High cost – and value – of dental care for dogs

brushing dog's teeth

The latest discussion among my neighbors these days is where to take our dogs for dental care — and how much is it going to cost.

Neighbors who have recently had their dogs’ teeth cleaned have seen estimates ranging from $300 to $1,200, depending on the vet, the dog’s  age and whether teeth had to be removed as well as cleaning.

Anesthesia-free dog dental care is much cheaper. Nearly everyone agrees this isn’t as good as a full scaling under anesthesia. How much worse depends on many factors. You can get it done anywhere from dog groomers to veterinarians’ offices. At least in a vet’s office, there’s a trained professional to consult when a problem is spotted.

I have reluctantly come to believe that dental care under anesthesia is the best option — if you have a good vet who doesn’t give the dog too much anesthesia and monitors them well.

Why teeth cleaning is important for a dog

When I first got a dog of my own, I was surprised to learn how important cleaning a dog’s teeth is.

When I was growing up, no one had their dogs’ teeth cleaned — but we all complained about “dog breath.” A few dog biscuits or a butcher’s bone will cure that, we thought.

Just like with humans, the bacteria that grows under a dog’s gums can travel to the heart, kidneys and liver causing health problems. Nearly 85% of all pets have gum disease by the time they are three years old. Without cleaning, the gums, teeth and tissues that support the teeth get more and more damaged. This can cause tooth loss — and more serious health issues.

A professional cleaning under anesthesia allows a vet to inspect the health of your dog’s mouth and teeth. He or she can remove plaque and tartar from the teeth, take X-rays and remove fractured or infected teeth. The vet will also check for growths, tumors, wounds or other problems with the lips, tongue and mouth.

During a cleaning and examination, the vet will take notes and chart the status of the dog’s mouth for future reference about changes over time.

First experiences with canine dental hygiene

The first couple of times I had my dog Joey’s teeth cleaned, two things bothered me.  First was the cost. Compared to our other routine expenses — shots, nail-trimming, food, treats or toys — several hundred dollars for cleaning was a shock to my wallet.

The second was Joey’s reaction to it.  He was delivered back to me wobbly and woozy and couldn’t stagger to the exit fast enough.

Eventually, I decided not to get Joey’s teeth cleaned. He developed a heart murmur as he aged. I worried about the effect of the anesthesia on his heart. Later, I regretted my decision. In the last years of his life, it was clear his teeth hurt him.

The last nine months of his life, he suffered from a rare liver disease, hepatocutaneous syndrome. It wasn’t curable. Treatments helped only briefly.  So many things about his health were outside my control. One thing that I could have controlled was getting his teeth cleaned regularly when he was younger. At least then he wouldn’t have had to deal with painful teeth.

My next dog, Spike, was a Shi Tzu-terrier mix. He had a snaggle tooth, an overbite and a tiny mouth. At the time, we were going to a holistic vet who recommended the anesthesia-free cleaning offered by a visiting canine dental hygienist. She could and did reach out to our vet on site with questions or concerns about Spike’s oral health as she worked.

Anesthesia-free teeth cleaning

I have researched and debated what, if any, value anesthesia-free teeth cleaning has for dogs.

It’s offered in so many places, from groomers to vets’ offices. Knowledgeable people agree that it essentially only cleans the visible portion of a dog’s teeth.  It doesn’t scale plaque and tartar from below the gumline. It doesn’t include X-rays.  Unless the procedure is done in a vet’s office, not much can be done about any problems that might be spotted.

Most significantly to me is this: When you take your dog to a vet, you can see the diplomas on the wall. You know that the abbreviation DVM (doctor of veterinary medicine) means the vet has had a certain level of training and knowledge. With someone doing anesthesia-free teeth cleaning for dogs, you usually don’t have a clue how they were trained.  There’s no certification or licensing process for a doggie dental hygienist.

A new view on cleaning my dog’s teeth

Spike and I eventually changed vets. He developed a black mass on his chest near his left front leg.  His vet, Sofia Brickman, DVM, CCRT, cVMA at Rose City Veterinary Hospital, recommended that it be removed and biopsied.

Since he was going to need anesthesia, Dr. Brickman recommended that we clean his teeth as well.

What a difference a vet makes! Unlike my previous experiences with getting my dog’s teeth cleaned, this time I got a written report and pictures of the condition of his teeth and what was done.  He was stable on his feet as we walked out the car.

The bottom line

So what have I learned from all of this?  The following:

  • Getting your dog’s teeth cleaned is important to their lifelong health and comfort. It’s an investment that may prevent or postpone more serious problems later in your dog’s life.
  • Accept the fact that dental care for your dog is one of the more expensive parts of his or her care.  You can’t compare it to a chew toy or a can of dog food.
  • Shop around. In discussing the cost of having a dog’s teeth cleaned with friends and neighbors, I found there was a wide variety of prices. Among neighbors where I live prices ranged from $300 to $400 (without extractions) for a vet in La Canada to $610 to $1200 for cleaning and any necessary extractions in Valley Village. It pays to shop around. Vets don’t want you to be surprised if there are complications and thus higher costs. Don’t be surprised by a wide range in the estimate.
  • Anesthesia-free teeth cleaning is like paying someone to do half a job. It’s not a good value. In the long run, it’s not going to protect your dog’s health as well as a more complete cleaning under anesthesia done by a trained vet.

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