Is My Dog Too Old for a Dental Cleaning?

Updated on May 24, 2019
alexadry profile image

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and 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
Ouch! A bad tooth can be painful and even cause an abscess.
Ouch! A bad tooth can be painful and even cause an abscess.

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.

"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

Final Considerations

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

© 2016 Adrienne Janet Farricelli

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    • profile image

      Rocky 

      5 months ago

      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

    • profile image

      Eric 

      8 months ago

      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.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      9 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      kathy longo 

      9 months ago

      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

    • profile image

      Gina Mac 

      14 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Marina 

      14 months ago

      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 ??

    • profile image

      Laurie 

      15 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Cindy 

      16 months ago

      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?

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      17 months ago

      Smita, ask your vet about the option to give antibiotics if the teeth are terribly infected. Ask about "pulse therapy antibiotics ."

    • profile image

      Smita 

      18 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Todd Dobbs 

      18 months ago

      Dr Dan that is a completely stupid comparison !

    • profile image

      myrna lynch 

      20 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Tom Riccobono 

      21 months ago

      Yes this article was excellent and informative. So grateful I found it.

    • profile image

      Mike G 

      23 months ago

      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.

    • profile image

      Jam 

      23 months ago

      Never too early or too late in my opinion.

    • Nate9753 profile image

      Nathan Sady 

      2 years ago from Tucson

      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.

    • profile image

      Auntie 

      2 years ago

      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!

    • Ashish Dadgaa profile image

      Ashi 

      2 years ago

      That is very nice training by you.

      Thank you for sharing with me :)

      I got to learn something good :)

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      2 years ago

      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.

    • Ashish Dadgaa profile image

      Ashi 

      2 years ago

      Hello Adrienne,

      Ohh really? Are you cleaning his teeth everyday? That's really sweet of you. You are very caring and dedicated.

    • alexadry profile imageAUTHOR

      Adrienne Janet Farricelli 

      2 years ago

      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.

    • Ashish Dadgaa profile image

      Ashi 

      2 years ago

      @Adrienne,

      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.

      Bless you.

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