What happens in a dental cleaning?

We all know what to expect when we go in to see our dentist. We might be a little nervous, but it’s pretty much the same thing every time. You lay back in the chair and open your mouth wide. The dental hygienist examines all your teeth and gums, cleans the surfaces of your teeth (and between your teeth), checks for gum disease or cavities, and gives everything a good polish. Your dental hygienist may also take radiographs (x-rays) of your teeth and jaws to look for signs of disease below the gums. Then the dentist comes in and double-checks everything. Hopefully, you get a clean bill of health and are done for the next six months.

We can understand why routine dental care (at home and at the dentist’s office) is important. We know that regular brushing, flossing, and dentist visits help to prevent cavities, gum disease, and bad breath. And that if there is a problem, early care and treatment is important to stop the pain and to fix the problem. We also know how to behave in the dentist’s chair, and that we are not supposed to bite the dental hygienist or the dentist!

Unfortunately, we can’t say quite the same thing for our dogs and cats.

Have you ever had a sit-down talk with your cat about how important it is to brush his teeth at least twice a week? How did that conversation go? Or have you tried to explain to your dog that just because your fingers are in his mouth he shouldn’t bite? Yeah, that never goes well.

So it’s up to us to take the initiative and take care of our pets’ teeth for them. That means an annual dental exam, and often a dental cleaning with your veterinarian. When you bring your pet in for his annual vaccinations, your veterinarian should take a minute to look at your pet’s teeth. We can’t do a thorough dental examination without general anesthesia, but a brief exam in the room with you can give us a good idea of how your pet’s teeth are doing and if they need further care.

If your veterinarian recommends that your pet needs a complete dental examination and cleaning, he will likely schedule a time for you to come back in a few days. At the time of the dental, your veterinarian will put your pet under anesthesia for the dental cleaning. This is safer for your pet than trying to struggle with them through a cleaning. (Remember that biting thing?)  Our pets can’t understand what we are doing, and may be scared by this different kind of attention to their mouths. Many of the instruments that we use to scrape tartar and plaque off teeth are very sharp, and an awake pet can toss his head and hurt himself on the instruments. If your pet has gum disease, having his teeth cleaned may be painful. Being under general anesthesia means that he won’t feel any pain.

Once the pet is anesthetized, a veterinary technician will do the initial examination and cleaning (like your dental hygienist). She will examine every tooth, see if any are loose or have infections, and evaluate the gums for signs of disease. She will then use hand scalers (just like your dental hygienist) or ultrasonic scalers to remove tartar and plaque that are built up on the teeth. Then she’ll polish the teeth to fill in any scratches and to be a temporary barrier against new plaque build up. (Remember that spinning rubber cup with the stuff that tastes like bubble gum?)

If there are signs of gum disease, your veterinarian may recommend radiographs to look at the tooth roots and the bone of the jaw to see if there is more damage beneath the surface. If any teeth are loose and need to be pulled, your veterinarian will do this. Finally, your pet’s mouth will be rinsed with an antiseptic rinse, and they will be woken up from anesthesia.

If your pet has severe tartar build up, or very inflamed gums, your veterinarian may send antibiotics home to give to your pet for a few days. Tartar and plaque can be home to billions of bacteria, and there is a small risk that some of these bacteria can cause an infection shortly after a dental cleaning. A round of antibiotic treatment may be necessary to keep your pet happy and healthy after his dental cleaning.

Do you think your pet needs a dental cleaning? Call us or come in for an evaluation. You can also the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Pet Dental Health Month resources for more information about dental care for your cat or dog.

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