February is, among other things, National Pet Dental Health Month. As the postcard from my veterinarian reminds me, dogs have 42 permanent teeth and cats have 30; like human teeth, those pearly whites need care and attention. Today’s artifact, then, comes from our veterinary collection (a subset of our medical collections): an anesthesia face mask, used on cats and small dogs in the mid 20th century.

The mask is made of a light, flexible metal, wrapped into a cone shape, with mesh across the smaller opening and surgical tape around the larger end (2.25″ diameter), to protect the animal’s face. A cloth soaked in the chosen anesthetic agent was put inside, and then the cone was placed over the patient’s nose and mouth until the animal breathed enough and fell asleep. (No doubt a veterinary textbook would explain that better, but that’s the gist.) It’s very similar in shape and function to the masks used for modern face-mask induction anesthesia, although those masks are rubber or plastic.

This instrument was used, and donated, by Dr. Bill Gay, a veterinarian who worked at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. The photo below shows Dr. Gay and an assistant working at NIH in the 1950s. (In the interest of full disclosure I should point out that the image shows Dr. Gay removing a foreign body from the cat’s throat, not actually cleaning his or her teeth, but it’s such a great photo that I’m using it anyway.) According to Mrs. Gay, her husband “always got along well with cats” – and the assistant shown here was “very good at holding the cats” – so Dr. Gay did not always use anesthesia when doing a basic dental cleaning, although it was necessary when performing extractions and other surgeries. With the advent of sharper tools like ultrasonic scalers, most vets today use anesthesia for cleanings, for the safety of both the patient and the doctor.

Dr. Gay at NIH, circa 1950s. Photo owned by, and courtesy of, Bill and Millicent Gay.

There are at least two animal hospitals in Montgomery County that have been around since the 1950s, but they were not the first in the county. Specialization in small animal (i.e., domestic pet) medicine became more common in America in the 1930s, and we followed that trend; many local vets found themselves focusing on small animals by default, as the county became more suburban and there were fewer large farm animals that needed their care. The 1949 Montgomery County telephone directory included five animal hospitals, ten single-doctor practices and one veterinary supply store, and the numbers have only been increasing since then. Next time you bring your cat, dog or guinea pig in for a dental check-up, take a moment to think of all the many veterinarians who have done the same for county pets over the decades.

Horses can be pets, too. This equine dental float, also used and donated by Dr. Gay, was used to file down horses' overgrown molars. The instrument is 17 inches long - a little more hardcore than what you need for a cat.

Thanks to Bill and Millicent Gay for the additional information, and the use of the fabulous photograph.