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What Really Happens When Pets Get their Teeth Cleaned?

I want to reach out to as many pet owners as possible with a simple message: take care of the teeth and mouth! Education is the most important weapon in fighting dental and gum disease in pets. Share this post with as many pet owners as you can.
Some pet owners are nervous about having their pet’s teeth cleaned at the veterinarian, because they are unsure what happens ‘behind the scenes.’ So, here’s the veterinarian’s eye view of a pet dental exam and cleaning. No more mystery – so make sure to take your pet in soon for his or her annual dental appointment!
Okay, let’s start. You have just visited your veterinarian with your Labrador mixed breed dog named 11:30. (You gave him this name since he is one half an hour short of being completely midnight black!)
While there, during his annual examination, your veterinarian discovered that 11:30 had dental tartar and some gingivitis and recommended you to schedule an appointment to have his teeth cleaned. You are somewhat reluctant to schedule this procedure because of your concerns with general anesthesia. Even though you understand the importance of oral health to his overall health, and that it could extend his longevity, anesthesia makes you nervous. This is not an uncommon reaction from pet owners!
Now, what should you anticipate, both before 11:30’s dental cleaning, and what will happen during his dental exam and cleaning?
While there is always some risks associated with general anesthesia, these risks are greatly reduced due to newer and safer anesthetic drugs and protocols. Additionally, many veterinarians will recommend or may even require (depending on age and overall health status and health history of your pet) pre-anesthetic blood tests and urinalysis to ensure there are no undetected health issues. Intraveneous (IV) fluid therapy may also be encouraged during the procedure to help maintain blood pressure and offer an immediate avenue to administer additional medications as needed. Heart function may need to be evaluated by way of electrocardiogram, radiographs (x-rays), or echocardiogram, especially if there is pre-existing heart disease.
With these pre-emptive tests and procedures, along with advancements in anesthetics, risks of anesthesia are greatly reduced. Monitoring equipment has also advanced and may include blood gas values to keep track of oxygen in the blood. Respiratory rate, EKG and blood pressures are also monitored.
Now we have determined through 11:30’s pre-evaluation tests that he is healthy, and the day has arrived for his complete oral examination and dental cleaning. (Note: sometimes many of these screening tests are performed the day of the dental cleaning). He will likely have arrived early in the morning of his “dental” and has been fasted since the preceding evening. Water typically is not withheld. The intravenous catheter will be set, fluid rate calculated and the fluid of choice administered at the continuous calculated via a fluid pump.
Pre-anesthetic medication will be administered and often times contain some pain medications. General anesthesia then follows with the pet having an endotracheal tube placed. Monitoring devices are applied at this same time. The “doggie hygienist or dentist” at this time will perform a thorough oral exam looking for obvious problems that might include: gingivitis, fractured teeth, missing teeth, misalignment of teeth, evaluate tonsils, tongue, look for any abnormal masses and evaluate the condition of the gums. Dental radiographs (x-rays) will often be taken to evaluate health of teeth below the gum line or if other problems are deemed necessary to evaluate during the initial oral screening. This is all charted on a specific chart for your pet.
After the mouth has been thoroughly examined, a treatment plan will be implemented. In the case of 11:30, he only has some mild gingivitis, a lot of tartar on his teeth and one tooth that is discolored. The actual cleaning will then take place via an ultrasonic scaler and hand instruments, to ensure the teeth are cleaned below the gum line. An x-ray is taken of the discolored tooth and there was found to be no fractures to the tooth but the pulpal chamber (the “hollow” inside of the tooth) was found to be slightly larger than the surrounding teeth. This would likely mean the tooth was damaged previously and is now “dead” and may be more prone to additional damage in the future, or even abcessation. The veterinarian contacts you on the treatment options for this tooth which may include observation, root canal therapy or extraction. Together, you will decide on the best option for treatment.
Following the complete scaling (cleaning) of all the teeth, polishing will occur. This often times if followed with anti-microbial rinsing and a fluoride treatment. Many times a dental sealant is then applied to help to deter future development of plaque on the teeth. 11:30 has now had his mouth evaluated, teeth cleaned and it was decided to observe the discolored tooth, but take no action today.
Then, he recovers from anesthesia. His teeth are white and shiny. He no longer has “dog breath” – HOORAY! You are again contacted to set up a time for 11:30 to go home. When you come in later that day to pick up your faithful pooch, although still somewhat groggy, he is happy to see you. The doctor or technician discusses with you about further home care and prevention methods to help to maintain a healthy mouth. This includes some antibiotics for him to take because of the moderate gingivitis and early periodontal disease. You are relieved that 11:30 is going home and feel good knowing that you made the decision to help him maintain his health.
The better smelling breath is also a greatly appreciated as he tries to greet you with a big kiss!

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