Is Anesthetic Dental Work Safe for More Senior Dogs?

Hello, I have a question about anesthesia for dogs. I've heard that anesthesia use in animals can be unpredictable, especially in older, senior pets. I've...


Dear Dr. Barchas,

I have a question about anesthesia for dogs. I’ve heard that anesthesia use in animals can be unpredictable, especially in older, senior pets. I’ve also heard that dental problems, such as tartar build-up, is dangerous because it can cause infection in the bloodstream.

My vet is recommending a full dental cleaning to get rid of the build-up on my dog’s teeth, though in recent months I have started brushing her teeth. They say it is best to get rid of all the build-up, while continuing brushing. They say there isn’t anything majorly wrong, such as gingivitis or broken teeth, but there is tartar and plaque.

I agree that she would benefit from the teeth cleaning, but my dog is 8 years old. I’m very worried about putting her under for the procedure, which is the only way they do the dental service.

Is anesthesia a serious risk to her health, as an older dog? Can I find someone who will do the dental scaling without putting her under, who is also a reputable veterinarian?

I’m very torn about this, and I am trying to decide which path (doing the dental, or not risking the anesthesia) is best for her. I would love any advice you can give on this subject, as a practicing veterinarian yourself.


Phoenix, AZ

Your question is very poignant for me. I went to the dentist earlier today for my semiannual checkup. I almost wish she would have anesthetized me for the procedure – I hate having my teeth scaled.

Morgan, you and your dog face a common problem. Tooth brushing is great for preventing tartar. However, it’s pretty hard to eliminate tartar build-up with brushing alone.

It is possible to scale the teeth of a cooperative dog without anesthesia. My pal Buster has gone through it twice (at the hands of a licensed veterinarian; me). However, gum disease and severe dental disease absolutely can not be addressed without anesthesia. If your dog truly has no gum disease then non-anesthetic dental work may be appropriate. There are vets who will perform the procedure, but you may have to look around a bit to find one. I do not recommend using a nonlicensed tooth-cleaning service at your local groomer’s or pet store. Since nonlicensed people by definition aren’t regulated, you’d have no way of knowing whether your dog is in good hands.

Also, be aware that most 8-year-old dogs with tartar do have gum disease. And modern anesthesia is nowhere near as dangerous as many people fear. I have been anesthetizing dogs and cats almost daily (and often several patients each day) for over 11 years. In that time I have seen one major complication (and the patient survived) – but I have seen countless animals suffer severe morbidity from dental disease.

Remember as well that your dog is now the youngest she ever will be. Dental work now, followed by regular brushing at home, could prevent an abscessed tooth (which definitely would require anesthesia) when she’s 15.

For the overwhelming majority of dogs with dental disease, the benefits of anesthetic dental work dramatically outweigh the risks. I suspect that your dog is a member of that majority.

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