Can Cats Get Their Teeth Cleaned Without Being Put Under? The Answer May Surprise You


Proper dental care is extremely important for a cat’s overall health and wellbeing. According to the AVMA, periodontal disease is the most common dental condition in cats – by the age of 3, most cats will have some degree of it.1 Dental disease can lead to tooth loss, infections, and pain that impacts a cat’s ability to eat and drink normally.

While regular dental cleanings are recommended, they do require anesthesia which carries risks. Anesthesia can lead to dangerous drops in blood pressure and oxygen levels. Older cats are at higher risk for anesthesia complications. This makes exploring non-anesthetic approaches to dental care important for many cat owners.

Symptoms of Dental Disease

There are several common symptoms that may indicate your cat is suffering from dental disease. These include:

Bad Breath – Just like in humans, bad breath is often a sign of poor oral health. Cat’s normally have fresh smelling breath and foul odor may signal an issue like gingivitis, gum disease or an abscessed tooth. 1

Trouble Eating – Your cat may show signs of discomfort or pain while eating. They may chew only on one side of their mouth, drop kibble from their mouth while eating, or refuse dry food altogether. 2

Loose or Broken Teeth – Advanced dental disease can cause teeth to become loose or even break off completely. Take note if your cat has difficulty chewing or you see partially broken teeth. 3

Drooling – Excessive drooling or drooling that comes on suddenly can indicate an oral issue. Cats don’t normally drool, so this may signal infection, injury or pain in the mouth. 1

Swollen or Bleeding Gums – Inflamed, puffy or bleeding gums point to gingivitis or periodontal disease. Gum recession and abscessed roots are also possible. 2

When Professional Cleaning is Needed

The American Veterinary Dental College recommends having a cat’s teeth professionally cleaned at least once a year (1). This frequent cleaning helps prevent plaque and tartar buildup, allowing for early detection and treatment of any dental issues. More frequent professional cleaning may be recommended for certain health conditions. Cats with gingivitis, resorptive lesions, or periodontal disease often require dental cleanings every 6 to 12 months (2). The frequency depends on the severity of disease and response to treatment. Older cats, small breed cats like Siamese, and brachycephalic breeds with shorter snouts tend to accumulate more plaque and tartar, so may need more frequent cleanings as well. Discuss an appropriate cleaning schedule with your veterinarian based on your cat’s individual risk factors and dental health.

Risks of Anesthesia

While anesthesia allows for a more thorough cleaning, there are some risks involved. As with any medical procedure requiring anesthesia, there is a small risk of serious complications or death. Some specific risks include:

Allergic reactions: Cats can have allergic reactions to anesthetic drugs resulting in rashes, breathing difficulties, or dangerously low blood pressure.

Breathing difficulties: Problems with breathing can occur if anesthesia depresses respiratory function. Intubation during anesthesia helps prevent this.

Heart problems: Anesthesia can lower blood pressure and slow heart rate. Underlying heart conditions increase risks.

Death in rare cases: Though extremely uncommon, any anesthesia does carry a small risk of death from complications. The exact rate varies based on health and other factors.

Non-Anesthetic Options

While not as thorough as a professional dental cleaning under anesthesia, there are some at-home options pet owners can try to maintain their cat’s dental health without anesthesia. These include:

Brushing at Home

Brushing your cat’s teeth daily can remove plaque and prevent tartar buildup. Use a soft bristle toothbrush and pet-safe toothpaste. Introduce brushing slowly and make it a positive experience with praise and treats. Brushing should only be done on the outer surfaces of the teeth, not the inner surfaces which can trigger the gag reflex. According to VCA Hospitals, at-home brushing may remove up to 25% of plaque when done properly.

Dental Treats

There are dental treats formulated to help break down plaque and tartar on a cat’s teeth as they chew. Offer treats specifically designed for dental health. Look for the VOHC seal from the Veterinary Oral Health Council.

Water Additives

Certain water additives can help reduce plaque and bacteria when added to your cat’s drinking water daily. These may contain ingredients like chlorhexidine to reduce bacteria.

Oral Gels

Applying a pet-safe oral gel directly on your cat’s teeth and gums can help break down plaque. Use gels formulated for pets as human toothpaste can be toxic if swallowed.

Conscious Sedation

This involves giving sedative medication to relax the cat before a cleaning, but not fully anesthetizing them. It does not allow for x-rays or extractions. The cat is awake and extra care must be taken. According to the PetMD article, conscious sedation is controversial and does not allow for a complete cleaning.

Brushing at Home

Brushing your cat’s teeth at home can help prevent plaque buildup and dental disease. It is recommended to brush your cat’s teeth at least 2-3 times per week. When first starting, go slow and keep sessions short to allow your cat to get used to the process.

To brush your cat’s teeth:

  • Use a soft-bristled toothbrush made specifically for cats. The bristles should be small and narrow to fit easily in your cat’s mouth.
  • Apply a pea-sized amount of veterinary-approved cat toothpaste. Do not use human toothpaste which can upset your cat’s stomach.
  • Gently lift your cat’s lips and place the toothbrush at a 45 degree angle to the teeth. Use circular motions to brush the outer surfaces.
  • Focus on the outer surfaces of the teeth and avoid going too far back into the mouth.
  • Make sure to regularly replace worn toothbrushes every 3-4 months.

Starting dental care at home when your cat is a kitten will help get them used to the routine. Always brush gently and reward your cat after each session.

Other Home Care

There are some other options for helping clean your cat’s teeth at home without anesthetic veterinary cleanings. Using dental treats, chew toys, and water additives can help reduce plaque and tartar buildup (source).

Dental treats for cats are formulated to help scrape away plaque and tartar as your cat chews. The texture of the treat helps clean their teeth. Look for treats made specifically for dental health that have the VOHC seal from the Veterinary Oral Health Council (source).

There are also chew toys made specifically for cats that can help clean their teeth. Look for toys with textured surfaces and designs made to allow cats to grip and chew. The chewing action helps remove buildup on their teeth.

Water additives for cats can also help reduce plaque and tartar. These additives contain enzymes that help prevent plaque from hardening into tartar. When added to your cat’s drinking water daily, they create a solution that helps break down buildup when your cat drinks.

Conscious Sedation

Conscious sedation is one alternative to general anesthesia for cat teeth cleaning. It involves administering a sedative drug, often an oral benzodiazepine like midazolam, to produce a relaxed, drowsy state (Simon, 2020). The goal is not to fully sedate the cat, but to reduce anxiety and sensations of pain or discomfort (De Vries, 2015). This allows some basic dental procedures to be performed while the cat is awake.

Conscious sedation does carry risks, including respiratory depression and a loss of protective airway reflexes (Simon, 2020). The sedative effects are also unreliable and monitoring by trained veterinary staff is essential. According to the AAHA Dental Care Guidelines, conscious sedation does not allow for a comprehensive oral examination or cleaning and cannot replace general anesthesia.

The cost of conscious sedation is often only marginally less than full anesthesia. Owners should discuss the options carefully with their veterinarian to determine if the reduced level of care is appropriate for their cat’s dental health.

When Anesthesia is Necessary

While non-anesthetic dental care may be an option in some cases, most veterinary dental experts agree that general anesthesia is necessary for a thorough oral exam and proper dental cleaning in cats with severe dental disease, younger cats, and when extensive procedures are required (Aaha, Preventive Vet).

Cats with advanced periodontal disease need extensive scaling and root planing below the gumline that can only be achieved under anesthesia. Younger cats also have very small mouths making it difficult to properly examine and clean their teeth awake. Additionally, procedures like dental extractions are too painful and complex to perform on a conscious cat.

While anesthesia does carry risks, they can be minimized through bloodwork, an IV catheter, and monitoring. For cats with severe dental problems or those needing extractions, the benefits of thorough veterinary dental care under anesthesia far outweigh the low risks.


In conclusion, regular dental care is essential for cats to maintain good oral health and prevent serious dental disease. While anesthesia provides the most thorough cleaning, the risks and expense make it impractical for frequent cleanings.

Fortunately, there are effective options for non-anesthetic dental care at home. Daily brushing, dental treats and chews, oral rinses, and items like dental wipes can all help reduce plaque and tartar buildup. Cats may resist at first, but being patient and making dental care a positive experience can help them accept a daily routine.

Conscious sedation is a middle ground that allows more thorough cleaning than home care provides, while avoiding the risks of full anesthesia. For cats with severe dental disease, professional cleaning with anesthesia is likely needed. But for routine preventative care, non-anesthetic options are typically sufficient if done regularly.

By establishing a dental care routine using the various methods discussed, cat owners can promote good oral health, reduce plaque buildup, and help prevent dental disease in their feline companions.

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