Dogs have a positive effect in pediatric dentistry, but does it outweigh potential risks?

Pediatric dentistry is a field that comes with its own set of special joys and challenges. A children’s dentist, by definition, should have a large reservoir of patience, a good sense of humor, a child-friendly attitude, and a plethora of entertainment in the waiting room to pass the time.

And, apparently, a dog comes in handy.

In recent months, more and more stories have surfaced on TV news and social media about pediatric dentists who have added puppies to their toolbox of dental treatment aides. Rumor has it that furry friends have the unique power of easing young patients’ anxiety in the dentist chair.

Take Balto, for example. The 5-year-old, 10-pound ball of fur is a certified therapy dog. Three times a week, he visits Brecksville Kids Dentistry in Brecksville, Ohio, to keep children company as they undergo cleanings or dental procedures. If a child elects to have Balto in the room, the dog calmly snuggles up to the patient’s lap or chest to provide comfort and distraction while the dentist or hygienist performs a treatment.

And then there is Tucker, the 1-year-old Labradoodle who practically lives at Young Smiles in South Charleston, West Virginia. Every day, he accompanies his dentist owner to work to cheer up boys and girls who may be a bit worried about opening their mouths to a lady in a white coat with scary-looking tools in her hand. Tucker, like Balto, is allowed to hop into the dentist chair and settle down next to the young patient.

The dentists who work with them agree that dogs like Tucker and Balto provide an important service in pediatric dentistry. They are a soothing presence that instantly puts children at ease. It helps the little patients forget about their environment and the strange sensations in their mouths. They facilitate relaxation without medication. In other words, they’re an all-natural remedy for anxiety.

If a patient is afraid of dogs or has allergies, these dentists say, there is no contact between puppy and child.

As for hygiene and health risks associated with pets in pediatric dentist offices, the jury is still out. Very little documented research is available regarding the potential downfalls of animals in healthcare settings. Still, epidemiologists and the dentistry community are aware of the trend and keep a close eye on it.

While experts recognize that animal-assisted therapy is a non-invasive method to reduce stress, some worry about pet dander allergies, transmission of disease, and infection control. As of 2018, no regulatory agencies or laws were in place to monitor the use of therapy animals in healthcare settings, but the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America has developed informal guidelines you can find here.

As the trend gathers steam, we’re likely to soon see regulatory bodies assume oversight over therapy dogs at the pediatric dentist’s office.

So what do you think? Would you permit a puppy to share the dentist chair with your child as she receives a cleaning or treatment?

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