Healthy or Hazardous? Debate Over Pet Dental Care Trend

If you’re a pet owner who considers your animal part of your family, pay attention.

Some in the veterinary industry are fighting like cats and dogs over best practices for maintaining your animal’s dental health, with some advocating the traditional way of using anesthesia and others pushing for anesthesia-free cleansing, a cheaper and some say more controversial alternative.

Any vet will tell you gum and mouth disease can kill your pet, but concern over the expense and potential risks associated with general anesthesia has given rise to anesthesia-free cleanings.

The NBC4 I-Team has learned this booming trend is producing mixed results and some complaints.

Ventura County resident Carolyn Lyons is an animal lover with two dogs, three cats and additional foster pets. Paying for their health care, like teeth cleanings, gets expensive.

“You figure $300 to have their teeth cleaned and that was about the going rate,” Lyons said. Some veterinarians can charge upward of $500.

One hundred dollars is what Lyons said she paid Smile Specialist, an anesthesia-free dental cleaning service, for her cat, Monkey-Face.

“Driving home there wasn’t a sound out of her,” she said.

Lyons said for a week after the anesthesia-free cleaning, Monkey-Face wouldn’t eat or drink. Lyons tried placing food on the cat’s tongue.

“When she wiped it off, the pus and blood came pouring out of her mouth and I just lost it,” Lyons said.

Wendy Hand is a veterinary technician with Adobe Animal Hospital in Oxnard who treated Lyons’ cat.

“It was almost completely severed,” Hand said of Monkey-Face’s tongue.

Hand said the wound is consistent with a cut caused by a sharp object, like a dental scaler.

“How do you communicate to a terrified animal you need to sit perfectly still?” Hand asked.

Critics of anesthesia-free cleaning say that’s the crux of it: that many animals simply won’t sit still, making the job of using sharp instruments in their mouths dangerous.

“That cat did not sustain an injury at a Smile Specialist Clinic,” said Kay Douglass, owner of Smile Specialist.

Kay Douglass owns Smile Specialist, a mobile dental cleaning service for pets.

She agreed to an interview with the I-Team to discuss Lyons’ accusation.

Douglass said her business employs a dozen vets and one is always on-site supervising cleanings.

Douglass said it was six days before she heard of problems with Lyons’ cat.

Dr. Jonathan Friedberg is a veterinarian who works with Smile Specialist.

“It’s an impossibility. There would be no blood from that,” Friedberg said.

Douglass said she is aware there are some bad actors within the industry of anesthesia-free pet dentistry.

She invited the I-Team to watch two cleanings on one of her mobile units.

Anesthesia-free cleaning does require a pet to be restrained, often wrapped in towels. Animals will move, and Smile Specialist said it can’t complete a cleaning on about 10 percent of the animals they work with due to demeanor or health. It recommends those animals for anesthesia cleaning.

Vet technician Amanda Klebs has performed both.

“Dogs that can’t go under anesthesia, that also need every 6 months to a year need a regular cleaning, this is a great alternative,” Klebs said.

Veterinarian Julio Lopez said anesthesia-free cleanings are the equivalent of teeth whitening.

“They’re more of a cosmetic procedure,” he said.

He said that anesthetizing pets allows for better cleaning beneath gums, where disease can fester.

“You can’t get a pet to lift his tongue left or right. There’s no way I’m going to put my hands down there in order to properly clean those teeth without getting bitten,” Lopez said.

He said he’s treated animals for broken jaws, ligament tears and other injuries animals suffered fighting to free themselves during anesthesia-free cleanings.

But Kay Douglass, owner of Smile Specialist, said it’s an alternative to the risks of anesthesia, which have also resulted in pet deaths.

“My interest was to change the viewpoint of teeth cleaning,” she said. “I wouldn’t put my dog under again.”

Lyons has filed a complaint against Smile Specialist with the California Veterinary Medical Board. Her cat ultimately was euthanized because of the injury.

“If I would have known something like this could happen there is no way that I would have taken my animals there,” she said.

The I-Team submitted a Public Records Request to the California Veterinary Medical Board to find out the number of complaints they’ve received regarding anesthesia-free cleanings.

The same information was requested for dental cleanings conducted under anesthesia.

The board denied both requests, citing the need for the confidentiality of its investigations.

For more information on California laws regarding pet dental care, learn about state's dental regulations for veterinary medicine here; find out about the minimum standards defined by the California Department of Consumer Affairs Veterinary Medical Board here; and the American Veterinary Medical Foundation's guidelines for veterinary dentistry here.

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