Anesthesia and Senior Dogs: Is it Worth the Risk?

dog dental care

anesthesia and senior dogs

There is a widespread belief that anesthesia and senior dogs are a deadly combination, and therefore not worth the risk.

It is an issue I have been confronted with on a few occasions, most recently a couple of month ago, so I thought it was an important one to discuss.

While it’s true anesthesia in an old dog is riskier than in a younger one (that applies to other animals and people too!), I don’t believe a blanket “it’s too risky” is the right attitude. It’s best to have a conversation with your trusted vet, and weigh the pros and cons.

Things to discuss with your vet

Why is surgery being recommended? Are there other options? Is your dog in pain? Can the pain be managed? What is the anticipated outcome? What can be done to reduce the risk (a gentler type of anesthesia for example).

My experiences

When we adopted Red 7 ½ years ago we were told she was about 8. She was quite neglected in her previous home, and among other issues her teeth and gums were in a terrible state. Not long after we brought her home she had dental surgery. Even though she was already 8, I wasn’t terribly worried about her age at the time. It had to be done, the vet was recommended to us, I liked him when we met so I trusted him and she was fine.

Unfortunately she needed dental surgery two more times and as she was even older, I became more concerned. Each time it was a pros and cons decision – her age versus the status quo. Red is blind and although she is extremely good natured and easy going, the one thing she can’t handle is having her teeth brushed. It freaks her out and she fights like crazy. Even with the bones and the water additives, and some brushing, it was never enough.  

I have a fabulous vet who I trust completely, no hesitation. I knew if something were to happen during surgery it would not be his fault, and I told him as much. Even though she’s just over 15 (we believe), this most recent surgery was necessary to prevent other issues from developing. There was also my very real concern she might be in pain, and that was not acceptable under any circumstances.  

I realise it doesn’t look good that I talk so much about the importance of good oral hygiene, yet my own dog has had dental surgery more than once. In an ideal world every dog would be cooperative, but that’s not the way things are. Even my vet can’t get near Red’s mouth without help.

I’ve had much success lately with some toothpaste on a gauze, wrapped around my finger. It’s still a huge struggle but it’s a lot easier to get my finger in her mouth than a toothbrush. Finger toothbrushes never worked for me either. 

What I’m trying to say

I’m trying to say that of course anesthesia is risky in the best of times, and riskier in old dogs. I’m also saying that each case needs to be evaluated on an individual basis. I assume you have a vet you have complete faith in, and if you don’t I hope you find one. I have an in-depth conversation (I’m a big asker of questions) about why the surgery is needed, are there alternatives, what are the benefits, types of anesthesia and how can I help the recovery process.

I’ve had two dogs die at the hands of vets I had to go to in a pinch. I have no doubt the outcome would have been very different had I been able to see my trusted vets.

An interesting article for you to read on this subject

I came across an article written by Dr. Julie Buzby called “Is My Dog Too Old For Anesthesia?” and thought you might find it an interesting read. I appreciate her “take home message” and it’s a sentiment I share as well.

Anesthesia and senior dogs – conclusion

So what do you think? Do anesthesia and senior dogs go together? Is it worth the risk?


Has your senior dog undergone surgery, or been put under anesthesia for some other reason? How did things go? Were you happy with your decision or would you have done things differently in hindsight? Share your story in the comment section below or on my Facebook page.

Anesthesia and Senior Dogs: Is it Worth the Risk?

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