Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Canine Dental Cleanings and General Anesthesia
Let's face it: Getting a dental cleaning done on an old dog can be quite frightening because they typically involve general anesthesia.
Sure, there are also non-anesthesia canine dental cleanings, which can be very tempting—especially when you compare the price—but these are for the most part only cosmetic. They 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 bitewing 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.
Even so, anesthesia can sound scary—and if your old dog is in need of a dental cleaning, you may be worried about some of the risks that might be involved.
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
Weighing the 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 of 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
Common Anesthesia Complications in Older Dogs
According to the American Kennel Club Canine Health Foundation, anesthesia complications that are common in older dogs may include:
- Low blood pressure
- Low heart rate
- Low blood oxygen
- Low body temperature
- Prolonged recovery
Questions to Ask Before a Canine 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 do all these things by default, 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 through 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 as heart, liver or kidneys disorders.
Will my dog's mouth be x-rayed?
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 x-rays are often done by veterinary technicians, but a veterinarian should be always supervising the treatment.
A Good Point!
"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
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 above goes a long way.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: How much does it cost to have a senior dog's teeth cleaned?
Answer: The costs for a dog dental cleaning tend to vary based on one location and another. I can provide you with a rough estimate based on what I paid when my senior dog had his dental cleaning done at 8 years old. His cleaning was $324.00 but then he needed an extraction $250 and x-rays ($150), so it all came down to around $600. He also had blood work a week prior to make sure his organs were all OK and that senior panel was about $200. Your best bet is to call around and inquire about pricing.
Question: My 9 year old dog has a heart murmur. Is it safe to have her teeth cleaned?
Answer: Whether a procedure is "safe" is a relatively difficult question to answer even if you ask your vet. All procedures requiring anesthesia have some level of risk, but in some cases, the risks may be higher or lower. This is ultimately something that should be discussed with your vet weighing in the pros and cons, benefits and risks. How safe or risky the procedure will be is based on several factors.
For instance, big factors to consider are how well controlled the heart condition is, what grade of heart murmur the dog has, how bad are the teeth? If the teeth are very diseased, there is dental pain and there is a need for extraction/extractions then, than this may be needed more, although in some older dogs with health conditions that puts them at risk, antibiotic pulse therapy can be an option (dog goes on the antibiotic for a week, and then off for 3 weeks). In dogs with very advanced dental disease and not too severe murmurs, the benefit may outweigh the risks also considering that bad teeth can affect the heart as well.
Other factors to consider are how is the dog's overall health, other than the murmur? What will the anesthetic protocol be? You also have some options to increase the safety margin such as having your dog's heart evaluated by a cardiologist prior to anesthesia to make a more informed decision and having the procedure done where there is an anesthesiologist on site to monitor everything. This can often be done in veterinary specialty practices.
Question: How much does it usually cost for dog dental work?
Answer: In general, for a dog dental cleaning the costs may range greatly between 250$ and 600$. This may seem like a dramatic swing but there are a lot of variables to keep into consideration. For instance, veterinary prices tend to vary by location but they also can vary greatly by the quality of care they offer. For instance the higher end quotes may be that high due to the use of newer, state of the art equipment, providing dental x-rays (recommended, especially if there is a need for extractions), polishing, etc. Costs often include preoperative blood work and possible meds to be taken home. If your dog needs extractions, the cost may be closer to the upper end. Ask your vet for a quote or call around for the most accurate estimates.
Question: What is the cost of a thorough dental cleaning with X-rays, blood work, and extractions?
Answer: Costs tend to vary based on your region, how many extractions, age of the dog/health conditions, etc. You can find some rough estimates here: https://pethelpful.com/dogs/-Dog-X-rays-What-to-Ex...
Make sure that x-rays are done after the extractions to make sure the whole teeth were extracted.
Question: My dog has a collapsed trachea. Is it safe to get dental cleaning?
Answer: "Safe" is an unsafe word to use when it comes to things like medical procedures, medications, surgeries, and anesthesia, etc. Indeed, no medical procedure can be deemed to be totally safe. Doctors and vets though take precautions to reduce the chances for complications.
In dogs with tracheal collapse, you can, therefore, remind your vet about your dog having this condition and discuss your concerns. Your vet may suggest pre-anesthetic blood work to ensure her internal organs are functioning properly and can filter out the anesthesia and maybe antibiotics to lower any chance of any respiratory tract infections. The vet may also leave the endotracheal tube in longer until she is fully awake and in control of her airway to ensure there is no risk of collapse.
© 2016 Adrienne Farricelli
Pat flaherty on January 31, 2020:
I have a 12 yr old toy yorkie He has a collapsed trachea. Is it safe to go under anesthesia for a teeth cleaning?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 28, 2019:
Erin30, thank you for sharing your story about your dog undergoing dental cleaning and extractions. I am so sorry your dog had to go through all that. Glad to hear he recovered from it.
erin30 on August 28, 2019:
Last year my then 10 year old Dachshund went to our new veterinarian for a dental cleaning. It was his 3rd cleaning since we adopted him at 2 years old. We never had any issues with his dental cleanings in the past and he was fine. This time we discovered ahead of the cleaning he had a foul-smelling mouth and painful tooth - so we knew they'd find something while he was under anesthesia. They called me during procedure to say they needed to pull four teeth. I couldn't believe it! But I agreed because they assured me he'd be fine . After the procedure his mouth was very swollen and he was given antibiotics for two weeks. Within two days of the procedure he developed a big lump on his neck gland -size of a golf ball. They couldn't figure out what the issue was and said not to worry it would go down. He was still on antibiotics when he spiked a very high fever and couldn't lift his neck. Took him to animal hospital and they said he had a bad infection that likely sprayed down his throat when his teeth were extracted. The antibiotics were not working. They told us we needed to remove his lymph node in neck (equivalent to having tonsils removed as adult). I thought that was horrible pain for him to endure and begged them to try other antibiotics. They did - and finally after a few tries they landed on a triple antibiotic course (three different kinds together) that brought down the infection and his throat returned to normal. He spent two nights at the animal hospital while they figured this out. He was back to normal within a week, but man what a scary time that was - not to mention expensive $5,000 for the whole ordeal. I'm glad I didn't just agree to surgery. You have to sometimes go with your gut and challenge veterinarians. I think dogs who show any signs of dental disease before going in for their cleanings need to be on preventative antibiotics beforehand and owners need to ensure vet who is cleaning teeth has experience with dental cleanings and tooth extraction. We are now at the one year mark of that ordeal and contemplating another cleaning - but with a different vet. Probably at animal hospital. His teeth are getting plaque again and he needs another cleaning - but no more extractions will be allowed and rest assured I'll be sure he's on antibiotics beforehand.
Snappylady on July 21, 2019:
I have a deaf and blind 16yr old poodle. Her teeth are in need of cleaning. At that age would anesthesia be ok?
Rocky on January 03, 2019:
Thanks for this article. My boxer is 10 years old, never had cleaning but now needs some xrays of his hip/leg so vet said we could do cleaning while she was under for xrays. I've heard so many heartbreaking stories of dogs lost during anesthesia it kept from doing it earlier in her life. I'm more confident she will do fine. take care
Eric on October 25, 2018:
Hi, I have a dog Jack Russell, aged 23 and rarely walk anymore. Most of the time he is lying on the floor even shit and urination will be on lying position. Given such condition, I really do not think anesthetic and even anti biotic would be good for his body yet her tooth and gum are really bad till beyond discribed. What shall do to help him up not causing any risk.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on September 23, 2018:
Kathy, so sorry for your loss. The only answer will come from your vet, preferably by having a necropsy done, maybe by another unbiased vet. In some rare, unfortunate cases, just as it may happen in humans undergoing anesthesia, things may go wrong; there may be underlying heart arrhythmias or contractile issues that don't show up till anesthesia is performed.
kathy longo on September 17, 2018:
went for a dental cleaning and never came home before the procedure she had a seizure and heart attack right on the table she had blood work and antibiotics why
Gina Mac on April 11, 2018:
tootsie is 16 and is in need of teeth cleaning... she is scheduled for cleaning in a.m. this will be her 4 cleaning, and still she gets infections.
she’s bites me if I open her mouth to take a peek at gums and teeth (not too many left). Not a hard bite, as she doesn’t have many teeth. She is small cockatoo. I did see some gum infection. We’ll get her taken care of in the morning. I’ve had her since 8weeks. My buddy.
Marina on April 05, 2018:
My 10 year old Maltese desperately needs her teeth cleaned.She has a heart murmur and Liver problems.. I’ve tried to clean her teeth but she doesn’t let me and also some of them are moving in the front and has wholes deep inside on the top,u can see it.What do I do ??
Laurie on March 03, 2018:
We had our 15 year 10 month old Pom-Eskimo mix teeth cleaned a few days ago. So far he seems to be doing very well. We really debated it, but I’m very glad I did it. I just didn’t want him suffering anymore, and his teeth seem to go bad very quickly. He was also a little bit ignored as my late dog was plagued with issues toward the end. So it was the least I could do. He ended up with 14(!) extractions.
Cindy on February 08, 2018:
My 12 year old Maltese desperately needs her teeth cleaned again.she is a rescue and I have had her 8 years....she has a heart murmur and is very neurotic. I’ve tried to clean her teeth but they need professional cleaning. Why do you think?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on December 31, 2017:
Smita, ask your vet about the option to give antibiotics if the teeth are terribly infected. Ask about "pulse therapy antibiotics ."
Smita on December 28, 2017:
My Pomeranian mix breed is now 16 and he has never had dental cleaning. He is partially deaf and lost vision as well. His digestive system seems ok . Please advice if I can go ahead with this treatment now even if it is too late already. My vet has advised against it but he has terrible teeth infection n tartar.
Todd Dobbs on December 03, 2017:
Dr Dan that is a completely stupid comparison !
myrna lynch on October 30, 2017:
I have a 15 year old toy poodle who has had her teeth cleaned every year. Is she now too old? She appears to be in good health.
Tom Riccobono on September 19, 2017:
Yes this article was excellent and informative. So grateful I found it.
Mike G on July 28, 2017:
I have a 9 year old chihuahua and he has very bad teeth. I got him when i was young and was never told you had to brush dog's teeth. I don't care for excuses and I know it's my fault so I saved up alot of money for the to be expenses. I am not technically the owner of the dog, my parents are. Can i still get dental work done if I have all his papers and id or do I have to bring my parents? I know this sounds weird but I love my dog and my parents don't I just want to get this procedure done fast and I'd rather take the risk because his quality of life is not good at this point.
Jam on July 09, 2017:
Never too early or too late in my opinion.
Nathan Sady from Tucson on June 09, 2017:
Veterinarians have recommended and gone through with this procedure for my beagles teeth. A terrible experience resulting in the death of my sweet guy, and many a year of regrets to come for me. Of course, I'd like to have seen this earlier. Many, many sites on internet and offices we entrust our pets to recommend this procedure under anesthesia. My beagle was close to 15. I wish to have been more leery of the info I had. Thanks for the article.
Auntie on June 06, 2017:
I was debating on whether or not to have my 12 year old Labradoodle undergo the procedure. This article helped me decide to go ahead with it. Thank you!
Ashi on March 16, 2017:
That is very nice training by you.
Thank you for sharing with me :)
I got to learn something good :)
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 15, 2017:
Yup, now we have made it a routine, teeth are cleaned every evening and they look forward to it! So far it is working in preventing tartar build-up.
Ashi on March 08, 2017:
Ohh really? Are you cleaning his teeth everyday? That's really sweet of you. You are very caring and dedicated.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 07, 2017:
Hello Ashish, my boy Rottweiler has has two dental cleanings done, but now I am very strict in making sure I brush his teeth every single say.
Ashi on March 04, 2017:
Very nicely written hub.
This is a very important hub for Dog owners like me. Dog's dental cleaning is essential is a must after a certain age.