Anaesthetic Free Dentistry

Updated June 6, 2021

Anaesthesia free dentistry for dogs and cats is now available in most major cities in Australia, including Adelaide.

I’ll be frank. Vets are horrified by this. I want you to know enough about dental hygienic procedures so that you can see what it is that scares us.

First though, I need to talk about the reasons why this service exists in the first place. Vets, myself included, aren’t doing a good enough job in three key areas:

  • Explaining the importance of dentistry
  • Overcoming fear of anaesthesia
  • Cost

The importance of dentistry is easy for vets to see, and also easy for pet owners to see after major dentistry. However, it’s very hard to explain why a preventative clean (which is much cheaper and less painful) will stop us having extractions and a painful mouth later. Prevention just isn’t sexy.

Fear of anaesthesia is widespread and understandable. I’ve written about how vets monitor anaesthetics before, but let me add two things:

  1. Like at most vets, no pet at Walkerville Vet has ever died during or after a dental procedure. That’s despite the fact that dental patients are older than average and often have heart or kidney problems.
  2. It’s probably more dangerous going for a walk

Cost is a tough one. It’s true that good dentistry is expensive but there may be ways to reduce the cost. You can discuss with your vet whether it’s safe for your pet to opt out of intravenous fluids, X-rays and blood testing. Feel free to discuss with your vet ways to spread or reduce the cost; we really don’t mind.

Current costs of anaesthetic free dentistry in Adelaide are actually higher than many vets currently charge.

What’s Wrong With Anaesthetic Free Dentistry?

Stress, Anxiety and Fear

Try this next time you’re at the dentist.

You’re simultaneously try to keep your mouth open, tolerate the scraping and probing and avoid swallowing the foul stuff in your mouth. Your civilised and educated self is firmly telling your primitive mind to stay still and not worry, but it’s not buying that story.

As you lie back gripping onto the chair like it’s a lifeboat, think about your dog or cat.

The practitioners of non-anaesthetic dentistry claim that their procedure is gentle and stress-free. I really want to know how they can tell.

Seriously, I have tried a number of times to do dentals without anaesthetics. Each time the dog was calm, fearless and only had tartar on the very front teeth. I always used an experienced nurse. Each time I had to give up due to the stress I was causing and the substandard job that resulted.

Will pets become ‘head-shy’ or aversive to handling around the face? That will make future assessment very difficult

cosmetic teeth clean
Incomplete Cleaning

In my opinion the only way to make the procedure stress-free is to not do a complete job. Have a look at the earlier video of a standard dental procedure and ask yourself: is it really possible to scale these areas in a conscious animal?

Then have a look at the picture from a Melbourne service. I’m hoping it’s just not a very flattering photo but I can’t easily imagine what else that brown area could be.

gingival sulcus depth
1 Total loss of attachment
2 Gingival recession 3 Probing depth
By Lesion (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The most important area to clean is where the gum attaches to the tooth. This is where the active gum recession and infection occurs, and how teeth are lost. This is also the hardest area to clean, especially if there are already gingival pockets (see the diagram). It hurts.

Tartar sitting exposed on a crown is just a cosmetic issue by comparison. This might be why anaesthetic free pet dentals are often advertised as ‘cosmetic’ or ‘hygienic’. Remember that bad breath should completely disappear after dentistry.

Failure To Remove Bad Teeth

The video also shows a common trap: the pulp exposure. This tooth required a complex extraction involving a nerve block and stitches and the dog is already more comfortable. Leaving bad teeth in the jaw causes chronic pain, and often a tooth root infection which can spread elsewhere.

The anaesthetic free dentistry people state that they send dogs and cats needing extractions to vets. Read veterinary guidelines on when teeth are extracted and you will ask: how do they know?

I usually don’t know whether a tooth needs removal until I’ve probed the periodontal pockets and looked for pulp exposure. If they can do this conscious they are better than me.

This is one of the reasons dentistry gives vets a bad name- the dreaded phone call when we say the job we thought was a routine clean is now including extractions. Sorry- we really hate extracting teeth too.

The Five Stages Of Dental Grief

  • Denial – “They aren’t infected roots and a cavity, I’m imagining it.”
  • Anger – “This was supposed to be a routine scale and polish, it’s just not fair!”
  • Bargaining – “Maybe If I just take out these really loose teeth, the others won’t seem so bad.”
  • Depression – “This isn’t why I became a vet; why can’t I just see puppies all day?”
  • Acceptance – “There goes lunch: may as well stop grumbling and get on with it.”

Infection Control

Will procedures be infection-free between patients? I read a few websites and noticed a few didn’t seem to understand the difference between disinfection and sterilisation.

It’s essential that strict hygiene is monitored for every patient.

The Challenge

To finish I want to put out three challenges: to vets, pet owners and anyone cleaning teeth without anaesthetics.

Challenge 1: To vets. Let’s allow pet owners to watch our dentistry. I’ve done it twice (both times they were dentists who were interested) and it wasn’t too distracting.

Challenge 2: To pet owners. Has your pet had a dental clean without anaesthetic within the past month? Would you like to be sure? I will offer your pet a free examination with or without anaesthetic as long as you let me record the procedure. You can stay and watch the whole thing.

Challenge 3: To anyone cleaning teeth without anaesthetics. If you truly believe what you do isn’t stressful, then let the owners stay and watch. Go on pet owners!- ask them and see what they say.

Related: Keeping Dogs Teeth Clean | Dental Diets For Cats | All About Veterinary Dentistry

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here.

9 Replies to “Anaesthetic Free Dentistry”

  1. I used two different businesses offering this type of anaesthetic free service to clean my dog’s teeth. On both occasions the result was purely cosmetic. For both practitioners they were fond of talking about their private lives which did not interest me in the least and slandering vets and their competitors. One promoted only raw meat as a proper diet and I was made to feel like a bad parent for choosing cooked meals, dog rolls and kibble. The other called my dog “disgusting” after he expressed his anal glands onto him from the immense stress. As a result of these experiences I decided to only use qualified and professional vets for all future dental procedures even if it means going under every 2 years. I consult your articles for everything and I agree 100% with all of them. The Vet Board should ban all forms of animal dental procedures in this country which are performed by unqualified and unaccredited people. The deliberate infliction of stress on any animal is cruel. The risk posed in using sharp instruments on the mouths of a stressed and moving animal is dangerous. I gave it a fair go because of the high reviews but I will never ever go back to it. It is absolutely BS.

    1. Thank you for posting this. I wish everyone was as clear eyed to the suffering and pointlessness of it all.

    2. I would like to add to my post after my dog has had proper dental procedures done by a fabulous vet. My fear of anaesthesia was put at ease. This is standard even when their bits are snipped. At 2 years old my boy had significant dental issues UNDER the gums that no one can see with a 5 minute naked eye view. This is in spite of undergoing two useless anaesthesia free procedures, using that so called coconut oil toothpaste (which gave my dog diarrhoea), daily brushing with dog toothpaste, feeding a famous and highly promoted commercial dental chew (did absolutely nothing for him and bleeding gums stopped after I stopped feeding this stuff), and just doing everything humanly possible to address preventative dental issues. Luckily no extractions as I was on top of it all but, yes, age 2…first dental clean…went under…came out hopefully pain free. I will now do a 6 monthly check up with vet nurses and proceed with dental procedures at the vet as often as recommended because some dogs simply have bad teeth. I would rather embrace that truth than lie to myself and hurt a dog I love so much.

  2. I used the Melbourne based , Anaesthetic free dental services about three years ago when they visited Adelaide, for my 11 year old maltese cross terriers. I should have consulted my vet but I trusted the notion that this was stress free. It is anything BUT stress free. My dog had a mild heart murmur and this stress caused him to have severe heart problems. He was panting and this was ignored by them. They both ended up with worse health problems because dentals cant be done effectively with the equipment they use. My dogs were frightened and stressed and one dog immediately became very unwell with his heart as a result of that incident and he died a year later.

    My vet said that the level of dental, health issues and age of my dogs contraindicated the anaesthetic free cleaning but the service providers didnt inform me of that and were more concerned with telling me of the antibacterial wonders of coconut oil when what needed to happen was antibiotics and vet care. Also I informed them of the outcomes for my dogs and was ignored by them .
    I was devastated to have let my dogs down in this way. They are charlatans and quacks and shouldn’t be allowed to practice and i really advise anyone against using them.


    1. Thanks Jude for being able to be so brave in recognising a mistake so that others don’t make it too – it’s a perfectly understandable one as you aren’t being presented with the full story, as you now know.

  3. It’s really simple. I clean My two dogs teeth every single day, without failure, takes 2 minutes each, ifnpeople aren’t prepared to devote 2 minutes a day to their dog, theybshoildnt have one in my opinion. One is 11 years old, little pure Maltese, with all his teeth, sparkling white, other is 9. Same breed perfect teeth, it’s just laziness.

    1. It’s not always laziness. I persisted in trying to clean my Cavoodles teeth nightly for quite a while. It became harder each time as she hated it and pulled away. Now I still try ,but give her some chicken necks and green chews too. She’s 9 and a diabetic for the last two, so her teeth do worry me.

  4. Love the 5 stages of dental grief. I can totally relate. Well written and I too am concerned by the development of anaesthesia free dentistry. Purely cosmetic and of no real benefit to the pet. As you state it can actually harm them emotionally. Thanks for another great blog

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