Frequently Asked Questions by Dental Hygienists

Commonly Asked Questions By Dental Hygienists About Veterinary Dentistry

Compiled by Steven Holmstrom, DVM, Dipl. AVDC and Carol Weldin, RDH, BS  (Rev. 2013)


  1. How long has dental hygiene been performed on animals? 

To a certain extent, dental hygiene has been performed in animals since the beginning of small animal veterinary medicine.  Just as dentistry in humans has evolved and continues to evolve, so the technology of veterinary dentistry and veterinary dental hygiene continues to develop.  In most states, the veterinarian is specifically licensed to practice “Veterinary Medicine, Surgery and Dentistry”, and the practice of dentistry and dental cleanings is under the purview of the veterinarian’s license.

2.  Has anesthesia always been used?

For modern veterinary medicine and dentistry, YES.  It is not possible to deliver complete and thorough prophylactic dental procedure, or perform periodontal procedures, without general anesthesia:  a) Patients will not hold still  b) Risk of operator injury from being bitten is significant c) Inability to completely instrument the patient, and  d) Inability to completely examine the patient.  Inability to probe, inability to take intraoral radiographs, also injury to the patient from the dental instruments when the patient moves (e.g., gingival lacerations).  Likewise, sedation dentistry “twilight” risks aspiration of oral fluids, secretions, plaque, and calculus resulting in aspiration pneumonia since the protective airway reflexes are lost.

3. What types of anesthesia are used?

            Premedication with an analgesic(s) and anxiolytics (multimodal neuroleptanalgesia) +/- an NSAID with inhalation gas anesthesia for anesthetic maintenance with Isoflurane or Sevoflurane.

3.  What is the job description of a Veterinary Technician (License, Register, or Credential)?

The RVT, LVT, CVT has a wide variety of duties that range from animal care to surgical assisting.  The state’s veterinary practice acts details which procedures can be performed by the veterinary technician with direct or indirect supervision of the veterinarian, or in some cases which procedures may be performed by an unlicensed or certified individual.  The Veterinary Practice Act is usually very specific in describing the legal limitations of individuals: Veterinarians are licensed and RVT/LVT’s are either certified or registered in the majority of states, while all others are considered unlicensed veterinary assistants in the veterinary field, no matter what their training (DDS, RDH, MD, etc.)

4.  What dental instruments are used in non-human animals?

All of the instruments used in human dentistry are used in animal dentistry.

5.  Is veterinary dental hygiene becoming more popular, or has it always been in demand?

The need has always been there, but as in many areas of medicine and dentistry, awareness is increasing.

6. Do you have to advertise dental hygiene for animals?

No, however, veterinary patients are examined yearly for their general health.  The annual physical exam should include an oral exam.  It is ideal if the veterinarian recommends a   preventive cleaning, but more commonly, oral disease is diagnosed or brought to the attention of the veterinarian by the pet owner and acted on at that time.

7.  Is there a future for dental hygienists in veterinary dentistry?

There is a future for those who are willing to accept a significantly lower income than a hygienist typically makes and take the additional time to become a registered/certified/licensed veterinary technician.  Unlike human dentistry, where profit margins may be in the 50-75% range, typical profit margins in veterinary medicine are in the 15-35% range.  This translates to lower incomes for the veterinarian and staff.

8.  What is the educational background of a veterinary technician?

The RVT/CVT/LVT program in most accredited schools is a two-year course in veterinary anatomy, physiology, pharmacology, anesthesiology, radiology, nursing care, veterinary dentistry, veterinary office practices, animal restraint, and related subjects.  In some states, there is an alternative program for registration whereby an individual may become a veterinary technician by having documented experience in practice, course work, and    state examination through unaccredited sources.  Consult the Board of Examiners in Veterinary Medicine in your state for more specific information.

What additional courses would a dental hygienist need to work in veterinary dentistry?

A veterinary technician curriculum would be the most desirable.

9.  Are there general anesthesia requirements?


Who needs to be present when general anesthesia is administered?

            It depends on the situation and the individuals involved.  This also depends on the state and the Veterinary Practice Act in that state.  In California, the veterinarian must  administer anesthesia and is responsible for it.  The VT may administer anesthesia when the veterinarian is present, and not under direct supervision (the veterinarian must be in the facility), if the veterinarian has judged that the individual is qualified.  The unregistered assistant may administer and monitor anesthesia only under direct supervision (the veterinarian is present in the same room).  Consult each individual state Board of Veterinary Medicine for more information.

10.  Are there special education courses that are needed to work with wildlife?

            In order to treat certain species, special education, permits and licenses are required.

11. What instruments are most commonly used?

            All the instruments used in dentistry on humans are used in animals – curettes, scalers, periodontal probes and explorers, ultrasonics, prophy angles, slow and high speed handpieces, intraoral radiography, etc., are all used in a veterinary dental practice.

12.  How long does it take to perform full mouth prophylaxis on a dog or a cat?

            45 to 90 minutes, depending on the stage of disease, size of patient, etc.  Add on anesthetic induction, intravenous fluid administration for the elderly, and recovery time and the procedure can take 60 to 120 minutes. In addition to intraoral dental radiographs.  Most veterinary patients are undergoing periodontal cleanings since by definition many patients are past the stage of prevention (prophylaxis) and require periodontal treatments and extractions.  Prophylaxis is not the treatment of the disease process.

13. What are the average fees for a full mouth prophylaxis on a dog or a cat?

Approximately $600-900 for dental prophylaxis and radiographs; this includes pre-anesthetic analgesia, general anesthesia, intraoral radiographs, monitoring and intravenous fluid support.  Additional fees are necessary for periodontal therapy, oral surgery, and extended anesthesia.

14. Is veterinary dentistry prevention-oriented?

            Not like it is in human dentistry.  Homecare instruction is frequently communicated to the pet owner at an early age; but commonly the first cleaning is not prophylactic.  Instead it is treatment of early periodontal disease.

15. How prevalent is periodontal disease in animals?

            85% of dogs and cats have periodontal disease by the age of three.


Recommended reading, for more information:

Veterinary Dental Techniques, WB Saunders: Holmstrom SE, Frost P, Eisner E.

Veterinary Dentistry: A Team Approach, Elsevier: Holmstrom SE.

Veterinary Dentistry Principles & Practice, Lippincott-Raven: Wiggs RB & Lobprise HB.

Small Animal Dentistry, Mosby: Harvey CE & Emily P.

Small Animal Oral Medicine & Surgery, Lea & Febiger: Bojrab MJ & Emily P.


For additional information:

Board of Examiners in Veterinary Medicine for Practice Act (CA): Phone 916-263-2610

Steven E. Holmstrom, DVM, Past President, American Veterinary Dental Society and AmericanVeterinaryDentalCollege. E- mail:

American Veterinary Dental Society website:

American Veterinary Dental College website:


AmericanAnimalHospital Association Guidelines: