Why cheap, anesthesia-free teeth cleaning is really costly

Having made the decision that Frankie’s teeth needed to be cleaned professionally, I asked around about a good place to have it done. The veterinary practice I go to seemed like an obvious choice, but they charged $400 — too rich for my budget.

“Do you really want to put Frankie under anesthesia?” one friend responded. “He’s not young and he’s sick.” The receptionist at the vet’s office, who sometimes pet sits Frankie, said, “I know how to chip the tartar off his teeth if you want me to do that.”

Lots of groomers offer teeth scaling, as the tartar chipping procedure is called. Why not go for that quick ‘n’ easy service instead of the costly one with the scary anesthesia?

Then I looked into it further and found out why not.

Teeth scaling provides a sense of false security: Not only do these type of cleanings fail to prevent periodontal disease, which takes place below the gum line, but they create a false sense of security in the owner because the teeth look clean.

Calculus, commonly called tartar, is the hardened form of plaque, the bacteria-laden goo that naturally forms on and between teeth. It’s easy to chip tartar off the upper part, or crown, of the tooth — which is why it can be done without anesthesia — but that’s not where problems occur.

Teeth scaling does more harm than good. Painful below-gum scaling is not the only essential cleaning process that must be done under anesthesia in order to be safe and effective. Without the smoothing action of polishing and a final antiseptic rinse — only achievable with suction, since dogs can’t be trained to spit — the teeth and gums are even more susceptible to bacterial infection than they are before being scaled.  And it’s difficult to perform an in-depth examination or to get accurate dental X-rays when the patient is squirming or making sudden moves.

It’s illegal to practice veterinary medicine without a license. The American Veterinary Dental College has a position statement on the topic, “On Companion Animal Dental Scaling Without Anesthesia.” It not only details the medical issues involved, but also points out the legal ones, noting that:

In the United States and Canada, only licensed veterinarians can practice veterinary medicine…. Anyone providing dental services other than a licensed veterinarian, or a supervised and trained veterinary technician, is practicing veterinary medicine without a license and shall be subject to criminal charges.

Ok, so I was convinced a dental under anesthesia was the way to go. But that didn’t make it any more affordable for me.

To be continued…

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33 Comments

  1. Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    This is really scary. I haven’t come across it “in person” yet, but it was recently discussed on one of the trainer lists.

    Many people are so concerned about anesthesia that I think they miss the forest for the trees: if they neglect the teeth they could end up where I was, having to put Buddha under twice in a year because of the dental issues that were caused before I adopted him.

    Chew on that.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:25 am | Permalink

      Unfortunately, I understand that fear. If nothing looks — or seems — like it’s wrong, it’s hard to wrap your head around the need. But of course it’s irrational. It’s far more dangerous to have unchecked periodontal disease than it is to have anesthesia.

      Perhaps another important thing to emphasize is that not all dogs require dental care. Many do fine without it. But a vet is the best one to determine that, and if a dog’s teeth needs cleaning, they need anesthesia.

      • Kristy French
        Posted May 6, 2011 at 11:57 am | Permalink

        Hello I am just wondering how long you have had your dog Frankie and how old is he? Thanks -Kristy =)

        • Edie Jarolim
          Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

          Hi Kristy,
          I’ve had Frankie since 2005 and he’ll be 13 this summer! Doesn’t look like a senior citizen, does he?

  2. Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:48 am | Permalink

    Whoa! Is your post timely or what? I spend the entire day with Sadie in Colorado Springs (a 2 hour drive from Boulder) at the doggie dentist and though it cost an arm and a leg in both money and time, am I glad I did.

    I brush Sadie’s teeth nearly everyday, so her teeth and gums looked good. The doc (more on why we travel over two hundred miles for a doggie dentist in a moment.) said she looked fine and I could put off cleaning and x-rays for another 6 months. I said, no. I’m here. Now. Do it.

    Well, not only did they clean and polish her teeth, but he found a chipped/fractured tooth which he smoothed out with a drill and then bonded. If that had not been caught we would have been looking a huge problems down the road. And, none of this would have been caught by scrape and clean w/o anesthesia, and even if I had taken Sadie to our regular vet for clean and polish w/anesthesia and she found the cracked tooth she would not have been able to repair it because most regular vets are not doggie dentist. Makes sense. I don’t go to my GP or GYN to get my teeth cleaned.

    That brings me to why I make the trip (I hate driving!) to Colorado Springs. The doc we see there is one of the ONLY doggie dentists in Colorado. Like human dentists, all he does is doggie dentistry. Long story short, Sadie has an overbite and needed surgery when she was a puppy to make way for her lower canines to glide over her upper gums rather than pierce them. I wanted a specialist to do this surgery. Thus, the doc in CS. Then, last year, I thought, well, maybe we should see him again for her teeth cleaning because he could tell if things were still going well with her now fixed overbite. During last year’s visit he found the tips of BOTH lower canines were chipped off and that the enamel on the inside of the canines had been rubbed off. (No, I don’t know what she got into unless it was the bones I give her occasionally.) So he repaired those teeth and this year they are still looking good. Again, this is something our vet, even if she saw it during a traditional cleaning, would not have been able to repair it. So we would have had to go to specialist anyway and Sadie would have had to have been anesthetized twice, once for the cleaning with one vet and again for the dental work with the doggie dentist.

    The point of all this is yes, it costs a lot to have our dogs’ teeth cleaned w/anesthesia, and yes there are health risks with anesthesia that must be weighed against the risks of gum disease or the nasty infections than can result from chipped or fractured teeth (not to mention the pain it causes the dog)–all unseen by the naked eye–but, when I think about the situation I’d be in now with Sadie if I had not kept up with her check-ups, well, I shudder to think.

    Also, not all anesthesia is the same. The doggie dentist I use is very careful and requires a blood work-up that checks for among other things, organ function. He told me yesterday that since he has started to used small doses of several drugs along with minimal gas for anesthesia and monitors blood pressure very carefully he has had no mishaps with over 6,000 dogs except for one. He said that dog died because of complications from the anesthesia and very poor health. I didn’t ask why he anesthetized a dog in such poor health. Maybe the owner insisted.

    If you want the name of the doc let me know via DM.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:02 am | Permalink

      Thanks for this, Deborah. You’ve touched on an issue that’s very complex — and which I’m going to talk about in future posts. There is a veterinary dentist in Tucson; she charges $800 for x-rays, blood work, and cleaning (and I believe it’s more if there are extractions). I’m sure she provides all the best care, and I really, really want it but I simply can’t afford it. It’s big a dilemma.

      P.S. I’m really glad that Sadie got the care she needed and before it became a crisis. That’s even more costly!

  3. Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink

    $800–wow! The doc we went to took x-rays, cleaned, polished, and repaired Sadie’s tooth for $560. Of course, this includes anesthesia. As for blood work, he would have charged and additional $83 for that but he accepted Sadie’s blood tests from 6 months (the outer limit) ago.

    Interesting differences in prices.

    I wonder if the dentist in your area would work out a trade with you.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

      That is a considerable price difference. I can’t figure it out. Tucson is hardly a high-rent town, especially as compared to other Arizona cities like Scottsdale. Yet the bare bones clinic I ended up taking Frankie to for his first cleaning cost me $250 dollars — without x-rays (but yes, including anesthesia and 7 extractions).

      I like the idea of trade but I’m not sure what I would have to offer; that’s not false modesty, just a fact.

  4. Posted January 7, 2010 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    I think you have something to trade—your writing and many regular readers of your blog. Maybe she’d be interested in the word getting out about doggie dentistry—about her work in particular. Perhaps the kind of ‘international’ exposure she would get from you writing about her would be valuable to her. Maybe there’s a particular angle–not sure what–that could give the story that special something. And, maybe she wouldn’t trade for the entire cost of the dental work but enough to bring the price into a reasonable range.

    Just a thought.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      As always, I appreciate your support, Deborah. I’m afraid Google Analytics doesn’t agree about the reach of my blog readership, but maybe I can get a magazine with far larger circulation interested…

  5. Posted January 7, 2010 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Great idea!

  6. Posted January 7, 2010 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Very good post. Many people have no idea what kind of problems they could be missing when they chose to have anesthesia free dentals done. If memory serves, about 28% of dogs with “normal” looking mouths have problems under the gumline and 42% of cats have hidden issues!

    Just not worth the risk, in my opinion.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

      I’m glad you liked it. That’s an interesting statistic that dogs with normal looking mouths have problems under the gumline. I suppose that’s something that only a vet can determine.

  7. Posted January 7, 2010 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    OMG! I had no idea doggie dental care was such a complicated procedure. Seriously! Looking back, is there anything that you would do differently with Frankie that would obviate the need for teeth cleaning? A future post, perhaps? For example, advocates of a raw diet say a benefit is cleaner teeth.

    • Edie
      Posted January 7, 2010 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

      I certainly would have started brushing Frankie’s teeth early on — but that might not have made a difference. I had terrible teeth growing up and my sister’s were perfect — even though we had the same brushing habits and the same diet. So I think it’s largely heredity. Small dogs are particularly predisposed to have problems because their teeth are crowded together and catch food easily.

  8. Posted January 7, 2010 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

    Periodontal disease is a very serious health issue for domestic dogs and cats. Toxins from rotting teeth, plaque, gum disease and infection enter the blood stream and over time can cause damage to the kidneys and liver. I’ve actually written about this in my “What are You Feeding Your Wolf Series this week on my blog.

    As commentor above says that the damage done to an animals health from periodontal disease is worse than the risks of complications from anesthetic during teeth cleaning – I agree.

    Brushing a dog’s teeth always seemed a bit crazy to me. Again, someone above hit the nail on the head when they said that brushing a dog’s teeth does nothing to clean below the gum line. It blows me away that isn’t obvious to people since our dentists tell us to floss for that very reason.

    Periodontal disease can be avoided altogether by simply feeding your dog or cat raw meaty bones such as raw completely edible chicken or turkey bones with meat on them. Bones, skin & tendon to a carnivore are like natural dental floss. An added benefit of your pet consuming adequate amounts of bone is that bone firms up stool which allows a dog’s anal glands to be expressed naturally. So you can save a vet trip there too.

    Feeding raw meaty bones to your pet is safer and a heckuva lot cheaper than yearly teeth cleaning at the vet!

    • Edie
      Posted January 8, 2010 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your input, Jim. I respectfully disagree that raw meaty bones are the answer to all dental ills — a notion based on the premise, as you title your post, that dogs are wolves. They’re not. They’re domesticated pets with different physiological and behavioral issues. Can you cite controlled studies — with large samples — that show the efficacy of this diet for preventing/heading off periodontal disease?

      And what about dogs with special problems — such as diabetes, which my dog has — that wouldn’t thrive on a raw diet? It’s not a one size fits all answer, I’m afraid.

  9. Posted January 8, 2010 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    This is great information. I know why vets and specialists generally don’t make payment arrangements, but at these prices and in this economy many are suggesting financing through Care Credit.

    Here are other sources your readers may wish to contact: http://www.IMOM.org, http://www.thepetfund.com, and http://www.uan.org are all in the business of helping people raise funds for surgerys and vet care that is not affordable, apply for grants, and more.

    Thanks for this informative article–I had always considered this procedure to be a good bet for old dogs, but now…not so much!

    • Edie
      Posted January 8, 2010 at 5:45 am | Permalink

      Mary, thanks for your great information about ways that owners who can’t afford essential medical procedures for their pets can get financial help. I’m definitely going to look into them myself.

  10. Susanne
    Posted January 9, 2010 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    When it comes to teeth, in my humble opinion prevention is much better than letting things progress. A prophylactic cleaning, while not cheap, is still much cheaper than a complex dental requiring more heavy duty cleaning and tooth extractions and pain killers and antibiotics if nothing is done early enough. Not to mention the pain an infected or broken tooth can cause, any person who has suffered a toothache will attest to this.

    The mouth is highly vascular, meaning it has a very good blood supply, so infected teeth can be a gateway for bacteria to enter the blood stream and get into other parts of the body, particularly the heart, and also the liver and kidneys. There was an education campaign here in Australia a while back about how gum disease has been identified as a cause of heart disease in humans, and the same holds true in animals. Plus diabetic dogs are more prone to picking up infections anyway, so I think Edie’s proactive approach to Frankie’s dental care is a wise one.

    As for the risk from anaesthesia, I would suggest always having pre-anaesthetic blood tests done to test kidney and liver function. If the results come back normal then you know the risk is minimal, and if there are any abnormalities then the risks can be weighed up against the need for the dental, and an informed decision made on whether to proceed.

    I personally don’t give Jasmine raw bones for her teeth any more. I did for many years, and they did the job, but they also gave her the occasional stomach upset. Then a couple months after she was diagnosed with diabetes I gave Jasmine a big juicy bone as a treat just before Christmas. I consequently spent an expensive Christmas eve at the vets because she had been vomiting frequently, had diarrhea, and wasn’t eating (not good in a diabetic dog). The gastrointestinal bug was traced back to the bone, Jasmine got a couple of weeks of antibiotics, and my pet insurance company got yet another big bill (phew!). Since then bones have been off limits, and I have found Jas’s teeth have done fairly well feeding her a largely dry food diet. I have also recently started feeding her a Greenies treat daily, which she loves, and her teeth look even better since using them. Greenies are expensive though, and the amount I spend on them would probably easily cover the cost of a dental each year, but they work for Jasmine, and the expense is spread out as a per pack price rather than the major one time hit of a dental.

    A final word of caution on using bones – some dogs are prone to constipation when fed them, so use them with care.

    Keep smiling! ;-)

    • Edie
      Posted January 10, 2010 at 6:26 am | Permalink

      Susanne, I’m going to let you and Jim duke out the raw bones issue. It became moot for me once the butcher in my local supermarket stopped cutting up bones into Frankie-size pieces — something about liability and fingers going missing. Among my rules to live by: Never feed a dog anything larger than his head.

      But Greenies… now there’s a fight that I’m going to take up myself; I was planning to blog about dental chews, mouthwashes, etc. anyway. So put on your boxing gloves. But let’s agree to leave Frankie and Jasmine out of it; Frankie’s spunky but they’re in very different weight divisions so it wouldn’t be a fair fight.

  11. Susanne
    Posted January 10, 2010 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Bring it on, I bet your bite isn’t anywhere near as bad as what Frankie could inflict…is it? I can only speak from my personal experiences, but I am always happy to share/duke it out.

    I did once also give Jasmine rawhide chew thingies made by Schmackos as a treat (and also another potential tooth cleaning option), but as it happened they were a perfect fit to her throat. Jasmine would not always chew on them for long before attempting to swallow them, and as a result frequently got them lodged in the throat area at the back of her mouth. Fortunately she is very large and my hands are quite small, so I was always able to dislodge them when this happened, but I never dared to give her any when I wasn’t going to be around to keep an eye on her. In the end it wasn’t worth running the risk of having her choke for the sake of a treat and I stopped giving them to her.

    There was also a foray into pet tooth brushing I could share with you, but it involved my cats and didn’t go at all well, so I’m afraid it wouldn’t exactly inspire others, and as I said it was a feline adventure and this is a pup zone so I’ll let myself off the hook, pride intact ;-)

    • Edie
      Posted January 10, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      Ha, well you’ve already made most of my case about Greenies, Susanne! Yes, the company improved the formula so they no longer potentially gunk up doggie innards — and yes the labels emphasize size appropriateness – but the potential hazards of Greenies and other chews (even raw bones, if I may try to sneak this past Jim) seem to me to far outweigh any proven benefits. Teeth brushing, professionally and on a regular basis at home — that’s the ticket.

      As for my bite — well, I’m a personal dental disaster zone (not for lack of dental investment) and have not yet had my teeth sharpened. So yes, Frankie’s bite would be far more painful and effective than mine!

      And luckily most dogs are far more amenable to brushing than cats — as I’m sure you can personally attest.

  12. Posted January 16, 2010 at 2:18 am | Permalink

    Edie,

    Thanks for your input, Jim. I respectfully disagree that raw meaty bones are the answer to all dental ills — a notion based on the premise, as you title your post, that dogs are wolves. They’re not.

    Yes they are!

    Dogs are gray wolves, despite their diversity in size and proportion; the wide variation in their adult morphology probably results from simple changes in developmental rate and timing (Wayne, 1986, 1993). – Comparative analysis of morphological and behavioral characters in the domestic dog and their importance in the reconstruction of phylogenetic relationships in canids.

    They’re domesticated pets with different physiological and behavioural issues. Can you cite controlled studies — with large samples — that show the efficacy of this diet for preventing/heading off periodontal disease?

    No, but speaking for myself – I don’t need a controlled study with a large sample to convince me that a natural (meat & bone), non-processed diet with low or no carbohydrate, is somehow inferior to a processed and more often than not, carbohydrate laden diet. Honestly, I can’t even get my head around that type of thinking.

    The Journal of the American Dental Association draws a direct correlation between periodontal disease and diabetes. Periodontal disease and diabetes – J Am Dent Assoc, Vol 137, No suppl_2, 26S-31S

    “Research suggests that, as an infectious process with a prominent inflammatory component, periodontal disease can adversely affect the metabolic control of diabetes. Conversely, treatment of periodontal disease and reduction of oral inflammation may have a positive effect on the diabetic condition, although evidence for this remains somewhat equivocal.”

    As I’m sure you know from your own research, Diabetes Mellitus (Insulin Dependent Diabetes) in dogs is very similar to Type I Diabetes in humans. Now, before you go saying that dogs aren’t humans; dogs and humans are more closely related genetically than are dogs and mice. If you need a citation for that too I’ll be happy to dig one up for you. =)

    And what about dogs with special problems — such as diabetes, which my dog has — that wouldn’t thrive on a raw diet? It’s not a one size fits all answer, I’m afraid.

    I started to reply to this specific point, but decided against it as I think the canine diabetic topic deserves its own post, or perhaps its own series of posts. Not to mention this “comment” would double in length. :/

    It seems that when it comes to the topic of feeding our pets a more natural raw diet, the debate gets as heated as do those of religion and politics. In the interest of ensuring the best health for our pets, I think considering or reconsidering a diet that for them would have been the norm 200 years ago, is something we owe them.

    • Edie
      Posted January 16, 2010 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      Thanks for your detailed response, Jim. I agree that a processed and more carbohydrate laden diet is not more beneficial than a more natural one. Whether that more natural one is necessarily raw is what I question.

      Rather than try to go into the question into detail here — it’d be a pity to hide this discussion in the comments section — I invite you to guest post and address this final issue that my pal Susanne with another diabetic dog brought up (I requote it here):

      I personally don’t give Jasmine raw bones for her teeth any more. I did for many years, and they did the job, but they also gave her the occasional stomach upset. Then a couple months after she was diagnosed with diabetes I gave Jasmine a big juicy bone as a treat just before Christmas. I consequently spent an expensive Christmas eve at the vets because she had been vomiting frequently, had diarrhea, and wasn’t eating (not good in a diabetic dog). The gastrointestinal bug was traced back to the bone, Jasmine got a couple of weeks of antibiotics, and my pet insurance company got yet another big bill (phew!). Since then bones have been off limits, and I have found Jas’s teeth have done fairly well feeding her a largely dry food diet. I have also recently started feeding her a Greenies treat daily, which she loves, and her teeth look even better since using them. Greenies are expensive though, and the amount I spend on them would probably easily cover the cost of a dental each year, but they work for Jasmine, and the expense is spread out as a per pack price rather than the major one time hit of a dental.

      • Posted March 13, 2012 at 12:41 am | Permalink

        It is also quite possible that the ratio of FAT on the meaty bone given to Jasmine was too high. In case some people aren’t aware, I thought I’d mention that small dogs should never be given weight bearing bones. Those heavy bones are too dense for their tiny teeth. My Pomeranians can chew up a chicken wing in no time. Even my 4 month old puppies have no trouble with those. Too much food of any kind can cause loose stools and tummy upsets.

  13. Posted September 18, 2010 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    I had terrible teeth growing up and my sister’s were perfect — even though we had the same brushing habits and the same diet. So I think it’s largely heredity. Small dogs are particularly predisposed to have problems because their teeth are crowded together and catch food easily.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted September 18, 2010 at 6:06 am | Permalink

      That’s funny — same with me and my sister (except she needed braces and I didn’t). And you’re absolutely right about small dogs and their teeth being crowded together.

  14. Posted March 19, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for such an interesting article…

  15. nancy bobo
    Posted July 12, 2011 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    Where do you go for Frankie’s $250 dental? thanks…

  16. Posted August 2, 2012 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    Wooh I’ve just read your article, thanks for this one..”well basically dog teeth cleaning can be rephrased as the physical removal of infection – they are NOT cosmetic procedures. As the vast majority of the patients have exisiting dental disease that requires diagnosis and treatment, there is far more to dental treatment than just cleaning the teeth.

    dog dental

  17. Jessica
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s not illegal in Canada. Many Veterinarians up here will bring in people into their clinics who do anesthetic-free teeth cleaning. I actually have 6 Vets who consistently send me their clients to do their teeth so they don’t have to go under.

    • Edie Jarolim
      Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see how you can deal with periodontal disease without going under the gum line. And that can’t be done without anesthesia. That’s a medical fact. I’ve interviewed numerous veterinary dentists as well as vets. It may not be illegal in Canada but it won’t help take care of underlying dental problems, and that’s dangerous.

One Trackback

  1. [...] pal Jim McBean over at DoggyBytes commented extensively on my recent post, Why Anesthesia Free Cleaning is Really Costly — so extensively, in fact, that I suggested he shed more light on the topic by doing a guest [...]

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