The Term "Dental" Is Misleading: We Don't Just Clean Teeth

Dr. Majeski prepares to clean teeth on a cat

It is common for clients to ask, "why does it cost so much?  It doesn't cost  me that much to go to the dentist."  We understand that there is a misnomer when it comes to animal dentistry and want to help you understand why your pet's visit to the "dentist" is not as simple as you might think. 

In fact, comparing pet dentistry to human dentistry is often an apples to oranges comparison.

People usually go to the dentist for straight forward prophylactic dental cleanings.  For our pets, a dental procedure is so much more than just a cleaning.  During the procedure, your veterinarian is looking for signs of hidden dental pain and disease in addition to cleaning the teeth and often advanced oral surgery is needed.

Why is it surgery?

Unless your pet is coming to see us for a preventative cleaning and dental assessment, general anesthesia is required.  General anesthesia is very safe but achieving this level of safety requires highly trained medical staff, involved monitoring, and expensive medications.  If we think of this in human medicine, it is the difference between going to a primary care dentist and going to the hospital.

The most common symptom of oral pain in pets is nothing.

There is also a high probability your pet will need some sort of dental work that extends beyond cleaning and polishing.  The most common symptom of oral pain in pets is nothing.  It is a simple reality that animals hide most of their pain.  They can go years without telling us they are in pain.  The drive to eat is so strong that most animals will continue to eat even if they have significant oral pain.  Couple this with the fact that pets do not brush their teeth daily, it is no surprise that most of the dogs and cats we see require dental extractions.

But, if my vet told me my pet has great teeth, why do you want to do dental X-Rays (aka dental RADs)?

Feline odontoclastic resorption lesion (pre-extraction)

Feline odontoclastic resorption lesion (pre-extraction)

Post extraction. This cat is going to feel much better!

Post extraction. This cat is going to feel much better!

  • Dental radiographs are imperative during every anesthetic dental procedure to provide complete care. Radiographs see another world under the gum line and identify problems that are not visible during a physical examination. We simply can’t help what we can’t see.

  • Grading during wellness exams is a great start but most pets are not good about holding their mouths' open wide or letting us look under their tongue while awake, making it difficult to fully evaluate their mouths during a routine physical exam. It is common for us to find broken or abscessed teeth, severe gum infections, or tumors in the mouth during a dental procedure.

I've had RADs and extractions and it wasn't a surgery.  I still don't understand the difference.

Remember pets and people have some significant differences.

dog with mouth wide open

Pets have different types of teeth:

  • Because dogs and cats are carnivorous, they have carnassial (meaning they include large three-rooted) teeth. Unlike the molars of humans, dog and cat molars don’t have flat surfaces designed for grinding grains and other vegetable matter. Furthermore, they can only move their jaws up and down, whereas we humans can move our jaws from side to side. Cats’ incisors (those small teeth in-between their fangs) are perfect grooming but aren’t used for eating.

  • Most adults have 32 teeth. Among these teeth are 8 incisors, 4 canines, 8 premolars, and 12 molars (including 4 wisdom teeth). Adult dogs have 42 permanent teeth and cats have 30.

  • The root of your pet’s teeth makes a “V” shape while yours’ go up and down. This makes it more difficult to remove a tooth in an animal, taking more time and precision. Sutures (stitches) are usually needed to surgically close the extraction areas.

These differences complicate surgical procedures and extraction techniques. It is quite literally “like pulling teeth”.

So, how do I avoid dental surgeries for my pet?

pet specific toothpaste and brush

People typically care for their mouth daily.  All teeth need daily care.  It does not matter what species we are discussing.  Most pets simply do not get the same amount of routine care.  One of the best things you can do to decrease the cost of dental care in your pet is to make dental care at home a priority.  By teaching your pet to open their mouth fully for an exam, it will be easier to detect dental problems early when they are cheaper to correct.  Regular tooth brushing, and/or the use of dental diets, chews, or rinses can limit tartar and slow the onset of periodontal disease. 

Remember, regardless of how diligent you are, there is a likelihood your pet will need a procedure at some point in their life--unfortunately, some pets need them every year--but routine care slows the process of dental disease and facilitates discovery of dental issues at a much earlier stage of disease. 

Our Preventative Dental Cleanings and Assessments (PDCA) that are done on compliant pets with very low levels of dental disease are like human prophylactic dental cleanings.  The cost of a PDCA is comparable to the cost of a human dental cleaning. 

While veterinary dentistry and dental surgery may have significant costs that can be difficult to anticipate, dental care also has a vast potential to alleviate pain and improve lives.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions.

Timothy R Kraabel DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline Practice)

Medical Director

President Elect, American Board of Veterinary Practitioners


Jordan Bair

Customer Service Representative, Marketing Assistant