, my pet’s breath is really stinky, but I’m concerned about my pet having to be put under anesthesia.”

Most pets do not have their teeth brushed on a regular basis, so when it is time for a dental cleaning, they have a lot of plaque and tartar accumulation. This would be similar to a human having their teeth cleaned after not brushing their teeth for two to three years. Most pets will not sit still for a veterinarian to use the appropriate instruments needed to completely remove the plaque and tartar. In pets, only one-third of the tooth is visible above the gum line. The remainder of the tooth consists of the root under the gum line, and they have as much if not more tartar and bacteria under this part of the tooth. It is impossible to remove this plaque from under the gum line in an awake animal. It takes precision and can be uncomfortable for the pet to clean this sensitive tissue.

Polishing the surface of the tooth is an important step in cleaning a pet’s teeth. After the tartar is removed with a scaling instrument, the tooth surface needs to be polished to remove any ridges and slow the progression of tartar accumulation. This is not possible without proper anesthesia.

Dental X-rays are the only way to evaluate what is under the surface of the gums. Periodontal disease is one of the most common conditions noted in pets. Often, pets can have fractured tooth roots, bone loss in the jaw due to infection and painful resorptive lesions under the gums that can be detected only with the benefit of dental X-rays. Anesthesia is required to properly position the plate in order to detect disease.

The other benefit of having a thorough oral exam and dental X-rays while your pet is anesthetized is that if any concerns are found under the gum line, they can be treated at that time. Extractions and other oral treatments can be painful and require your pet to be immobilized to ensure proper treatment. Otherwise, your pet will continue to have a painful mouth. Dogs have 42 teeth in their mouth. Often, pet owners are concerned when their pet needs to have teeth extracted, but removing the painful teeth in the mouth can significantly improve your pet’s overall health.

If you have ever had a sensitive spot on your tooth or especially a root canal, you know the pain associated with oral disease. It is a common misconception that pets must not have significant dental disease because they are still eating. Animals have an internal predator-prey drive and showing pain is evidence of weakness. They have a significant drive to continue eating despite pain. Lack of appetite is one of the last signs noted when a pet is not feeling well or in pain, so often, by the time they stop eating, they are experiencing excruciating pain and suffering from a poor quality of life.

Safety precautions are taken starting with preanesthetic bloodwork prior to anesthesia and continued by using intravenous fluids during the procedure, continuous monitoring of all vital systems and proper use of anesthetic agents. When all of these things are utilized together in an otherwise healthy patient, the risks of anesthesia are minimal and the benefits to your pet’s oral health will be maximized.

The most rewarding part of performing a dental on a pet patient is seeing them come in for their recheck and hearing from their owner that they are acting like a puppy again. They didn’t realize the pain and infection in their mouth was negatively impacting their pet’s comfort level. Dental disease is more than “stinky breath” and “dirty teeth.” Dental disease has far-reaching impact on oral pain; it can contribute to infections in the liver, heart and kidney. Pets have teeth too, so be sure to have an oral exam performed by your veterinarian to ensure your pet has a healthy mouth.

For additional information, visit the Veterinary Oral Health Council website at or the American Veterinary Dental College website at

The veterinarians of VCA Calvert Veterinary Center have over 35 years of combined experience helping pets stay healthy and happy. For more information about scheduling a dental exam, call today for an appointment at 410-360-PAWS (7297) or schedule online at VCA Calvert Veterinary Center is conveniently located at 4100 Mountain Road and has been proudly serving the Pasadena community for over 16 years.


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