There’s no shortcut to giving cats good dental care. Beware of the new trend in anesthesia-free dental cleaning for cats and dogs, and my advice – is avoid it like the plague.
The best dental care is always at the vet under anesthesia checking for and filling cavities, cleaning plaque and gums, extracting teeth if needed, and polishing the teeth. Beware of petfood stores advertising “Teeth Cleaning Without Anesthesia for Cats and Dogs.” Though it sounds good, my experience with two cats could not have been worse, and could have led to serious, long-term dental issues if I hadn’t gone straight to my vet afterwards for an in-hospital dental cleaning under anesthesia.
At our local Petfood Express store, my interest was piqued when I saw the flyer flyer “Teeth Cleaning Without Anesthesia for Cats and Dogs.” I have a cat that is very old, needing dental cleaning, but my traditional veterinarian did not want to perform surgery due to her recently diagnosed hyperthyroid condition. After a little digging, it turned out that my trusted holistic vet, Alternatives for Animals, in Lafayette, CA, offers the service through contracted pet dental technicians or pet dental hygienists. As I read the brochure further, it said, “Our dental technicians have the capability to perform a complete teeth cleaning, including sub-gingival scaling as well as machine polishing.” Well, this just plain wasn’t true, was false advertising, and didn’t happen when I took my two cats for an appointment.
Importance of Good Dental Care for Cats
I have come to learn over the years with my cats, how critical good dental health is for cats, and how regular dental cleaning under anesthesia has kept my cats healthier, happier, more comfortable, and averted other related illnesses that come with serious periodontal disease. Since I take my cats to their vet every year for an annual health checkup, one of the first things they do is a complete check of their teeth, gums, and mouth. I have had cats with serious gum disease at a very young age, cats with multiple extractions due to below-the-gum disease (that is invisible), cats with full-mouth extractions due to developing Stomatitis—and having had Bartonella at a young age, and cats that have been exposed to Feline FIV and Feline FELV and have had chronic gum inflammation—making full mouth extractions necessary. Often cats that have lived outside for long periods or are feral have been exposed to diseases that can cause chronic inflammation leading to periodontal disease. So I’m a big believer in regular dental cleaning with anesthesia for cats, that is thorough and complete.
My Experience With Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning
But I thought that I would just “try” the non-anesthetic dental to test it—and decided to bring in my feral cat, Mama, a 5-year-old as well as my blind cat, Godiva, who is hyperthyroid and on medication. Mama’s teeth have started showing redness at the gum line, her breath has started smelling, and she was growing sensitive to eating kibble. I was planning to take her for an anesthetic dental, but decided to give this a try. Godiva, on the other hand, is in serious need of dental care, but several months ago our traditional vet felt it was risky for her, being a new hyperthyroid patient at the time. So I brought them both in for a non-anesthetic dental appointment to my holistic vet.
We went into a room, where the holistic veterinarian gave them both a routine check and cursory dental check, before handing them over to the dental technician. The technician sat on the floor with a large towel, and proceeded to do the towel “burrito” wrap to Godiva. Turned out Godiva was not a candidate with very severe gingivitis, so I called my vet that day and made an appointment for her for dental cleaning for her. Next, she proceeded with Mama—polishing her teeth and was done in 10 minutes flat. The bill was $200 for a 10-minute procedure. I was skeptical and disappointed. They never did any subgingival scaling; there was still plaque, and still red gingivitis. I paid, went home, and waited one week. Mama’s smelly mouth returned, the red, sore gum line was still there, and I was not happy. I returned Mama to Dr. Rettig, the holistic vet, to review the case. She immediately explained that Mama was not a good candidate, had chronic inflammation, needed X-Rays, had some bleeding in her gums and severe sensitivity, and likely needed surgery and a full-mouth teeth extraction. I asked why this wasn’t told to me in the beginning of my appointment? She didn’t know why.
As it turned out, both Mama and Godiva got full-mouth teeth extractions from my vet, Four Corners Animal Hospital in Concord, which was very costly (one was $1200 and the other $1800 with complications), but this has completely alleviated their pain, suffering, sensitivity, and chronic mouth inflammation, and was necessary. After a two-week round of antibiotics, both have healed beautifully, and are the happiest I have seen them in awhile, with no smelly mouth, and eating dry and wet food without any trouble.
Reasons to Avoid Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleaning
Avoiding the risks of anesthesia or paying a cheaper price is NOT a good reason to choose “anesthesia-free dental cleanings for cats.” It is very ineffective in getting all the tarter off your cat’s teeth especially under the gums. Periodontal disease occurs below the gum line, and non-anesthetic cleaning on cats is only done on the crown of the teeth, and completely misses the damage being caused by the plaque and calculus below the gums. Plus, it’s entirely superficial cleaning, who cares if the cat’s teeth are whiter—if they are still sore, red, painful, inflamed, and diseased? Not to mention that dental disease triggers and causes liver and kidney disease, heart conditions, and even strokes.
In addition to these problems, the dental technicians aren’t licensed—there are no real certification or registered programs—just “vocational” programs. California law requires that dental operations be performed by or under the direct supervision of a licensed veterinarian. And anesthesia-free teeth cleaning, does fall within the purview of a dental operation or surgery, according to state courts.
I think one of the biggest issues with non-anesthetic dental for cats is that by giving the cat this superficial cleaning, you are fooling yourself into thinking that their periodontal health is now good and treated, but serious dental and health issues can be and are overlooked, and often are left untreated possibly for long periods—making the underlying conditions only worse and the cat is left to continue to suffer in silence. If the cat’s mouth smells, is suddenly drooling or drooling more, has bleeding or red, inflamed gums, is lethargic and cautious about eating, or a mouth that’s sensitive to the touch—it’s time to take them to see your regular vet for a thorough exam. Don’t be fooled that “some cleaning is better than none.” You are only getting a false sense of security, because, the disease can be silently progressing below the gum line.
Dental diseases are very painful for a cat and can go unnoticed. Dental disease progresses in stages, but if caught early enough, you can prevent further damage. Consider having dental checkups every year, along with your annual exam, because dental problems can progress quickly and suddenly and you’ll have a much bigger problem that may require a full-mouth or multiple teeth extraction.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) says that “70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by age three, often indicated by bad breath, a change in eating or chewing habits, pawing at the face and mouth, and depression. Besides causing receding gums and tooth loss, the infection may enter the bloodstream, potentially infecting the heart, liver and kidneys.”
The ASPCA publishes a great list called the “Ten Steps to Dental Health” for cats that’s worth a read, and is a good home checkup list.