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4120 Royal Pine Drive Colorado Springs, CO 80920

Anesthesia-Free Dentistry (AFD)

Anesthesia-free pet dentistry (AFD) has gained popularity over the last few years. The main factors driving this are the lower cost and the perceived risk of general anesthesia. This is true; AFD is cheaper and has no anesthetic risk. It is hard to fault a caregiver for seeking treatment that they think is equal to what a veterinary clinic offers but costs less and is deemed safer. Unfortunately, AFD brings with it other risks and leaves many (if not most) patients to suffer silently from unrecognized dental pathology. Owners think they received a valuable service, when in fact they and their pets benefited very little. AFD services overstate the risks of anesthesia and prey on owner’s fear.

Pet owners sometimes relate horror stories about someone who had a pet die while anesthetized for a routine procedure, such as a dental cleaning. Many times this information is second or third-hand information. When the facts of the case are researched, there is usually a reason for the problem; lack of pre-surgical screening to identify underlying problems that might affect anesthesia, not using IV fluids, using substandard monitoring (or usually none at all!) or use of outmoded anesthetic protocols. The resulting hypotension, hypothermia and dehydration can all prolong the recovery of the patient. 

Figures 1, 2 and 3 below are photos and dental x-rays from a dog that had received regular non-professional teeth cleaning without anesthesia for many years. When the dog started to have difficulty eating her food the owner suspected that there might be problems that had not been detected. The dog needed close to 2 dozen teeth extracted because of advanced, severe periodontal disease. This is a prime example of how non-professional teeth scaling can allow severe dental problems to go untreated, leaving the patient in pain and predispose to severe life threatening disease. We see many patients with similar stories.

Note that the teeth appear “clean” and none were mobile.

Negative affects of anesthesia free pet dental cleaning

Figure 1. A periodontal probe is placed into an area of severe bone loss. The patient had recently had AFD performed. 


Figure 2. Dental radiograph of the area pictured above. These teeth had minimal or no mobility despite loss of most of the supporting bone.

The patient has been in pain for years.


Fig. 3 – Dental radiograph of the same patient, showing large areas of bone loss and multiple abscessed molars that had been missed during the recent AFD cleaning procedure.

Changes like these take years to occur.

  • When humans receive a dental cleaning, we give total cooperation to the hygienist for around an hour. Veterinary patients have much more severe dental disease than the average human patient. Does anyone really believe that a dog or cat, with substantially more disease and oral pain than the average human, will cooperate adequately to enable a good cleaning? Really?
  • AFD services commonly state that they will refer patients if they find pathology requiring any treatment. Unfortunately, they do not even know what they are missing, and about the only thing they might be able to evaluate is whether a tooth is mobile. By the time a tooth is mobile it has usually been pathologic (and painful) for years.
  • Professional dental cleaning includes scaling the crowns of the teeth both above and below the gingival margin and polishing all scaled surfaces. It also includes scaling and planing any root surfaces that are exposed to the periodontal sulcus or pocket. Scaling is accomplished using ultrasonic power scalers and metal hand instruments that are kept extremely sharp.
  • Calculus accumulation above the gum line has little adverse effect on a pet’s health. Conversely, subgingival plaque and debris may have a profound effect on a pet’s health. Anesthesia-free dentistry (AFD) can provide improvement in the appearance of the teeth due to the removal of visible calculus. This may give a pet owner the misimpression that a professional periodontal cleaning has been performed. However, without subgingival treatment, periodontal disease has not been addressed. Removing just the visible calculus from teeth, without addressing the subgingival areas, is just “tooth grooming” since it makes the teeth appear clean while providing minimal health benefit.
  • Many other common problems should be noted and addressed during the cleaning, including fractured teeth, oral enlargements (tumors), gingival hyperplasia, discolored teeth, areas of tooth resorption, etc. All require dental X-rays to fully assess the pathology and guide treatment planning.
  • An integral part of any dental procedure is obtaining dental radiographs of any abnormal areas of the oral cavity and correctly applying the information from the radiographs to treat the patient. Dental radiographs cannot be obtained in unanesthetized patients. 
  • The use of general anesthesia is extremely safe when properly administered by trained individuals. Although anesthesia does carry some risk, it should be extremely low. Without general anesthesia, calculus and debris that pose a risk of aspiration since an endotracheal tube with a properly fitting cuff is not in place. Power or hand scalers may contact the patient’s gingiva causing flinching or discomfort that may cause the pet to fear ongoing home hygiene measures. Physical restraint to force a painful procedure on a pet may induce fear of oral manipulations in the pet, cause physical injury to the pet or operator and results in substandard procedure. General anesthesia allows full oral examination with no patient jaw tone, objection, struggling, or anxiety. It allows tooth scaling without causing discomfort to the patient. It allows positive control, and protection, of the patient’s airway preventing aspiration of gross or aerosolized debris and bacteria. In short, it allows the operator to perform a complete and meticulous procedure.

As a profession, we are committed to patient health and safety. Given the advantages provided by the use of general anesthesia (improved patient safety, better experience for the patient, ability to perform a detailed and meticulous oral examination, ability to take dental radiographs and much better quality of the actual cleaning) and the fact that AFD provides only the advantage of being cheap, the American Veterinary Dental College consensus opinion is that professional dental cleaning should be performed with the patient maintained under general anesthesia with an endotracheal tube in place. Proper anesthetic precautions protocols and patient monitoring, as described in the AAHA Standards of Accreditation, are recommended.

The complete position paper of the American Veterinary Dental College may be viewed by clicking here!

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