Small animal veterinarians are commonly asked: “How do the costs add up so quickly for my pet’s dental procedure?” But first, we should discuss why a dental procedure might be recommended for your pet. It’s not just about sparkling white teeth and fresher breath, though those are among the many positive outcomes. Oral health matters for pets for the same reason that it matters for us: It’s all connected.
The mouth can act as a port of entry for bacteria, allowing infection and inflammation to move through the bloodstream to the rest of the body. Pets also suffer significant pain related to fractured teeth, infection of the gums and abscessed or loose teeth.
But what exactly happens during a pet’s dental procedure? The breakdown below should help explain why these procedures are often expensive and why costs vary between veterinary clinics:
General anesthesia is necessary to thoroughly examine your pet’s mouth. Some of the molar teeth are tucked so far back in the mouth, they can’t be seen well in even the nicest and most compliant pet. Think about how your dental hygienist performs an in-depth exam and cleaning, uses a dental probe to measure pockets along your gum line and has you sit still for dental X-rays. None of this is possible for pets without anesthesia.
Pre-anesthetic blood tests help identify individual health concerns that could impact the pet’s procedure or cause potential problems during or after anesthesia. Some clinics have in-house laboratories that add cost but allow for rapid monitoring and response to anesthetic emergencies.
Calming and pain-relieving pre-anesthetic medications decrease the need for other anesthetic drugs, improve safety and lead to smoother recoveries.
Ideally, an intravenous (IV) catheter is placed to give drugs and fluids, though this varies between clinics. Catheters provide rapid access to the bloodstream in the rare event of an anesthetic emergency. IV fluids maintain hydration, electrolyte balance and blood pressure to protect the heart and other organs.
Next, an endotracheal tube is placed inside the throat to deliver oxygen and gas anesthesia and to prevent inhalation of liquid and dental cleaning debris. Inhalant gas maintains pets’ unconsciousness and allows rapid adjustments in anesthetic depth.
Anesthetic monitoring equipment and protocols vary, but often pets are monitored by multiple staff members using advanced equipment. Pulse oximeters measure heart rate and blood oxygen levels. Additional equipment tracks heart rhythm and blood pressure, alerting the team immediately to dangerous changes. Careful temperature monitoring prevents hypothermia (perilously low body temperature) that may delay recovery and decrease anesthetic safety.
Dental X-rays are crucial to understanding the health of tooth roots hidden below the gum line. Many teeth have multiple roots that may be considerably longer than the exposed crown, so we’re truly only seeing “the tip of the iceberg” if we don’t look below the surface. Some infections cause obvious gum changes or loose teeth, but others are only detectable using X-rays. And without X-rays, root fragments may be left behind after tooth extraction, causing ongoing pain and infection. For optimal detail, some clinics have specialized digital dental X-rays.
As in human dental offices, drills, polishers and hand tools are often employed. Ultrasonic scalers may be used to remove the thick calculus (mineralized plaque) that can accumulate on pets’ teeth.
Staffing and training also add significant cost. Your pet’s dental team ideally consists of a licensed veterinarian, one or two certified veterinary technicians and one or two veterinary assistants. The veterinarian assesses your pet’s oral and overall health, directs anesthesia, performs dental extractions and surgery, and determines the post-dental plan. The certified veterinary technicians play multiple roles: dental hygienist, phlebotomist (drawing blood), anesthetist (pain relief) and X-ray technician. Veterinary assistants support pets’ core body temperatures to prevent hypothermia and maintain heart rates, oxygenation, blood pressure, general attitude, comfort and cleanliness.
The need for extractions or surgical removal of oral tumors varies with each pet. Local nerve blocks are administered prior to these procedures for pain relief lasting up to eight hours. At some clinics, a laser may be used in the removal of abnormal gum tissue and acupuncture may be offered for pain, nausea and anxiety relief.
Antibiotics, anti-nausea drugs, pain relievers and appetite support may be critical for speedy recovery and are tailored to each pet’s comfort, anesthetic complications and health status (e.g., insulin for diabetics).
The items above detail many of the costs involved in pet dental procedures, but what isn’t discussed is how concerned veterinarians tend to be about client costs. It’s actually considered a major stressor in veterinary medicine, a profession in which practitioners constantly worry about how to provide the best care for the pets and clients we love while still respecting individual family cost constraints.
So, if your veterinarian recommends a dental procedure, listen carefully and ask questions because we truly want what’s best for your pet and want to help you in achieving that goal.
Dr. Catherine Hageman is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email general pet questions to email@example.com. Veterinarians cannot give pet-specific medical advice without an office visit.