When are dental cleaning and anesthesia absolutely necessary for a dog?

While routine dental care may not require anesthesia, more difficult procedures do.
While routine dental care may not require anesthesia, more difficult procedures do. ASSOCIATED PRESS

Q: My veterinarian says our American Eskimo, Wolfie, needs a dental cleaning for his periodontal disease. He also has something in his mouth called an oronasal fistula. We’ve been reluctant to do this because it requires anesthesia. When is it absolutely necessary to clean their teeth?

A: Let’s say your pet’s paw had just been injured. Picture a simple laceration about an inch long and half as deep. You’d want it cleaned out and stitched up under anesthesia, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. Few of my clients would balk at such a prospect.

Now picture an even deeper lesion that’s spent the past few months steeping in a bath of oral bacteria. That –– and potentially worse –– is what’s brewing in Wolfie’s mouth right now. Why would you not consider anesthesia “absolutely necessary” in this case?

But I get it. You’re worried about anesthesia. Plenty of pet owners just like you hear a lot about appropriate dental care and may even know about the severe implications of periodontal disease. Unfortunately, you also deny that dental disease is a significant enough problem for Wolfie to warrant preventive measures or even treatment of severe conditions like an oronasal fistula –– not if it means anesthetizing him.

The way I see it, pet owners who have felt the need to decline an anesthetic procedure in the face of severe oral disease tend to fall into a common category of pet owner who undeniably wants their pet to be healthy … but doesn’t believe that most common oral conditions compare to surgically amenable lacerations. Anesthesia, they hold, is to be reserved for severe situations that cannot be addressed otherwise.

But I’m here to tell you that, despite what you may have heard, anesthesia for pets is safer than it’s ever been; few pets experience adverse anesthetic events (about 4 in 1,000 suffer these not-necessarily-life-threatening reactions); periodontal disease is easier prevented than treated, even if it means anesthesia; shorter, preventative anesthetic procedures are far safer than more complex procedures on teeth that are severely infected (like Wolfie’s); and pets really do experience serious pain from these lesions, even if your pet’s attitude and eating habits suggest otherwise.

So when does it become absolutely necessary to clean their teeth? Anytime your pet’s mouth might potentially lead to a condition like an oronasal fistula. Which means Wolfie is way overdue. Please don’t delay any further.

Dr. Patty Khuly has a veterinary practice at Sunset Animal Clinic in South Miami. Her website is Send questions to