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The Facts About Dental Health and Anesthesia

As a vet, I’ve met countless patients who have been terrified by the prospect of letting their beloved dog or cat be anaesthetised in order for dental work to be carried out. Whether it’s lack of good quality information and one too many hear-say stories about this procedure, I’m not sure, but I really want to make it clear that nowadays, anesthesia for your dog or cat (particularly in combination with intraoperative intravenous fluid therapy and pre-anaesthetic bloods) is pretty darn safe – even for the older ones. Trust us vets, as if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t ever want to do it.

Trust us vets, we know our stuff!

You may be wondering what anesthesia has to do with dental disease in the first place. Well, although often overlooked by even the most conscientious of owners, consistent dental care is paramount for securing your pet’s long term health, and not just the health of their mouth. The process is pretty similar to that of humans so I won’t bore you with too many details: food residue and bacteria can cause plaque and tartar to build up on the teeth. If not dealt with, this can cause health problems ranging from bad breath, to nasty gum infections and in severe cases, bacteria from the mouth ends up in the bloodstream and can cause major organ failure including infection of the heart valves. Very, very unpleasant indeed.

It goes without saying that this is a scenario you will want to avoid for your pet. And you can – the best way is mechanical abrasion (regular brushing, a good descale and polish, and a dental diet with natural bones and chews). However of course, if your vet does notice significant plaque or tartar build-up on your pet’s teeth, they will be likely to suggest general anesthesia as this is the only comfortable, thorough way in which they can address the problem and potentially prevent some of the very serious complications mentioned above from developing further down the line.

A brush a day keeps the vet away!

There is a further dimension to this narrative which brings us to our somewhat dramatic (though very appropriate) title. When you are considering whether or not to let your pet undergo anesthetic, you may not be aware of how much pain and discomfort they are actually in, because they are so good at hiding this. Your dog will most likely continue to eat until the pain becomes unbearable – hard to stomach when you think about the pain of a bad toothache or oral infection. And so in most cases, anesthetising your pet is the kindest and safest option which will make a vast improvement to their wellbeing and quality of life.

There is no denying that anaesthetic can be a daunting prospect, but really, in every but the most uncommon cases, it is perfectly safe for your pet, when administered and monitored carefully by a veterinary professional. In fact, a 2008 study of 117 veterinary practices involving 98036 dogs (a considerable sample size for a vet study) found the overall risk to be 0.17%, falling to 0.05% for dogs who were previously healthy (around 1 in 1846). Considering the risk of complications associated with dental problems, I would argue that anesthesia is very much the lesser of two evils. And after all, how many of us can honestly say that we wouldn’t prefer to have all of our dental work done whilst we were safely unconscious?

Andrew’s Top Tips for TipTop Teeth:

• Ideally, start as young as possible and get your new puppy or kitten used to having their mouth touched – touch the sides of their face and lips first, building up over days (or weeks!) to the tongue and teeth. Stick with it and be patient!
• Prevention is better than cure – if you can get to the point where you can brush your pet’s teeth with a specially formulated toothpaste, ideal!
• Specialised dental diet foods as well as dental chews and treats will also be excellent aids to your pet’s oral health
• Keep an eye on your pet’s teeth (don’t be afraid to really look around in their mouth if you feel safe doing so) and get them checked during their annual check-up at the vet