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Is My Dog Too Old for a Dental Cleaning?

Let's face it: getting a dental cleaning done on an old dog can be quite frightening, especially considering that a dental cleaning is assumed to be one of those "elective" procedures compared to the ones done in an emergency situation that are usually a no-brainer. If your old dog is in need of a dental cleaning, perhaps all sorts of scary thoughts may be flooding your mind.

While dental cleaning in humans are not given much thought, dental cleanings in dogs are much more scary for the fact that they involve general anesthesia. Sure, there are also non-anesthesia dental cleanings, which can be very tempting, even when it comes to price, but these are for the most part cosmetic only and fail to provide important health benefits such as cleaning a dog's teeth under the gums with an ultrasonic scaler and polishing them up nicely afterward. Not to mention that they fail to offer the possibility of having x-rays done (try to get a dog to hold a bite wing in his mouth and stay motionless!) which is of primary importance.

The prevailing trend of non-anesthesia dental cleanings has concerned many veterinary associations. For instance, the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) defines anesthesia-free dentistry as "unacceptable and below the standard of care" while the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) has even issued a position statement warning against its use.

A thorough dental procedure includes a tooth-by-tooth exam, tooth mobility tests, probing and radiographs. This just cannot be done without anesthesia.

— Jan Bellows, DVM, DAVDC

Ouch! A bad tooth can be painful and even cause an abscess!

Weighing Pros and Cons

Statistics have found that by the age of three years old, an astounding 80 percent of dogs develop some level of tooth and gum disease. If your dog has never had a dental cleaning done and now he is considered a senior, consider that he has likely accumulated a great amount of tartar on his teeth and under his gums.

Years of tartar accumulating in a dog's mouth cause major problems that go beyond foul breath and include red, swollen and bleeding gums, loose teeth, pain, and even problems with the heart, kidneys and liver since bacteria from the gums may travel to the dog's bloodstream reaching these important organs. In this case, the dental cleaning is medically necessary, and no longer should be considered an "elective" procedure. According to veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker, chronic periodontal disease ultimately can shorten a dog's life because it keeps stressing the organs and immune system. The pain also reduces the dog's quality of life.

"Old age is not a disease" remark many veterinarians, and no dog is "too old" for anesthesia as long as the dog is healthy, but what about old dogs who are sick or too frail to undergo anesthesia but have severe dental problems? In that case, an option may be pulse therapy antibiotics. This means a dog is given antibiotics for a week each month to decrease the bacterial load in his mouth, explains veterinarian Dr. Hinson. Something therefore to discuss with the vet as even this has pros and cons.

"You do need to weigh that possibility against the risk of anesthesia in an older dog" points out veterinarian Dr. Scarlett, a practicing small animal veterinarian with 18 years experience.

Many people think their pets are just getting old and slowing down because of age. Yet periodontal disease may actually be the problem. I have seen many cases where an old dog has severe infection in its mouth and gums, we do a dental cleaning, extract infected teeth, and put the pet on antibiotics. It's very common for those owners to come back later and say that after the dog recovered they were playful and more active, acting much younger. Periodontal disease is painful!

— Dr Chris Bern

What Anesthesia Complications are Likely in Older Dogs?

According to the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, anesthesia complications that are common in older dogs may consist of the following:

  • Low blood pressure,
  • Low heart rate
  • Low blood oxygen
  • Low body temperature
  • Prolonged recovery.

Is My Dog Too Old for a Dental Cleaning?

Is my 12 year old dog too old for a dental cleaning? The answer is that it depends on several factors. Of course, no procedure done under anesthesia is entirely safe. Even in people, a consent form must be signed making you aware of the risks for complications. While a dental cleaning done on a 12-year-old dog may be more risky compared to a dental cleaning done on, say, a five-year- old dog, there are several things that can be done to reduce the risks for complications. Most likely your vet will already by default do all these things, but it doesn't hurt to check and make sure that these precautions are in place. Here are some questions that you may want to ask.

Will my dog have blood work done prior to the procedure? As dogs age, they may be more prone to problems with their internal organs, so it's imperative to get them checked out though blood work prior to the procedure. Pre-anesthetic blood work to check the liver as well as the kidneys is therefore recommended. More testing may be necessary in senior dogs.

Should antibiotics be given prior to the procedure? If your dog has swollen gums and signs of periodontal disease or perhaps an abscess, your vet may consider putting him on some antibiotics prior to the dental procedure so to decrease the amount of bacteria traveling from the mouth. Antibiotics may also be necessary prior to the procedure in dogs who have a compromised immune system or have an underlying disorder such heart, liver or kidneys disorders.

Will you take x-rays of my dog's mouth? Most comprehensive veterinary dental cleanings will include x-rays, but they often must be approved by the owner if he's willing to go through the extra expense. While an x-ray of the problem tooth makes sense, a full mouth x-ray may be a better choice considering that dogs may have problems in other teeth that can be seen only through an x-ray. Consider that when we look at dog teeth, we only see the tip of the iceberg, problems may be lingering under the gum, in the bone or the tooth roots and these can be seen only through an x-ray.

Will IV fluids be given during the procedure? IV fluids, basically fluids given through a vein, are helpful during anesthesia as they support the dog's blood pressure and circulation. Also, the insertion of an IV catheter is important as emergency drugs can be immediately administered that way.

Will my dog be monitored by an experienced person during the procedure? Sure, dogs are now hooked up to advanced monitoring systems that track the dog’s oxygen saturation, level of exhaled carbon dioxide, blood pressure, electrical cardiac functioning and temperature and they will beep if there are major problems, but it's equally important that a dog's heart and lung function are carefully and frequently monitored by somebody who is experienced with side effects of anesthetic drugs. The dental cleaning, that is, scaling and polishing and xrays are often done by veterinary technicians, but a veterinarian should be always supervising the treatment.

Fortunately, veterinary anesthesia has become much safer over the years. There are now safer anesthetic drugs, advanced monitoring machines, and vets are taking precautions such as screening pets with pre-anesthesia bloodwork and giving IV fluids during anesthesia. Also, owners of old dogs should consider getting the cleaning to be done sooner than later, considering the dental disease tends to get worse rather than better, and the longer one waits, the older the dog. As to ultimately considering the risks, Dr. Dan's quote below goes a long way.

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog is old and has dental problems, consult with your vet, veterinary dentist and/or veterinary anesthesiologist for advice.

"The public is scared of the anesthetic and that is because they have lost a pet or know someone who has lost a pet under general anesthetic. I know people who have died in car crashes. I still choose to drive.

— Dr. Dan

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