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Should Elderly Dogs Undergo Anesthetic Dental Work?

My beloved dog is a senior- she's a 60 lb dog and she is 15 years old. She's had her teeth cleaned by the vet...

Dr. Eric Barchas  |  Mar 16th 2010

My beloved dog is a senior- she’s a 60 lb dog and she is 15 years old. She’s had her teeth cleaned by the vet every 1-2 years. It’s been 18 months since her last cleaning and she definitely needs to have her teeth cleaned again. She is fairly healthy for an elderly dog but I am very concerned about anesthesia, because of her age and because of the recent anesthesia recalls.

I’m going to discuss it with her vet but I’d like to hear your opinion, too. Is it worth the risk to put an elderly dog under anesthesia for a dental or is it a great risk to not have her teeth cleaned?


Mesa, AZ

Veterinary anesthesia has become much safer over the last 20 years. Newer and better anesthetic drugs, advanced monitoring techniques, and widespread adoption of pre-anesthesia blood testing and IV fluids during anesthesia have reduced the rate of anesthetic complications in pets dramatically.

In my experience complications during anesthetic procedures are rare. I have anesthetized patients almost every work day for the last ten years. During that time only one of my patients has suffered a major complication–a cat suffered cardiopulmonary arrest, but he was successfully resuscitated and he fully recovered.

Although modern practice has reduced anesthetic complication rates dramatically, the rates have not dropped (and may never drop) to zero. Certain factors are known to increase the risks to an animal undergoing anesthesia. Heart disease, lung disease, liver disease, kidney disease, and old age are the most well known.

I therefore prefer not to anesthetize animals with any of the above factors if possible. That said, I have performed anesthetic procedures without incident on animals in all of the above categories more times than I can count (the cat who suffered from cardiopulmonary arrest was 8 months old and in perfect health–anesthetic complications can be very random and unpredictable).

Molly, it would be best if your dog could enjoy good oral health without having her teeth professionally cleaned. Very mild dental disease without infection in the gums often can be halted with daily tooth brushing. Ask your vet whether this might work for your dog.

However, if your dog has significant gum disease then your best bet may be to have her go through dental work sooner rather than later. If you wait, then your dog’s dental disease will progress. Dental disease is painful and it can adversely affect many other systems in the body. Also, if you wait, then you run the risk that she will develop a dental abscess or other serious problem that requires emergency attention. These crises require longer (and therefore more dangerous) periods of anesthesia. And, the longer you wait, the older your dog will be.

If your dog needs dental work then it’s probably best to get it over with now. After the procedure I recommend that you brush her teeth daily. Hopefully that will make this procedure the last one that she needs.

Be sure to talk to your vet about the recent recalls of anesthetic drugs. The recalled drugs come from specific lots and are easily identifiable. Your vet should be able to assure you that the agents used on your dog have not been recalled.

Photo: Angel says: a toothbrushing each day keeps anesthetic dental work away.