Veterinary Cat Dental Cleaning – The Risks

by Michael

Periodontal disease - vet needs to clean under the gums hence general anesthetic - Photo by Eric__I_E

Periodontal disease - vet needs to clean under the gums hence general anesthetic - Photo by Eric__I_E

We should know the risks associated with professional dental cleaning of our cat's teeth. Whether we agree to having our cat's teeth cleaned depends on balancing risk and reward (health benefits).

The risk was brought home to me about 2 months ago. I was at a veterinarians and got talking to a person in the waiting room, as you do. They are nervous moments. I dislike vet's waiting rooms. But I like to de-stress by talking to fellow customers.

Well, he was with his old lady cat. She was having her teeth cleaned by the vet. He had been told that the risk of a cat dying under anesthetic was 1 in 100 or a 1% chance. He was nervous about it but had decided to proceed. That risk seemed high just for clean teeth. Clean teeth and healthy gums are important to overall cat health but....the risk seems high because the downside is so total.

The figure of a 1% chance of death may be too high. Two research articles say that the risks of death in general is 1 in 233 or 1 in 895. For sick cats undergoing the cleaning process the risk climbs substantially to 1 in 71.

I find these slightly scary numbers. Clearly the vet does a physical check up and some blood and urine work beforehand to make sure that the cat is fit for general anesthetic but this is not foolproof.

The risk of "complications" is much higher at 1 in 9. Vomiting causing asphyxiation is a risk too it seems.

All in all would you take that risk on behalf of your cat? Some cats are thankfully predisposed to good oral health but some are not.

Cat gum disease

Dental gel for cats

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Veterinary Cat Dental Cleaning - The Risks

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Mar 14, 2012
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My thoughts NEW
by: Ruth

I'm so sad for you anonymous and I know the feelings of guilt you have now, wondering if it realy was necessary to have your cat's teeth cleaned.
But it's the vet to blame, not you!
It seems to me they are now obsessed with cat's teeth, you take your cat for something else and the first thing they do is look at their teeth.
Even before our cats were seen when we changed practices the receptionist brought up them having dentals, having no idea if they needed one or not.
I worked for vets years ago and it was treat the cat for what he was in for, don't look for more ways of making money out of the clients.
What's that old saying 'If it aint broke, don't fix it'

Kattaddorra signature Ruth


Mar 14, 2012
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To Anonymous NEW
by: Barbara

I'm so sorry about your cat, that is everyone's worst nightmare, and why we are so reluctant to put either of our boys through an unnecessary anaesthetic. Vets seem obssessed with teeth cleaning but honestly, cats have been around us for thousands of years without going to the dentist, and if this is the result no wonder! To think you were going to bring her home healthy and then get a shock like that was tragic. Don't feel guilty, you did what you were advised to do, bad enough losing her without eating yourself up with guilt.

Barbara avatar


Mar 13, 2012
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Dental Cleaning NEW
by: Anonymous

Our precious cat of 11 years died after her proceedure 3 weeks ago. She had her teeth cleaned at age 6 with no issues. Despite our best efforts to brush her teeth (she hated) and tartar control treats, she was experiencing increased tartar build up and difficulty chewing on the left side. To ours and her vets knowledge, she was in otherwise good health. Pre-proceedure physical, blood work, heart rate, respirations, all normal during the proceedure and after. She came out of light anesthesia with no problems. She died 2 hours later (after we were called that she was ready to bring home). What a shock when we arrived. Never again will we take these chances if we adopt another cat. The guilt is overwhelming.


Oct 26, 2011
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Dental cleaning
by: Barbara

We dread ever having to take either of our boys in for any operation that involves anaesthetic, we always did but more so after Popsy "died" during supposedly light anaesthesia for an x-ray, they brought her back for a while, but we did lose her in the end.
To me, unless teeth and gums are causing severe problems I would resist dental treatment for cats,cats lived with us for centuries before vets started upping the ante's and wanting to treat them as mini-humans, and surely eating cat biscuits helps in some way to clean the gnashers. And by the way I'm not denying our cats treatment while looking after my own teeth, because I wouldn't put myself through it either.


Oct 26, 2011
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I wonder
by: Michael

I wonder how many vets volunteer this information? I think that unless the gum disease is so bad as to affect health noticeably that the risk is too high.

Cats are not very good at being anesthetized - worse than humans.

A person wouldn't agree to be anesthetized for bad teeth and gums at that risk.

Injury is also a possibility (a higher possibility) and I presume that includes brain damage.


Oct 25, 2011
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Clean Teeth/Dead Cat? A truly horrible dilemma.
by: Grahame

I'm really pleased to see you raising this issue, Michael. Sasha needed a good tooth and gum prophy. There was some inflammation. But he ate well and digital pressure on his teeth and gums did not phase him. Sobered by the risk posed by dental anaesthesia to our beloved 17 year-old cat, we held off. Sasha died of plasma cell cancer, not his teeth cleaning (which never took place, because we were adopting a policy of 'watchful waiting'.)

I dread this issue. I would not subject myself to such odds. Yet, if tooth decay and gum inflammation lead to cardiac problems, what, then, is the prudent and responsible decision to take for our cats?

I think that terrible situations, such as this poses, further conduce one to the persuasion that the universe is not our friend, that nature is red in tooth and claw, and cares not a whit for us and our beloved cats.

My dentist, whom I saw today, has never given me unrelieved or unrelievable pain, so I am relaxed seeing him, and he is happy because I am not one of his dentist-fearing patients. But what if the downside risk was immediate death? Aye, there's the rub, my dear beloved cats.

A truly horrible dilemma.


Oct 25, 2011
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A Scary Odds?
by: Sylvia Ann

Inspector McWee could stand some major dental work, but there's a large risk because of his years(20), and because he has an oddly slow heart rate, according to the veterinarian who treated him for a bug last month. But if his teeth make him ill at some point, he'll have to go in in spite of the risk.

In years past we've feared anesthesia - not because of what the vets have done to our cats, but our squirrel-sized chihuahuas. My mother collapsed when Etta died under anesthesia, as did Snabby-Lou, her little boy.

If McWee developed dental infection - as Ethel did - he'd have to go in. But as long as he's in apparent good health, with a normal appetite, it isn't worth the age-related risk.

For a younger cat, is one in 100 that dicey?

To my grandma's way of thinking, one in a million was a trifle. She often won contests - a week in Hawaii, a 'Kelvinator' refrigerator, gift certificates, etc. as she was convinced she had a perfectly decent chance, and was always composing and sending in 'jingles' and solutons to puzzles.

It's hard to believe how anyone could be tempted by the horses, by casinos and the lottery - yet droves are drawn to these money-throwaways. Our state has dozens of Native American Taj-Mahals(theoretically Mafia-run),and business is booming day & night.

One in 100 may alarm people concerned about living in a tsunami-zone - as we do here - or being struck by satellite debris. But unless one's child is too old or too small - forget anesthesia for a pal-rat - the rest of us probably view the risk as next to nonexistent.



Comments

Veterinary Cat Dental Cleaning – The Risks — 14 Comments

  1. Just lost Toffee, my 9 yr old British short-hair. Dropped her off to the vets this morning without a second glance for a “routine” procedure ( teeth cleaning) and got a message on my answer machine in the afternoon that she had experienced air build-up in the thorax, her heart stopped and she stopped breathing. Despite trying to resuscitate she experienced loss of oxygen to the brain and so they suspected serious brain damage. They explained that the procedure itself ( cleaning and extraction of 3 teeth) went smoothly and she seemed fine afterwards but then she got into a critical stage of build-up of air. The vet explained that they had to remove 400ml of air trapped in the thorax which was an unusually high amount and her lung never fully recovered from the impact. I feel devastated, guilt-ridden and am still reeling from the shock. I cannot believe the outcome and blame myself for trusting the experts without really understanding the risks.

    • Thank you for commenting, Anita. I’m terribly sorry to hear your very distressing story. I can well imagine how you feel. There is a genuine risk to the cat’s health and welfare when their teeth are cleaned by a veterinarian.

      I do not think that that risk is spelt out clearly enough by veterinarians and their staff. It’s a very difficult decision for cat owners because there comes a time in a cat’s life when dental cleaning is probably required. A cat owner has to balance that need against the risks. It can be quite nerve wracking. The worst part for me is that sometimes cats can suffer brain damage but live. There is something terrible about that prospect.

      I think that your comment presents a very good example of the dangers of this procedure and I would like therefore to turn it into a short article. I will do it today. Thanks again for commenting.

  2. We lost our darling boy Biscuit yesterday. He was an 8 year old cat, and after some years of the vets urging to get his teeth cleaned, I thought it would be ok.
    Little did I know I was taking him to die at the Vet.
    The vets claimed that everything went well initially. They have him a pre-sedative to calm him, then put in the catheter for fluids, then the anesthesia, performed the cleaning. After all that they said he only needed little to moderate cleaning. I was told they would call me at 4pm. I didn’t get a call, so I called at 4.15ish. The receptionist said the would call me back to confirm pick up time. After about 30 minsand no call back, I called again. Now the receptionist said come at 6.30.
    When we get there, they call us in, and the Vet tech just starts tells us. Biscuit was fine until a few mins ago. They were trying to remove the catheter tube and while that was happening Biscuit when “agonal”. His breathing dropped and his heart beat. They tried to give him CPR for 15 mins. I went down to see him and he was lying there. He never recovered.
    We are in shock. We have lost our beloved Biscuit of 8 years over this stupid and unnecessary dental cleaning procedure.
    What recourse do we have at this point? Should I ask for an autopsy?

    • OMG, I can feel your distress. It distressed me to read your story. I don’t think you have a claim unless the vet did something clearly negligent and that does not seem to be the case. It is hard, very hard to sue the medical profession because they are expected to make some mistakes and some outcomes will be bad. The question is whether they behaved in a way that was below the standard expected of a veterinarian.

      One possibility is whether your were told it was risk free or there was no mention of the risks. Vets should inform the client fully of the risks so the client can make an informed consent. If they misrepresented the risk you may have an action in contract. But it is tricky.

      Sonal, can I convert your comment into an article as it is quite important as a story to drum home the risks of dental cleaning? If you’d like me to research the possibility of suing the veterinary clinic just ask. The best of luck.

      • Hi Mike, thanks for your quick reply. Yes please do so. We are shell shocked as this happened yesterday around 6.30.
        I was never given a clear sense of the risks ever. By any of the vets urging me to get his teeth cleaned. They only stressed the risks of not cleaning the teeth which could lead to all sorts of gum disease or extractions later, and I feel those risks were definitely overblown.
        Before admitting him yesterday I actually went thru a checklist of questions about the anesthesia protocol etc and they answered my questions pretty well. I think, to the point of your original post, the risks are much higher than we think they are.
        I have now read several accounts of very similar deaths after dental work, the healthy cat goes into respiratory failure and dies.

        • I’d greatly appreciate any advice of suing the clinic. I would like them to at least refund me the $400 for the cleaning. The money is nothing compared to losing Biskie, but it is insult to injury to have to pay that much for an unsuccessful procedure.
          And they are already not promising anything. So if there’s any rationale i can use to get a refund that would be very helpful. Thank you.

          • Thanks for letting me convert your comment to an article. I’ll research suing vets tomorrow and get back to you. I’ll publish your article tomorrow too.

        • For me the risk is too high for teeth cleaning. Unless the teeth are very bad it is better to leave them alone.

  3. My beautiful Lily .aged just 8 in perfect health . Went in for a dental cleaning. Had a heart arrest .. was reanimated and survived 24 hours. I brought her home she was dying with being home 15 mins she died in my arms. I was able to thank her for her 21 amazing kittens and ask her to forgive me and was able to tell her how much i loved her.. i still cry dvery day it was 3 wks ago.. Dont believe the Vets ! It s just business! Money ! And we feel so so sad and guilty.

    • I am so sorry to hear of your distress and the loss of your beautiful Lily. I feel the pain in your writing. It is so hard. I can only wish you the best of luck and that your hurt heals. I know how you feel. I lost my female cat in 1994 (different circumstances but same guilt) and it still hurts. Thanks for commenting.

  4. I just lost my precious 10 yr.-old Persian Himalayan after a dental procedure. She went into respiratory failure well after the procedure and couldn’t be revived. I ordered the “extra-safe” anesthetic seveflurane. I feel sick at heart.

    • God, this is terrible to read about. Heartbreaking. I feel so sorry for you. My condolences. If you want to write about it one day feel free to do so in a longer comment and I will be pleased to turn that into an article but only when you feel ready and if you feel ready.

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