With dental disease being one of the most common pet diseases in the country, I often find myself recommending dental cleanings to clients. When I tell them it could be $400- $1000 (depending on how much of a mess the mouth is) some people are shocked. Well, cleaning teeth on a dog or cat is actually a big deal. Here’s everything that is involved in a dental cleaning at a modern veterinary hospital. There are some places that might not include every single one of these, but this is the ideal scenario, and what’s best for your dog’s or cat’s health and safety.
This one nobody skips! Obviously, a dog or cat isn’t going to sit back in the chair and say “ahh” while you make small talk and clean their teeth. Also, the need to extract teeth is somewhat common in dogs and cats (because human nature tends to put these off until they are REALLY needed). This is oral surgery, and the need for anesthesia becomes a no-brainer.
This is often recommended for senior animals. We want to check their liver and kidneys. More importantly, we also want to check their platelets. What if you pull a tooth and the dog can’t stop bleeding because his platelets are low? That’s bad news, since anyone whose cut their mouth knows, mouths BLEED! We also check their red and white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to the organs in the body, and if an animal is anemic (low on red blood cells) we’ll need to adjust our anesthesia, and if it’s severe, cancel the dental and instead figure out what’s happening to the red blood cells!
Any animal undergoing anesthesia should be on IV fluids for several reason. First, it gives us access to a vein, so if any surprises come up like an irregular heartbeat, or they try to stop breathing, we can act quickly. Thankfully, events like this are rare! Another good reason to maintain a pet on IV fluids during anesthesia is to maintain their blood pressure. A drop in blood pressure is common while undergoing anesthesia, and mild drops are OK. Big drops in blood pressure require us to change our fluid rate to make sure all the organs are getting adequate blood flow.
Twenty years ago, these were not common, but now they are gradually becoming the ideal standard of care. Digital dental x-rays take about 5-10 minutes to take, and tell us a great deal about the health of this pet’s mouth! There may be some teeth that look a little sketch, but the x-rays show the roots are solid and happy, so we will leave them in. Other times, a tooth might not look so bad, but there’s infection under the gum line that only shows up on the x-ray. Extracting that tooth before it turns into a big abscess that rots away bones on the face is always a good thing! Finally, after extractions, dental x-rays are helpful to tell the doctor if there are any roots remaining or not.
The technician monitoring anesthesia
This is not the person cleaning the teeth. This is a veterinary technician who watches the EKG, counts breaths, checks blood pressure, and monitors their temperature. Animals can often get very cold during a procedure, and if their body temperature drops too low, it is hard for them to wake up. This technician adds warming blankets or anything else to make sure the patients stays within a good temperature range. Finally, this technician gets the medical record started, recording the condition of specific teeth.
The dental technician
This is a second veterinary technician who is taking dental x-rays and cleaning the teeth. She’s like the dental hygienist for your pet. She first scales off the tartar, which can be quite the task in some of these cases! Then she polishes the teeth, which eliminates any tiny grooves left on the enamel that might hold bacteria later. She notices teeth that are suspect and points them out to the veterinarian.
All this and we hadn’t even gotten to the doctor yet! The veterinarian examines the mouth, reads the x-rays and surgically extracts any teeth that need to come out. Some teeth are simple. Others take 20+ minutes of removing bone, sectioning the tooth into pieces, and suturing the gums back together. Sometimes sweating and even profanity is involved with these complicated surgical extractions, I won’t lie. The veterinarian also hovers over the whole process while the vet techs do their job, sometimes making corny jokes.
If we are extracting teeth, the pet is going to be sore! To help with this, we can inject local anesthetic into key places in the mouth/face to numb a region. This is just like what they do at the human dentist…often even the same drug!
Medication for home
After waking up from anesthesia, your pet will be ready to go home. Depending on severity, your veterinarian will prescribe pain medications, antibiotics, or both! Your pet might also need special food for the next week or two.
So clearly, this is much more than just chipping some yellow gunk off some teeth. Dental prophylaxis, or teeth cleanings, are a surgical process. It isn’t cheap, but it’s also vital to keeping your dog or cat healthy. If you have dentals done on a regular basis, your pet is less likely to need extractions. If your pet is older and has severe dental disease, he could end up having 20+ teeth pulled, and are quite the ordeal! At least you know what you are paying for now!