Illustration by Goodloe Byron

Around the time Rachel Cliffton’s veterinarian mails the annual reminder for her 9-year-old dachshund, Henry, to have his teeth cleaned, his “super stinky” breath underscores the need.

“We tried brushing his teeth, but he put up quite a fuss,” says Cliffton, who lives in Montgomery Village. “I just ended up covered in toothpaste, and nothing went in his mouth.”

So Henry gets his teeth cleaned professionally once a year, under anesthesia. His last visit cost nearly $1,000—higher than normal because he also needed two teeth removed.

While professional cleanings are not cheap ($400-$600), they can help avert more extensive oral issues, such as root canals ($1,500-$2,000) or even the extraction of every tooth (as much as $5,000). But there’s more at stake than dental health. Periodontal disease causes inflammation of the gums, which could allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream and create problems with major organs, including the liver, kidney and heart.

How often an animal needs a professional cleaning varies, but veterinarians generally agree that it’s best to start around age 2 or 3. Dogs tend to need more care than cats, says
Dr. David Vilallonga, a veterinarian at Pet Dominion in Rockville. If you notice that your dog is turning its head to one side while eating, or if your dog’s breath is especially bad, these may be red flags for professional intervention, Vilallonga says.

Most veterinarians offer cleanings under anesthesia. The procedure usually takes 45 minutes to an hour and involves breaking up, scraping and removing the hardened plaque. Each tooth is brushed and polished, and a liquid coating is applied to protect the enamel. There are always risks with anesthesia, which depresses heart rate and blood pressure, but complications are rare. With proper monitoring and pre-anesthetic tests, the benefits outweigh the risks, says Dr. Kendall Taney, a veterinarian with the Center for Veterinary Dentistry and Oral Surgery in Gaithersburg. The death rate connected to anesthesia and pets, adds Taney, is less than 1 percent.

For owners who are nervous about anesthesia or don’t want to spend the money, alternatives are available. Pearly White Pets in Gaithersburg, for example, offers dental cleanings without anesthesia for $249 to $289. Co-founder Gary Albert says this approach isn’t for every pet; about 5 percent to 8 percent don’t tolerate being held by the licensed vet techs for the one-hour service. If dental problems are detected, owners are referred to their veterinarians for additional care. “We consider ourselves a supplemental service in oral care,” Albert says.

Non-anesthesia procedures, Taney says, are not as thorough and should not replace a deep cleaning that targets debris beneath the gums. “In my opinion, it is not suitable for anything more than cosmetic cleanup of tartar above the gum line,” she says.

Just as with humans, good dental hygiene begins at home. Taney recommends brushing your dog’s teeth at least three times a week with a flavored pet toothpaste. Taney suggests using those described as “enzymatic,” to control bacteria. Never use human toothpaste; fluoride can be poisonous to pets.

Vilallonga suggests getting into the teeth-cleaning habit early. “It has to be a positive action, not forced,” he says. “Start with a treat or petting the dog.” He recommends approaching your pet from behind and using a fingertip brush to clean the front teeth first, then progressing to the molars in the back.

Another strategy for dogs, Vilallonga suggests, is to use daily dental chews, such as OraVet, to help fight against plaque and tartar. For additional ideas on diets, treats and other dental-friendly products, check out the Veterinary Oral Health Council (

Cliffton is diligent about Henry’s regular cleanings, and she notices how much better his teeth look and how fresh his breath is afterward. “He’s a good little dude,” she says. “It’s definitely worth the money.”