Choosing surgery for your senior dog is never an easy decision. Many dog owners have expressed some version of this sentiment to me: “My veterinarian is recommending a procedure for my umpteen-year-old dog, but I’m scared. Is my dog too old for surgery?”
This paradigm is prevalent, but it’s a myth we must dispel.
Age is not a disease, and your dog is never “too old” to receive the quality care he or she needs, even if it involves a surgical procedure that requires anesthesia.
When I published “Is My Senior Dog Too Old for Anesthesia,” I didn’t imagine that it would resonate with so many dog owners and would generate so many questions regarding surgery and anesthesia for dogs. In the comments section of the blog post, dog owners have been pouring out their anxious thoughts and heart-wrenching stories about anesthesia for their grey-muzzled companions.
Is my dog too old for surgery? 3 stories that offer hope
If this question is heavy on your heart, you’ve come to the right place. I want to share a story—actually a few stories—from two veterinarians and a dog owner about the risks and rewards of surgery. Then you can draw your own conclusions about surgical procedures for your senior dog.
1. A veterinarian’s reflections on surgery for two senior dogs
Recently, I read the following remarks from my colleague, Dr. Kelly McGuire, and I asked for her permission to share them. I couldn’t agree more with her sentiment and I love her perspective.
Yesterday I euthanized two of my long-term patients. One was Gabriel. He was a 17-year-old cairn terrier. When he was 15 I started seeing him. He had a murmur and cataracts and osteoarthritis. He was “old”. He also had severe dental disease. I pretty much begged them to let me do a dental. We did.
I made him not “old” for another 18 months. Their previous vet told them he was too old and not ok for anesthesia at 13. He was owned by two wonderful women who hugged me and thanked me for more good times with him.
The other was Noel. She was almost 18, I think. She had chronic kidney disease (CKD), hyperthyroidism, a heart murmur, and a growing splenic tumor. I removed that spleen two years ago. She lived another two years until the CKD caught up with her. The two men that owned her are amazing and wonderful and thanked me for getting them more time.
Will it always work? No. But we’ve got to change the mindset that says, “My dog is too old for surgery.”
~Dr. Kelly McGuire, Park Hill Veterinary Medical Center, Denver Colorado
I work in a city and clinic that are constantly growing. Sometimes I even have to disagree with what my clients have been told by other vets…I beg them to please stop telling people it can’t be done. These animals and owners deserve a chance at more quality, pain-free time.”
2. A vet grapples with surgery for her 18-year-old dog
My second story comes from a friend and colleague, Dr. Christy Mackenzie. She gave me permission to share her account of choosing dental surgery for her own dog…who was 18-years-old!
I tell people all the time that I anesthetized my 18-year-old Jack Russell Terrier, Kip, for a dental—six months before he passed away. He had moderately high liver values at the time, but he needed it done.~Dr. Christy Mackenzie
And then he had another happy six months, as opposed to not having another happy six months. Worth every penny!
Was I scared about it? Of course, I was. I’m always a little scared for any patient that’s going under anesthesia, in spite of trying to make it as safe as I can for every patient. But, to me, it’s worth the risk to make them comfortable and happy.
Plus, we found out at that last dental that while we thought all his teeth were
healthy,since he had had regular dental cleanings most of his life, he actually needed two of his last molars removed (that couldn’t be seen on regularexam while awake). So we spared him a LOT of discomfort for those last six months!”
Ensuring senior dogs get the best quality of care
In both of these examples, I hope you can feel the levity of the decisions. Neither of these vets nor myself is suggesting that choosing surgery for a senior dog is an easy decision or one that can be taken lightly. To the contrary, each patient is carefully examined and appropriate lab work and diagnostics are performed in advance.
Then much thought and care go into custom formulating the anesthetic protocol for our senior patients. They receive intensive care and monitoring before, during, and after the procedure, which is critical in helping everything “go right.”
The bottom line is this—we don’t shy away from anesthetic procedures if there is a golden opportunity to improve our senior patients’ quality of life.
A dental procedure could be a fountain of youth for a senior dog
For example, dental extractions under anesthesia on senior dogs with “trench mouth” is one of the most rewarding parts of my job! Why? Because these patients feel
My third story comes from one of our ToeGrips® dog nail grips customers, Cynthia. Recently, she shared with me her story about choosing surgery for her senior dog. With her permission, I’m sharing her account and I hope that it helps others who are grappling with this decision.
3. A dog owner’s decision to choose surgery for her senior dog
“Chopper is our 13-year-old black-tri Australian Shepherd who was intact until last week. He has always been such a sweet and loving boy! We had chosen not to neuter him after two litters of pups he sired because he was diagnosed with degenerative disc disease which led to a dorsal laminectomy at eight years old.
Following the surgery, we felt he had suffered a stroke as he would not lie down. We were told by his doctor, a top neurosurgeon, that it was a behavioral disorder. We insisted this was not normal or behavioral, so they did a series of spinal injections and he was able to sleep normally once more. After all of that, we didn’t want to put him through a surgery to neuter as he’d been through so much medically.
Just after he turned 10, I noticed a very slight change in his ear set; the right side looked a little different. So off to the vet we went. Upon initial exam, we were once again referred to a specialist as a brain tumor was suspected.
A CT Scan was recommended and we agreed to the procedure. It did not show a tumor or cyst but it did confirm he’d had a stroke in the past. Not something I was happy to have been right about but it did affirm I do know my dog.
Next was an MRI which did confirm there was a tumor/cyst applying pressure to the brain stem and the fifth cranial nerve, possibly a nerve sheath tumor. There was no way to know without doing a triple craniotomy, which we were not inclined to do given the grave possible consequences…brain bleed, brain swelling, altering who he was mentally, and possibly not surviving the surgery.
The odds just were not in his favor.
Without surgery, they said we probably had three months left with him. We were beyond devastated. We decided that we would continue to love him and cherish every single day.
Three months passed, and we still had our happy boy. Then six months, a year, then two. His vets were amazed!
A year ago, he began to have incontinence issues. He would struggle to urinate but with a
We were out of town working in Colorado and took him to a vet referred to us. Upon hearing his history, she suspected we were dealing with a prostate issue as opposed to the bladder. She ordered an abdominal ultrasound which showed an increased prostate. We stopped the bladder medication and started a regimen of prostate medication.
This worked almost six months, until this February when it flared up again but was definitely the worst it had ever been. Total incontinence with him wearing male wraps/diapers. He was miserable and we were worn out from all the worry and the constant cleaning of him. This time we were in New Orleans, LA, and did not have a vet who knew his history.
We contacted the vet who treated him in Colorado and miraculously one of her best friends was in practice here in NOLA! She was able to get us an appointment the next day! We did full panels of bloodwork, a urine culture, and repeated the abdominal ultrasound.
His prostate was again very enlarged. The culture grew ecoli/staph so we started him on antibiotics and discussed options. Given the brain “cyst”, degenerative disc disease and prostate issue, we had to try to decide which was causing the incontinence. We all agreed that the prostate was the most likely culprit and easily solved with
Our only reluctance was anesthesia given his age and past medical challenges. We were worried that the few neurological side effects he did have could be permanently increased by the anesthesia.
The vet was very knowledgeable and
I am extremely happy to report that he did very well in surgery with no complications, woke up and recovered well from the anesthesia.
However, the first 24 hours, we did see an increase of neurological symptoms which really scared us but the vet felt they would return to normal within 48 hours. Thankfully they did and he was urinating normally within hours of the surgery.
He is acting as though he is young again! I’m so thankful to have had a team of doctors who cared so much about his quality of life! He has recovered so much better than we could have ever expected!
And your ToeGrips gave him so much more stability after his back surgery! Thank you for all you do! ”
Considering surgery for your dog? Take these 4 steps
If your veterinarian is recommending a procedure for your senior dog, it’s because she or he believes that it will help your dog feel better. (And maybe live longer too!)
Here are specific steps to take to help you determine what’s best for your dog:
- Have a frank discussion with your vet about the procedure and share any concerns you have.
- Ask your vet to lay out the pros and cons of the surgery.
- If you or your veterinarian feels uncomfortable about proceeding, you can ask for a referral to a specialty facility (usually a large, 24-hour hospital with specialty doctors and advanced equipment).
- Please don’t write off the procedure because of the myth that your dog is “too old for surgery or anesthesia.”
I hope these perspectives shed some additional light on surgery for senior dogs. Most of all, I hope that you and your dog enjoy every moment of time that you have together.
Do you have questions about surgery for your senior dog?
Please comment below. We can all learn from each other.