Anesthesia and Senior Dogs: Is it Worth the Risk?

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.


  1. Geri

    I have a tough one. Been told that my dog has an abscess on his tooth and it’s the most likely reason that he’s been a little out of sorts. The vet has recommended that he go under anesthetic to have it cleaned etc as the main treatment. He’s 17 and is on treatment for congenital heart disease for the past year.

    1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

      That’s a conversation to have with your vet who will discuss the risks of doing it versus the risks of not doing it. You absolutely do not want your dog to be in pain. I was faced with whether or not to have my dog’s teeth cleaned when she was around 15 or so. She had heart issues and was on medication, but I trusted my vet, I knew he would use a mild anesthetic and we believed it was safer for her to undergo the procedure, than leave things the way they were and cause pain or organ damage down the road. Good luck and let me know what you decide.

      1. Geri

        Thanks Hindy, I’ll definitely have a chat with the vet myself. I know, I don’t want him to be in pain either, just terrified to be honest. I didn’t take him to the vet myself this time. He was brought in to get his nails clipped by my uncle (I always get the vet to do it), and I told him to mention his recent howling and restlessness to the vet in case there was something else up. To be honest, I figured that he was stressed out because we were away for a whole day at the weekend and didn’t get back til late evening. He’s become a lot more clingy as he’s gotten older and has been acting a little nutty since that day. Usually he’s a happy go lucky little guy.

        It is good to know that your dog has heart issues as well and come through being put under. That’s a small comfort to me. This guy also has arthritis since he was 8 and is on metacalm for that too.

        1. Geri

          Update: We spoke to the vet. Different girl to who was there yesterday and his usual vet. She said that she is unwilling to put him under as he would more than likely die and said that if she was to do that it would be purely because we requested it. It was as I feared. She gave him pain meds and an antibiotic for now to see how that goes. 🙂

          1. Hindy Pearson (Post author)

            Wow, I didn’t realise things were so difficult with your dog. At least she was being honest and looking after the best interests of your dog. Hopefully this the meds will help. Wondering if there are alternative options that might help as well.

          2. Guinnie

            Geri, I am in a similar situation with my large breed 13 year old. Her cheek swelled up immediately after she was gnawing on her raw bone marrow. Of course i freaked and went to the vet. Vet said its most likely a root abscess and the only treatment was to extract it. I’m very skeptical of vets so I was reluctant. Her swelling went away in 3 days. I only gave her antibiotics for those days only. As soon as the swelling went, I stopped it as I believe it hurts the dogs more. I went to a board certified dentist and he said the same thing. I almost lost her last year from an autoimmune disease that was unexpected. It was a long hard recovery process but she is fine now. Frail and arthritis but her blood work we get frequently are clean. Every now and then her liver enzymes are slightly elevated. The vets tell me that without extraction, it’s a matter of time that the swelling will occur again. It’s been 2 months and she is perfectly fine. She eats fine. I feel like going thru with this surgery, I will be putting her in pain and stressing her body. I feel so conflicted. She is scheduled for surgery but I keep worrying. Her internist who treated her all last year told me (over the phone) that she will be fine and a root tooth abscess isn’t really an elective surgery. I plan to get a full blood work done this week to make sure of course but I’m still conflicted. My family and friends don’t think its necessary to put her thru it. I don’t know what to do. How is your pup doing with the antibiotics schedule. I hope she is feeling better. Thank you for sharing your story.

          3. Geri

            Hi Guinne,

            The antibiotic worked and he stopped howling and being clingy. He went back to his old playful self, rolling and tumbling on the carpet and just being a silly old guy again. Was glad to have the old Jack back. Sadly, this only lasted 3 weeks. I was optimistic that it would kill it for months at a time at the very least.

            By pure co-incidence that you messaged now, we took him back to the vet today because the howling started again yesterday. This time the vet gave him 10 days of the antibiotic. She said that antibiotics aren’t good for dogs, but since it worked the first time, she’s hopeful this will kill it back. First time he was on them for 5 days.

            It’s the same clinic, but new vet again. This girl checked his heart and said that she thinks it might be worth risking the dental if it returns again. It’s a difficult situation, and I definitely don’t want to tell you what to do.

            We don’t want our little guy suffering in the long run and if he’s only going to get a few weeks of comfort at a time. As much as we love him, we might have to face the possibility of letting him go…by risking the dental. 🙁

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