A recent question in my in-box: "I have a 12-year-old golden retriever who has bad teeth. I'd like to have them cleaned, but I'm concerned about putting her under anesthesia, especially since her veterinarian feels it would not be safe to do so. What are your thoughts? Is there any way to safely anesthetize an older pet? Her breath is really bad, and I'm sure her teeth must bother her.”
Dental disease is the most common infectious disease for dogs and cats. Bad breath and tartar are the result of a bacterial infection; if dental disease is left untreated, pets will suffer mouth pain and their teeth will become loose and eventually fall out. The negative effects go beyond just the chompers; the infection can travel in a pet's bloodstream, causing chronic inflammation and infection. Older pets are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of dental infections, as they often have weakened organs (for instance, the heart, kidneys, or liver), which can become infected with bacteria from the mouth. As a result, regular dental cleanings done under anesthesia are an important part of keeping your pet healthy. (Unfortunately, t's impossible to do a thorough dental cleaning without using anesthesia.)
Many people—and unfortunately many veterinarians—worry about giving anesthesia to older pets. However, as I like to say in my practice, old age is not a disease. No pet is too old to anesthetize if the anesthesia is done properly and the pet is carefully monitored during the procedure. Additionally, a thorough physical examination and diagnostic testing, usually including blood and/or urine testing to screen for diseases, is an important part of the pre-anesthetic evaluation. I anesthetize older pets every day, and they do very well under anesthesia. I use a holistic approach, so my patients wake up immediately after the procedure and I can send them home within minutes of waking up, without any hangover effect.
Pets with severe dental disease will probably require antibiotics and medication to control pain. Natural therapies such as coenzyme Q-10, antioxidants, and homeopathics such as arnica are also very useful in helping pets recover. If your vet isn't comfortable performing geriatric anesthesia, find a one who does the procedure on older animals regularly and discuss the procedure with him beforehand. Believe me when I say that 12-year-old golden retriever will act like a puppy again once she's free of her infected, inflamed, and painful mouth!