Anesthesia-free dog teeth cleaning: weighing the health risks and benefits to make safe choices for your pet

Anesthesia helps ensure safe, effective veterinary dental care.
Anesthesia helps ensure safe, effective veterinary dental care.

By Lidja Gillmeister, DVM

There is a recent and emotionally charged debate over the increasing number of individuals unsupervised by a veterinarian offering less expensive – and also illegal –

anesthesia-free pet teeth cleanings

throughout San Diego and other parts of the state. According to

San Diego 10 News

, advocates of anesthesia-free cleanings argue that anesthesia poses high risk to some animals, and comes with a much greater financial cost. Critics, on the other hand, point out the limited training and grave health and safety issues frequently involved in so-called “cosmetic” cleanings.

With strong opinions on both sides, it can be difficult for pet owners to make informed choices for their pets. As a veterinarian and also a pet owner, I understand peoples’ reservations about anesthesia; however, in this column, I will discuss precisely why anesthesia is so important in pet teeth cleanings – and explain how we can take precautions to ensure the greatest possible safety for pets and peace of mind for their owners.

Anesthesia 101: pros, cons and veterinary precautions

It’s very normal to have concerns about general anesthesia, whether for ourselves or for the pets we love; and just as in humans, there will always be some associated risk -- even in young, healthy pets. However, there are steps we can take to reduce this risk, including pre-anesthetic exams and blood work to assess potential problems and careful monitoring throughout the procedure. Together, these steps help to keep the anesthesia mortality rate for small pets relatively low; yet owners’ fears combined with advertised cost savings have made anesthesia-free dental cleanings for small animals increasingly popular.

Naturally, decreased risk and cost sound appealing; but it is important to consider whether anesthesia-free options are actually in the pet’s best interest. When animals have their teeth cleaned at a veterinary hospital, the process involves ultrasonically removing dental calculus and infection both above and below the gum line. Vets measure and treat any dental pockets, lesions and periodontal disease, and perform screenings for oral cancers and other abnormalities. At La Jolla Veterinary Hospital, we also take full mouth x-rays -- the only way to evaluate teeth under the gum line. Without anesthesia, it is impossible for even a highly skilled layperson to accomplish the majority of these procedures successfully and without causing pain. And since anesthesia-free cleanings are offered by a range of providers with variable levels of training, there can be significant variation in the technician’s abilities – and subsequently, high risk to the pets in their care.

Dangers of anesthesia-free dental cleaning

The instruments used to remove tartar can cause significant injury to the patient with unexpected movement. Also, without anesthesia it is not possible to use a cuffed tube to protect the airway, resulting in an increased potential for the pet to inhale or aspirate the removed material causing pneumonia or worse. Further injuries can result from struggling pets, ranging from broken jaws to death in some cases. Finally, anesthesia-free cleanings provide only a cosmetic surface cleaning – meaning that disease and decay below the gum line may go undetected, potentially causing more harm in the long run. For all these reasons, it is illegal in the state of California for anyone to apply a scaler to the surface of a pet’s tooth or under the gum line other than a licensed veterinarian, or an individual under the direct supervision of a veterinarian.

There will be some animals, such as pets with advanced heart or kidney disease, for which the risks associated with general anesthesia will outweigh the benefits. However, an evaluation with a trusted veterinarian is still the best way to ensure optimal oral and overall health. At

La Jolla Veterinary Hospital

, we take pride in caring for your pets – with the best in safe, effective veterinary dental care -- and also with education on preventative at-home methods. Brushing your pet’s teeth is the single most effective way to maintain oral health between professional dental examinations. To learn more, get in touch with a veterinary professional or schedule an appointment, visit us online at