Amber Highfield isn’t your average dental hygienist.
Instead of reclining in a dental chair, she sits on the floor and holds her client’s head in her lap. Then she gives them a good rub behind their ears before she starts working on their teeth.
She is a certified pet dental hygienist who specializes in anesthesia-free dental scaling at Lance Animal Hospital in Gainesville.
She said working on animal teeth is actually easier than it would be to work on some people.
“(Animals) are definitely a lot more laid-back about it than people are. I’ve had people say, ‘Well can you do my teeth, because I hate going to the dentist?’” Highfield said chuckling.
Part of the reason the animals stay so calm is that she gives them a dose of natural herb and flower essential oils to help them relax. She also uses aromatherapy and plays classical music during the procedure.
The process is basically the same for pets as it is for people. She uses a dental scaler to scrape plaque and tartar buildup off teeth and she uses a regular toothbrush to polish the teeth. The only real difference is that the toothpaste is liver-flavored. Apparently, dogs don’t have the same fondness for mint people do.
Her patients can be a bit snappy at times but she just considers it a simple misunderstanding.
“I’ve never had an aggressive bite. It’s usually been just kind of a misunderstanding. They’re just scared and they’re biting at the air and my finger just happened to get in the way,” Highfield said.
But that doesn’t mean Highfield takes the potential for a serious bite lightly. She said she’s very careful about screening her clients.
If an animal has any kind of oral injury or disease that would cause them pain, she’ll recommend they have their teeth cleaned the traditional way with anesthesia. Her reasons are as much for the animal’s comfort as for her own safety.
She said her service is in no way a substitute for the more in-depth dental cleaning a veterinarian can provide while the animal is asleep. Instead she calls is a “complimentary service” that could help prolong the amount of time between in-depth dental exams.
Dr. Ira Roth, director of the University of Georgia’s College of Veterinary Medicine Community Practice Clinic, said the practice of anesthesia-free dental cleanings is generally frowned upon because of the inherent risks involved. He said there are “very few people willing to take that risk.”
However, he describes pet oral care as “paramount” to their overall health and well-being.
He said some 70 to 80 percent of the dogs and cats seen at his clinic have some kind of oral disease.
“It is one of the most underdiagnosed, overlooked conditions that we see,” Roth said.
“We talk to our students all the time about the importance of this. If we really are in the mindset that we are in this to prevent disease, then dental care is a part of this whole packet of concerns that we have. It’s just as important as nutritional counseling and just as important as parasite control and appropriate vaccinations.”
One trend in pet dental care is to use radiography to see the nearly 40 percent of the tooth hidden below the gum line. Roth said without putting the animal under and taking a radiographic image, it would be easy to miss significant problems.
By maintaining good oral health, pet owners can prevent a number of other health problems in other areas of the body.
“If we have disease in the mouth this can spill over into the blood system and infect various organ systems. The kidneys and the heart are the two organ systems most at risk,” Roth said.
In general veterinarians recommend having a pet’s mouth cleaned and examined every six months to a year, but that can vary depending on the individual pet’s needs. Pet owners traditionally tend to ignore oral problems until it gets so bad that teeth have to be removed.
“The truth of the matter is that dogs and cats are living to be really old critters these days, 15, 16, 17, even 20 years of age. It really is nice to help them through that aging process so they can have a pain-free mouth and enough teeth to get by,” Roth said.
There are a lot of things pet owners can do to help improve and postpone oral problems in their pets. There are several brands and flavors of pet toothpaste, toothbrushes, water additives and specific diets that all can help maintain and even improve oral health.
Roth recommends pet owners begin practicing good oral care while their animals are still young. Suddenly introducing an older dog to a toothbrush could be a very “intrusive event.”
But Highfield said her practice of anesthesia-free cleanings can be beneficial to an older animal that isn’t healthy enough to go under general anesthesia. She said a lot of dogs actually fall asleep in her lap while she’s scaling their teeth.
“Once they realize you’re not going to hurt them, they’ll let you do it. It is a really interesting thing when they lay there and let you have your fingers in their mouths. It’s kind of neat,” Highfield said.