Anesthetic Safety in an Older Dog

Age is not a disease. Safety is really a function of health. Complete lab work will solve the safety question.



My beloved Cairn Terrier is 13 and his vet has recommended neutering him to prevent testicular cancer and prostate problems.  He will also clean the dog’s teeth and remove some warts.  At the equivalent of 91 human years, I’m of course worried about Excalibur surviving the surgery and wondering how long his possible life span might be after such surgery (or, for that matter, without it).


Dr. Nichol:

I can understand your concerns about Excalibur’s safety. You love this boy. If he only has a little while longer, why would you put him through the stress? As much as I occasionally disagree with my colleagues, your veterinarian is correct in his recommendations.


I’ll start by helping you put Excalibur’s age in perspective. He is NOT similar in age to a 91-year-old person. With all deference to folks over 90, I’m betting that your boy can out run, out jump, and out dance any person over 85. The point is that dogs age much differently than we do.


Small breed dogs like Cairn Terriers develop quickly as youngsters (they’re sexually mature at age 6-7 months) and age quite slowly during their middle adult years. When they do get older the aging process begins to accelerate. By contrast, we humans age at pretty much the same rate throughout our lives. The old seven years to one comparison doesn’t hold up for one more important reason: modern medicine has allowed us to dramatically extend the active and joy-filled lives of dogs like yours. Shucks, I bet Excalibur still works full time. On weekends he parties ’til he pukes. So let’s not put this pup out to pasture.


So why neuter at his age? Your boy’s prostate has suffered a continued hormone onslaught all its life. By now he’s at risk for swellings, infections, and even cancers of that male gland. In addition older un-neutered male dogs have a high incidence of tumors and hernias of the rear end. Neutering is good prevention; the sooner the better.


So what about anesthetic risk? Make sure Excalibur gets a thorough exam and lab profile first. At our place we like to get chest x-rays, ECG and a doppler blood pressure along with blood and urine tests. If he checks out fine and his anesthesia is monitored carefully he should do as well as a puppy. But have his teeth cleaned a few weeks later. If he has a lot of tartar and gum inflammation you could put him at risk if other procedures are done at the same time.


You’ve had this boy in your life for quite a while. If your fears stop you from providing Excalibur the routine preventive maintenance he needs you’ll actually shorten his life. Now is your chance to push his life expectancy out another few years. Go for it.