Why Does My Cat’s Dental Work Cost More Than Mine Does?
Dr. Fern Slack, UCVC Medical Director
If your cat should need dental work – and most will, eventually – you will no doubt see a bill that is substantially higher than what you get from your own dentist when you go for your regular dental cleaning. There are several reasons for this, and they all come back to one fact: effective feline dental work cannot be done without general anesthesia.
The entire model of human dental care is quite different from routine veterinary dental care. To begin with, human dental care is generally delivered periodically. The usual model is a dental cleaning (prophylaxis) every 6 months, usually performed by a dental technician, followed by an examination by the dentist, and X-rays of your teeth as indicated by exam findings or reported symptoms. Feline dental care, on the other hand, is almost never scheduled on a regular periodic basis. Rather, periodic full body examinations are done, and dental care is recommended if dental problems are found.
The lack of periodicity makes it likely that your cat’s dental problems are already advanced farther than yours would be before they are identified and addressed, and therefore less likely to be fixed simply by cleaning and polishing. A feline dental procedure frequently addresses years of problem development, not 6 months, and consequently more things often need to be done, leading to a higher cost.
Benefits, Costs, And Risks
Would it then be better to have your cat’s teeth cleaned every 6 months, like your own? Perhaps, but the benefits of periodic cleanings must be balanced against the costs, and risks, of general anesthesia. This balance is different for every cat, depending on degree and type of dental disease, and on the function of organs that affect anesthetic competency. All effective feline dental work requires general anesthesia, which is a cost most humans do not incur when having their teeth cleaned. To minimize both the costs and risks of general anesthesia, we try to do dental work only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. This is nearly impossible to determine from a simple oral examination, since much feline dental disease occurs under the gums or around the tooth roots, where it can’t be seen without an X-ray. And neither subgingival examination or oral X-rays can be performed without anesthesia.
Routine Feline Dental Procedure
Because so much of the cost of feline dental work is bound up in anesthesia, the safest and least costly course overall is to address all current dental problems during one anesthetic event. We always begin with cleaning, polishing, full mouth X-rays, and full visual evaluation by the veterinarian. Teeth that are broken, degenerating, loose, or have other significant periodontal disease are removed. It is usually in the best interests of the patient to do this all at one time. Since such dental problems are common, a “routine” feline dental procedure often includes oral surgery, sometimes extensive, which would be the province of an oral surgeon in the human world. Human oral surgery routinely costs thousands of dollars for working on even a single tooth. Veterinary oral surgery is much less expensive, and the cost is kept down by doing it where possible at the same time as the dental cleaning, so there is only one anesthetic event.
What this all adds up to is this: almost no feline dental work is “routine,” at least not in the sense that human dental cleanings are; and many feline dental procedures include oral surgery which would be done separately and at a much higher cost for a human.
Yes, feline dental cleanings cost more than human ones, due to the need for anesthesia; but the trade-off is that your cat may be able to have all her problems addressed at once, at a much lower total cost than would be the case for a human, with the added convenience of fewer visits.