Are Cat Dental Cleanings Really Necessary? The Truth About This Controversial Procedure

A cat dental cleaning is a veterinary procedure where a veterinarian or veterinary technician will anesthetize the cat and perform a thorough cleaning of the teeth and gums. This includes scaling the teeth with an ultrasonic tool to remove built-up tartar and plaque above and below the gumline, as well as polishing the teeth.

Dental cleanings are performed on cats primarily to prevent or treat periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is extremely common in cats, with some estimates that 70% of cats over age 3 have some degree of it. It occurs when plaque and tartar build up along and under the gumline, leading to inflammation and infection of the gums and tooth roots. This can be very painful and lead to receding gums, loose or lost teeth, and infections spreading to other parts of the body.

A professional veterinary dental cleaning allows a thorough assessment and cleaning of the teeth in a way not possible at home. It removes the calculus and plaque that brushing cannot reach, stops progressive dental disease, and makes the teeth smooth again to help prevent rapid buildup of new tartar and plaque. Cleanings are an important preventive care measure for oral health and overall wellbeing.

Anesthesia Concerns

Anesthesia is required for cat dental cleanings in order to thoroughly clean under the gumline and get full visibility of the teeth. While anesthesia does carry some risks, veterinarians take precautions to minimize these risks and ensure the procedure is done safely.

Some risks of anesthesia include low blood pressure, slow heart rate, and very rarely, death. However, studies show the risk of death is extremely low – around 0.1% when bloodwork is done beforehand to identify any pre-existing conditions. This is on par with the risks for human procedures done under anesthesia. Furthermore, modern anesthetics used in veterinary medicine are very safe, especially when proper monitoring is done.

To minimize risks, veterinarians will do pre-anesthetic bloodwork to check liver and kidney function and may require an ECG for older cats. They also provide IV fluids during the procedure and closely monitor blood pressure, oxygen levels, breathing, and heart rate. With these precautions, anesthesia during dental cleanings is very safe for most cats.

While some groomers offer “anesthesia-free” cleanings, these do not allow for thorough cleaning below the gumline and have risks of their own. The American Animal Hospital Association states these cleanings are neither safer nor comparable to proper cleanings done under anesthesia. For the safety and health of cats, anesthesia is required for a complete dental cleaning.

a cat waking up from anesthesia after a dental cleaning

Sources:

AAHA – Anesthesia and Dental Cleaning

Chewy – Cat Dental Cleanings: Are They Necessary?

Procedure Overview

A professional dental cleaning for cats involves several steps performed under anesthesia to thoroughly clean the teeth and below the gumline. Here’s an overview of what typically happens during the procedure:

Before anesthesia, a veterinarian will perform a physical exam to ensure the cat is healthy enough for anesthesia. Bloodwork may be recommended, especially for senior cats, to check kidney and liver function.

Once cleared for anesthesia, the cat will be given an injection or inhaled anesthesia to sedate them. Anesthesia allows the cleaning to be performed safely and thoroughly since cats won’t voluntarily allow their teeth to be cleaned while awake.

With the cat under anesthesia, the veterinarian will use ultrasound or hand scaling tools to scrape off tartar above and below the gumline. Any plaque and bacteria buildup will also be removed. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the teeth are polished at the end to smooth the surfaces.

If any dental problems are found like infections, loose teeth, or resorptive lesions, they may be treated during the same procedure. Extractions are commonly performed during cleanings when severely damaged or unhealthy teeth are identified.

Finally, the cat will be monitored as they recover from the anesthesia before being cleared to go home the same day in most cases.

Potential Risks

While dental cleanings for cats can provide important health benefits, the procedure does carry some risks. Anesthesia is required to perform dental cleanings, which always involves some risk. According to Chewy, the risk of death from anesthesia is quite low, around 0.1%, if the cat is healthy. However, risks can be higher for senior cats or those with other health conditions.

Other potential risks of dental cleanings include infection, bleeding, and tooth damage or loss if proper care is not taken while cleaning. The veterinary team must be gentle while scaling tartar off the teeth to avoid causing microfractures that could lead to tooth loss. Proper anesthesia monitoring is essential to ensure the cat is not too lightly sedated, which could lead to sudden movements and accidental tooth damage.

Post-procedure bleeding or infection can also occur, especially if home care instructions are not followed properly after the cleaning. Signs of problems like excessive drooling or facial swelling should be reported to the veterinarian right away. With proper precautions and care, risks can be minimized, but owners should discuss all concerns with their vet beforehand.

Recovery Process

After the dental cleaning procedure, your cat will likely still be groggy from the anesthesia. Most cats fully recover within 24 hours, but effects of anesthesia may persist for up to 3 days 1. Expect your cat to be sleepy and have an increased appetite when you bring them home. Limit exercise and activity during the initial recovery period.

You may notice some minor bleeding from the gums or lips for the first 12-24 hours. This is normal following a deep dental cleaning. If bleeding persists longer than a day, contact your veterinarian. Soreness, swelling, or bruising of the gums may also occur and typically resolves within 3-7 days. Your vet may prescribe pain medication to help with discomfort.

a cat eating soft food after a dental cleaning

Appetite should return to normal within a day or two after anesthesia wears off. Feed softened foods and avoid hard kibble during the initial recovery phase. This will help avoid pain or damage to the tender mouth and gums.

Most cats recover fully within 1 week after a dental cleaning. Follow up with your vet if any concerning symptoms arise during the recovery process such as appetite changes, lethargy, or swelling 2.

Aftercare

Proper aftercare is crucial for your cat’s recovery after a dental cleaning. Here are some tips for caring for your cat after the procedure:

  • Keep your cat indoors and monitor them closely for the first 24 hours. Limit activity and prevent them from running or jumping.
  • Offer soft foods for the first few days. Canned food or meat baby food can make eating more comfortable.
  • Give all medications as directed, including pain medicine and antibiotics.
  • Check the incision site daily. Look for redness, swelling or discharge. Contact your vet if you notice anything abnormal.
  • Do not allow your cat to chew, lick or scratch at the incision area as this could lead to infection.
  • Schedule a recheck appointment with your vet in 10-14 days to assess healing.

Following your vet’s at-home care instructions is vital for your cat’s recovery. Monitor them closely and do not hesitate to call your vet with any concerns. With proper aftercare, your cat should heal well after a dental cleaning.

For more tips, see this helpful aftercare guide: Banfield Pet Hospital Tooth Extraction Cost

Cost

The cost of cat dental cleanings can vary greatly depending on your location and veterinary clinic. However, on average, cat dental cleanings range from $300 to $800 per procedure.

According to BetterPet.com, cat teeth cleanings typically cost between $400 and $800. The cost depends on if bloodwork and anesthesia are included, as well as the extent of tartar buildup and necessary extractions. More complicated cleanings with extractions can cost over $1,000. The American Veterinary Medical Association reports average costs of $537 for a dental prophylaxis with bloodwork.

VCA Animal Hospitals provide estimates between $300-$800 per cleaning. Basic cleanings average around $300-500, but may cost more with bloodwork, anesthesia, x-rays, antibiotics, pain medication, and extractions. Location also impacts price.

When researching costs, look into what’s included. Make sure bloodwork, anesthesia, pain control, and antibiotics are part of the estimate. Look for clinics that use modern anesthesia methods to ensure your cat’s safety during the procedure.

Prevention

One of the best ways to help prevent your cat from developing dental problems is to brush their teeth regularly. The American Veterinary Medical Association recommends daily brushing with a soft toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste (Source). Brushing helps remove plaque before it hardens into tartar and keeps your cat’s teeth and gums healthy.

You can also provide dental treats and chews to help scrape away plaque. Look for products formulated specifically for cats and talk to your veterinarian about recommended brands. Avoid human toothpaste, which can upset your cat’s stomach.

brushing a cat's teeth

In addition, feed your cat only canned or wet food, which is less likely to stick to the teeth than dry kibble. Get your cat regular veterinary dental exams to identify and address any existing or emerging problems early.

With proper preventative care, you can help your cat maintain good oral health and avoid more invasive dental disease treatment down the road (Source).

When to Get a Cleaning

There are several signs indicating your cat needs a professional dental cleaning [1]. One is persistent bad breath, which is often a sign of dental disease. Red or swollen gums, broken teeth, difficulty eating, or decreased appetite can all point to dental problems requiring cleaning. Your cat exhibiting pawing at its mouth, dropping food, or excessive drooling when eating may mean it is experiencing oral pain needing treatment. Even if your cat seems fine, vets recommend annual dental cleanings starting around age 3 to prevent plaque buildup and infections [2].

a cat with red inflamed gums

Conclusion

In conclusion, while the risks of cat dental cleanings should be considered, the procedure is generally quite safe when performed by an experienced veterinarian. The main benefits of dental cleanings include preventing plaque buildup, tartar formation, gum disease, and tooth loss. Cleanings allow for a thorough exam of the mouth and early detection of any problems.

Proper anesthesia monitoring and aftercare can minimize risks. Preventative dental care at home, like brushing and dental diets, can also reduce the need for intensive cleanings. For most cats, the benefits of cleanings far outweigh the risks when done routinely. Overall dental health is extremely important for cats’ comfort and longevity.

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