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What you need to know if you’re nervous about your dog’s dental cleaning

beagle getting teeth cleaned by veterinarian

A dental cleaning requires your dog to be under anesthesia - but is it safe? 

© Andrii Medvednikov - Shutterstock

Dental hygiene (or lack, thereof) is one of the main reasons dog owners have to bring their pets to the vet and put them under anesthesia. But is it safe?

By Justine Seraphin

Published on the 14/09/2021, 17:00

Unfortunately, keeping a dog’s mouth as clean as ours can be tricky, and unless you are extremely dedicated to brushing your dog’s teeth daily, they will probably need a few trips to the vet for dental cleaning throughout their lifetime. 

Many pet owners delay dental cleanings for their pets because they fear anesthesia. After all, we know that anesthesia isn’t risk-free, even for humans. However, complications due to anesthesia are rare and the benefits of a dental cleaning for your pet far outweigh the risks of the procedure. But if you’re on edge about the whole thing, here’s what you need to know.

Do dogs really need their teeth cleaned?

If your dog has perfect dental hygiene, then a professional teeth cleaning might not be necessary. However, this isn’t the case for most dogs. Basically, if your dog starts having “doggy breath”, that means something isn’t right, and it’s time for a professional teeth cleaning. Bad breath is an indicator that your dog has some sort of dental disease which can be very painful, causing your dog to reduce their food intake and act in a lethargic manner. Dental disease is also a breeding ground for bacteria, which can spread throughout your dog’s body and weaken their organs and immune system. Science has proved that periodontal disease reduces your dog’s life expectancy. By getting your dog’s teeth cleaned by a veterinarian, you’re adding years to their life and certainly helping them feel much more comfortable!

How long is a dog under anesthesia for teeth cleaning?

This all depends on the severity of your dog’s dental disease. A basic, routine teeth cleaning usually takes around 45 minutes, but it could take a little over an hour if your veterinarian performs x-rays, removes teeth, or if there’s a particularly big amount of tartar buildup. All in all, your dog could be under anesthesia anywhere from 60-95 minutes, depending on how long the procedure takes. 

Once the procedure is over, it’ll take your dog about 15-20 minutes to wake up from the anesthesia. However, most veterinarians like to keep animals in their clinic for a few hours after they wake up, just so they can monitor your pet and make sure they don’t encounter any complications as they come to. But don’t worry, you’ll get your pet back on the same day!

What is a dog dental cleaning procedure like?

First, your vet will put your dog under anesthesia using a combination of injectable medications and anesthesia-inducing gas delivered through a breathing tube. Anesthesia is not painful, it’s just like falling asleep. Since it puts your dog in an unconscious state, it’ll enable the vet to poke and prod at their teeth without causing any pain or discomfort. Your vet should then be placing an IV catheter on your pet so that they may receive fluids during the procedure. This helps blood pressure and circulation and will also help to administer drugs in the event of an emergency.

Most vet practices will then perform an x-ray of the dog’s mouth (but you can ask your vet about this prior to the procedure, especially as it’s an added cost). Performing an x-ray will enable the vet to do a more efficient job when cleaning your dog’s teeth. Remember, when looking at your dog’s teeth, you’re only seeing about 40% of the whole picture. With an x-ray, your vet will be able to see traces of periodontal disease below the gumline, as well as any root fractures or retained roots that may need attention. 

Finally, once your vet knows exactly what needs to be done, they’ll start on the teeth cleaning. Using an ultrasonic descaling instrument, they’ll remove plaque and tartar from your dog’s teeth (both above and below the gumline, which can be painful - hence the anaesthesia!). If required, your vet will also perform a tooth extraction, periodontal surgery, and/or periodontal therapy.

Once your vet has cleaned your dog’s teeth, they’ll finish up with a polish using a high-speed polishing tool. They may also treat your dog’s teeth with fluoride, helping to reduce and slow down the buildup of plaque and tartar.

Are dogs in pain after dental cleaning?

Your dog’s mouth could be sore for the next two to three days. Depending on how much the dental instruments went below the gumline and whether any teeth were removed, your pet may be prescribed antibiotics or painkillers. You may notice a little bleeding, but this is nothing to worry about. Your pet may also be a little out of it because of the anesthesia, but once again, this is quite normal. Just make sure you’re keeping a close eye on them so they’re not injuring themselves in their state of confusion.

Once your dog is back home with you, limit their water intake and only feed them half of their normal portion. You can resume normal feeding and watering on the next day. 

Do dogs feel better after teeth cleaning?

After a couple of days have passed, the soreness will be gone and your dog will undoubtedly feel much better! Periodontal disease can be very painful, and until a dog’s teeth have been professionally cleaned, they have to deal with that pain on a daily basis. Many pet owners have reported their dogs feeling more playful and energetic after a teeth cleaning - this is because the procedure removed the pain caused by their dental disease.

Do you think your dog has periodontal disease?

Is it safe for older dogs to get their teeth cleaned?

Old age is not a disease! Putting a healthy senior dog under anesthesia doesn’t present high risks. It is, of course, more risky than putting a young dog under anesthesia, but the true risk lies in your dog’s state of health. 

To be on the safe side, ask your vet to perform a full check-up on your pet before the procedure. Bloodwork will help to determine whether your dog’s organs are functioning properly. It is vital that the kidneys and liver are in good condition before putting a dog under anesthesia. Any underlying conditions such as diabetes or obesity could add in some risk, so make sure you discuss this with your vet prior to the procedure. Be aware that brachycephalic dogs such as French Bulldogs or Pugs are much more at risk during anesthesia due to their breathing difficulties. 

Finally, follow your vet’s advice carefully! Don’t let your dog eat at least 12 hours before the procedure.

What complications can occur from a dog’s dental cleaning?

No anesthesia is without risk. The cause of death during anesthesia is usually cardiopulmonary arrest - which can occur even in young dogs who previously seemed to be healthy and passed all of the vet’s pre-anesthetic tests. However, remember that the risk of death during anesthesia is about 1 in 2,000 for healthy dogs and 1 in 500 for dogs with pre-existing conditions. Usually, the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risk. But discuss this at length with your veterinarian if you’re worried - they’re in the best position to know what your pet needs.

If your dog hasn’t fasted properly, they could also vomit during the procedure. Their vomit could be sucked into the lungs - which can cause life-threatening aspiration pneumonia - so make sure your dog doesn’t eat ANYTHING before the procedure.

Other, rarer complications include seizures, visual or hearing impairments, clotting disorders, and system organ failures of the liver, kidney, or heart. Note that these are extremely rare!

Big complications aside - anaesthesia can have some mild side effects. Your dog may feel a little groggy and may even be sick after their procedure. Usually, this isn’t something to be concerned about, just make sure you monitor them for any deterioration in their state of health. And if you have any doubts, don’t hesitate to ask your vet for advice!

How can I remove tartar from my dog’s teeth without going to the dentist?

If you want to avoid putting your dog under for a teeth cleaning procedure, the best thing you can do is brush your dog’s teeth daily. Just as it is for us, brushing will help to prevent tartar build-up on the teeth. It can take some getting used to for most dogs, but don’t give up - dental hygiene is super important and you should be making it part of your daily routine!

You can also give your dog specialised chews to help prevent tartar buildup. However, this alone will not be sufficient, so make sure you do it as a complement to the brushing.

Finally, dental hygiene is highly linked to diet. Make sure your dog has a healthy, balanced diet and isn’t eating too many scraps from the table!

Remember, the risks of anesthesia are very low! But it’s always important to weigh the pros and the cons before any procedure involving it. Don’t hesitate to discuss these with your vet!

Frequently asked questions

How much does it cost to get your dog's teeth cleaned under anesthesia?

Why is dog teeth cleaning so expensive?

Can a 14 year old dog survive surgery?