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Anesthesia-Free Dentistry: Myth Busters for Vet Students

Posted by Cathy Barnette on Feb 15, 2022 3:06:38 PM
Cathy Barnette
Cathy Barnette is a practicing small animal veterinarian, freelance writer, and contributor to XPrep Learning Solutions. She is passionate about both veterinary medicine and education, working to provide helpful information to veterinary teams and the general public. In her free time, she enjoys spending time in nature with her family and leading a Girl Scout troop.

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Artboard 1-Feb-15-2022-08-53-59-50-PMAs a vet student or new grad, you will probably encounter clients who want to save money and avoid anesthesia by pursuing anesthesia-free dentistry for their pets.

After all, what’s not to love about it? Their pet doesn’t go home groggy, there’s no anesthesia risk, and the cost is a lot lower than a comprehensive dental cleaning. From a client’s perspective, anesthesia-free dentistry looks pretty appealing! 

Anesthesia-free dentistry providers capitalize on this appeal, using a variety of marketing strategies to sell clients on a service that is of limited benefit. While we all know that anesthesia-free dentistry is inferior to comprehensive veterinary dentistry, it’s important to be able to clearly explain your view to your clients, without becoming defensive.

You can’t just tell clients that your dentals are better than anesthesia-free dentistry; you need to be able to educate them on why that’s the case.

Doing so requires attention to facts and details.

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Myth: Anesthesia-free dentistry offers the same benefits as conventional veterinary dentistry.

Reality: Anesthesia-free dentistry is a cosmetic procedure, lacking many of the benefits that should be associated with a dental cleaning. 

Anesthesia-free dentistry refers to the scaling of visible tartar from the teeth. Scaling visible tartar, however, is just one component of a veterinary dental cleaning. When a client pursues anesthesia-free dentistry, they miss out on: 

  • A thorough oral exam (which can only be performed under anesthesia)
  • Gingival probing and charting 
  • Removal of plaque and tartar between the teeth and along the gumline
  • Dental radiographs 
  • Diagnosis and treatment of diseased teeth

Scaling visible tartar is arguably one of the least beneficial aspects of veterinary dentistry compared to these other priorities. Clients who pursue anesthesia-free dentistry are not receiving the most important components of veterinary dental care.

Myth: Anesthesia is very risky for pets and is associated with a high risk of death. 

Reality: The risk of anesthetic death in healthy small animal patients is lower than most clients think.

While it’s true that any anesthetic death is one death too many, anesthetic death rates in small animal patients are lower than many clients think. The overall anesthetic mortality rate, including emergency procedures and pets with severe disease, is 0.17% in dogs and 0.24% in cats.1 When looking solely at healthy patients, however, the risk of anesthetic mortality is 0.05% in dogs and 0.11% in cats.1 This means that the risk of death is approximately 1 in 1,000 for healthy cats and 1 in 2,000 for healthy dogs. 

Sure, that is still higher than we would like, but many clients are surprised to hear that the risk is so low. Breaking these risks down for the client can help them make a more educated decision about their pet’s care. 

Myth: Anesthesia-free dentistry is a low-risk procedure.

Reality: Unanesthetized patients may become injured during a dental cleaning. 

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Although anesthesia-free dentistry eliminates the risks associated with anesthesia, it doesn’t eliminate all risks. As the American Veterinary Dental College points out, “even slight head movement by the patient could result in injury to the oral tissues of the patient.”2 Think of all the sharp instruments required to scale tartar off teeth. Placing those instruments into the mouth of an awake pet carries with it an inherent risk of injury, and the risk of oral injury is likely higher than the risk of a significant anesthetic complication.

Myth: Anesthesia-free dentistry is less stressful for pets. 

Reality: Being awake for a dental cleaning is probably stressful for pets.

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Anesthesia-free dentistry requires a pet to remain still while a variety of instruments are introduced into the mouth. Having tartar scaled from the teeth is probably uncomfortable for the pet, even if they don’t overtly show it. After all, how many human patients actually enjoy visiting their dental hygienist for scaling every six months? Just as some human dentists offer sedation to make dentistry less stressful for their patients, anesthesia results in a less stressful dentistry experience for our pets. 

Educate Your Clients

Here’s a confession: my instinctive reaction when a client mentions anesthesia-free dentistry is to become annoyed, defensive, and a little bit dismissive. In my mind, I feel like that client is voluntarily choosing a subpar service instead of opting for appropriate veterinary care for their pet. (I realize that’s a hasty conclusion, but I can’t help where my mind immediately goes!)

In reality, though, most clients truly don’t understand the difference between the two services. If all they’ve seen is ads for anesthesia-free dentistry, how will they know what they’re missing out on? As a veterinarian, it’s your job to set aside any feelings of frustration and cynicism, in order to educate your client. Through dialogue, you and the client can work together to ensure that the pet receives the best possible care.
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  1. Brodbelt DC, Blissitt KJ, Hammond RA, et al. (2008). The risk of death: the confidential enquiry into perioperative small animal fatalities. Vet Anaesth Analg, 35:365-373.
  2. American Veterinary Dental College. (2004). Companion Animal Dental Scaling Without Anesthesia. Retrieved from:


Topics: Veteirnary Dentistry, Dental Care

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