Why Does It Cost So Much to Clean a Pet's Teeth?

By Kevin Wilson, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

About 80 percent of dogs and cats over 2 years of age have significant oral health issues. Neglecting dental disease can result in pain, suffering and other problems for your pet; addressing dental disease is essential to helping your pet live a healthy and happy life!

Brushing, dental chews and toys, dental diets, and some supplements can keep your pet’s mouth healthier longer. However, even with the most dedicated owner providing the best preventive dental care, most pets will need a dental cleaning and perhaps oral surgery at some point. The less home dental care, the more often professional veterinary intervention will be necessary.

Plaque and tartar accumulate quite rapidly in many pets. The inflammation caused by plaque and tartar results in gingivitis. As gingivitis worsens and the soft tissues and bones of the mouth become infected, periodontal disease appears. Periodontal disease causes pain and tooth loss, and potentially can result in movement of bacteria from the mouth to other organ systems (e.g., heart, liver, lungs, kidneys).

Often clients will ask why they can’t just “scrape” the tartar and plaque off at home, avoiding the cost of a professional cleaning. There are a lot of reasons why that isn’t a good idea. First, most patients are not going to sit still while the owner or groomer uses sharp instruments in their mouth. We see a lot of patients with bad injuries from having teeth “scraped” at home! Second, in dental disease, the plaque and tartar visible on the tooth is not the real problem. The major problem is the plaque, tartar and bacteria that are on the tooth but invisible below the gumline. There is no way that a non-traumatic and thorough dental cleaning can be done without anesthesia. Third, in many cases, X-rays of the teeth are needed, and no animal will sit still with an X-ray plate in her mouth!

Attempting to avoid the inevitable anesthesia, a client may ask if we can just sedate the dog. Once again, this can lead to more damage. A sedated animal may still be able to move, increasing the risk of injury. The pet will still feel discomfort or pain if he has sensitive teeth or gums. Also, a sedated animal has a high risk of aspirating fluid and mouth bacteria, resulting in pneumonia. This is because a sedated animal generally does not have a good swallow reflex, and in the process of cleaning teeth, a lot of water is used in the mouth to rinse and flush debris.

So, back to the main question: Why does it cost so much to clean a pet’s teeth? 

  1. Proper pre-anesthetic workup: A complete physical exam and pre-anesthetic testing will help your veterinary team determine if there are any physical issues that could increase the risk for problems under anesthesia (e.g., heart disease, kidney disease). Knowing a patient’s health status can help the veterinarian determine the safest anesthesia plan for your unique pet.
  2. Anesthesia: Gas anesthesia with intubation to protect the airway from fluid and debris is essential. While anesthetized, your pet should be monitored for signs of problems with the anesthesia. This may include heart, blood pressure, blood oxygen, carbon dioxide level and temperature monitoring. With proper monitoring, potential problems with anesthesia can be recognized and corrected early.
  3. Dental X-rays: Most of the tooth structure is below the gumline. X-rays are a way to see the tooth root and supportive structures to determine if there are problems. Many times, a tooth may look healthy on the surface but can be fractured or infected below the gumline!
  4. Complete oral exam: Just like your dentist does for you, your veterinary team should examine and document the health of your pet’s mouth. This includes looking for abnormal masses, broken and worn teeth, missing teeth, tartar and plaque, and bleeding or pocketing of the gums.
  5. Complete dental cleaning: Using hand instruments and mechanical instruments such as ultrasonic scalers, your veterinary team can remove plaque and tartar from above and below the gumline in a safe and effective manner. After cleaning the teeth, it is essential that the teeth be polished to smooth out any microscopic scratches resulting from the cleaning. This means fewer nooks and crannies for the plaque and tartar to grab on to! Some veterinarians may also apply dental sealants and other treatments to prolong the health of your pet’s mouth.
  6. Non-traumatic oral surgery: If your pet needs to have extractions or other oral surgery, proper instruments can help your veterinarian cause the least trauma and discomfort to your pet.  This results in a quicker recovery with less pain and chance of infection.
  7. Medications: Depending on the severity of your pet’s dental and periodontal disease, your veterinarian may prescribe painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antibiotics, supplements or special diets to help your pet recover and maintain a healthy mouth!

My advice is to invest time and effort in proper home dental care to decrease the potential for dental disease, and to have your pet regularly examined by your veterinarian for signs of dental disease and other health concerns.

To learn about comprehensive dental care at Pilchuck, please contact our small-animal department at 360.568.3113.