A digital heartbeat pumps out across the room as a woman in scrubs approaches a steel operating table. The two furry legs of a four-month-old black labrador about to be spayed flop across a heated blanket.
Veterinarian Sue McTaggart points to a broken baby tooth in the mouth of the anesthetized animal. If the dog wasn’t put under to be spayed, McTaggart wouldn’t have been able to convince the dog owner to pay for the tooth extraction, she said, even though the rot could spread below the gums to the adult tooth and on to the dog’s jawbone.
“That’s where dogs’ issues are,” McTaggart said. “They’re not up high where you can see.”
A Fellow of the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry trained at the University of Saskatoon and a teacher of veterinary dentistry through her North Saanich practice, McTaggart is speaking up about what she sees as a little-known epidemic among dog and cat owners: untreated dental emergencies.
“Animals suffer in silence because, in the wild, the weakest is killed by the leader, which at home is the owner, so that’s the last person they’re going to complain to,” she said.
Inside another exam room at Dean Park Pet Hospital, McTaggart revisits images of infected mouths she’s seen come through her office, some showing exposed roots or bleeding gums, others capturing bone loss. Many illustrate dental diseases on back molars – too far back to be cleaned without anesthetic, she said.
While animal dental care may seem an innocuous topic, it’s one steeped in controversy across the province.
Dental specialists, such as McTaggart, maintain the position that anesthetic is required to reach all sides of all teeth and to extract trapped food, hair, grass or bacteria below the gum line. However, a growing number of registered businesses offer cosmetic cleaning above the gums, without using anesthetic, for far less than the suggested cleaning prices set by the College of Veterinarians of British Columbia.
One such business is K-9 Brite Bark, which has operations in Saanich, Gibsons and Duncan. Services are marketed toward clients interested in forgoing the anesthetic and learning how to brush their pets’ teeth.
Sylvia Macdonald, who operated a former Oak Bay-based grooming business known as The Barking Lot, founded K-9 Brite Bark after years of witnessing pets die due to anesthetic use, she said.
Macdonald charges between $200 and $500 to clean dogs’ teeth and up to $300 for felines. The College of Veterinarians of B.C. sets the range for cleaning, including antibiotics, pain medication and X-rays at $600 to $700 for dogs and $538 to $545 for cats.
In 2005, the provincial veterinarians college, known then as the B.C. Veterinary Medical Association, sought a B.C. Supreme Court injunction against Macdonald. She was ordered to stop providing any dental care, remove the word “dental” from her business name and cease all advertising from the veterinary section of the yellow pages.
However, the court noted that the Veterinarians Act does not clearly define what dentistry entails and thus could not rule on whether cleaning above the gum line should be classified as dentistry.
Dr. John Brocklebank, the college’s deputy registrar, said the college has since lobbied for a clearer definition of dentistry to distinguish what constitutes cosmetic procedures.
Macdonald currently retains the right to continue cleaning teeth above the gums.
“This is not a medical service,” Macdonald said. “I’m not poking or prodding. I’m taking the calculus and tartar off of the teeth before it goes underneath the (gums) and creates the problem and I’m teaching the client how to maintain. It’s a completely different service.”
For veterinarian Kam Brar of Lifeline Animal Clinic, the trouble with anesthetic-free cleaning is simple.
“(Teeth) may look nice and clean from the outside – the tips – but they could be totally rotten,” he said. “Ninety per cent of people we see, we can’t help, because the dental disease is too far progressed.”
Loyal clients of Macdonald’s – such as Keith Mason, who had his golden retriever’s teeth cleaned by Macdonald for a decade – stand by her ability to work easily with the animals without sedation and her willingness to send owners and their pets to veterinarians for care when she notices anything abnormal in an animal’s mouth.
Macdonald’s website and promotional material boasts the slogan “veterinarian approved,” yet given the controversial nature of her service, she admitted, no veterinarian would risk their reputation to publicly endorse her work.
The B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ chief animal health officer sympathizes with the fear of anesthetics from those who may have experienced pet loss in the past, but ultimately agrees with Brar and McTaggart. The risk involved in untreated dental issues – which could lead to valvular disease – is far greater than that of anesthetic, especially given current methods used, he said.
“If you’ve had to experience it, the trauma and the loss (of losing an animal due to anesthetic) is huge and very real,” said animal health officer James Lawson, noting anesthetic complications have greatly decreased over the last two decades. The death rate of pets anesthetized at the SPCA hospital is about one in 20,000 for all surgeries.
“I wish there was a less expensive alternative, but there just isn’t a viable alternative to a veterinary hygienist,” Lawson said. “You can’t get away from anesthetics if you have to do anything substantive.”
Macdonald, who claims to have spent $100,000 in court fees defending her ability to operate in B.C., maintains: “Some vets are old school and I’m sure they’re the best veterinarians and doctors out there, but people are going to more natural ways of looking after their animals.”
The cost of dental insurance
There’s no way around the fact that pet insurance isn’t cheap and most insurance plans exclude dental maintenance.
Clients of Royal Oak Pet Clinic are generally referred to Trupanion.com for pet insurance, said office manager Teka Cook. Trupanion offers a week-long return period on claims and reimburses dental care costs in the case of accidents or illness, but excludes maintenance coverage. Petsecure, offered through Western Financial, is the clinic’s recommendation for those seeking full dental, Cook said.
To purchase enough insurance to cover a cleaning (based on the $600 recommended fee set by the College of Veterinarians of B.C.), the average pet owner in Saanich would pay about $98 monthly for a dog, or $52 for a cat using Petsecure. Those rates reflect a $550 or $300 deductible, respectively.