Should I Choose Surgery for My Senior Dog?

Medical decisions that might include surgery are always difficult. Surgery is invasive and carries risks. Should your decision process change when your dog becomes a senior?

While I always lean toward the most natural solutions, I recognize that there are times when surgery is the ideal solution.

When we adopted my Rottweiler Cookie, she was a year-and-a-half old. She’s been an active girl. Should she, for example, have ruptured her crucial ligament, I kept surgery on the table. I kept up to date on the surgical solutions, so I’d at least knew which surgery I would favor. However, when she was diagnosed with partial cruciate tears, I decided to try regenerative medicine first. Nevertheless, I was prepared to proceed with surgery if the treatment failed.

Further reading: Evaluating PRP Treatment for Dog Partial Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) Tears—Would I Do It Again?

Would my decision process be different today, when she is nearing ten years of age?

How essential is the surgery?

Emergency surgery

This includes life-saving procedures—you don’t really have the choice of passing on it if you want your dog to survive.

In other words, your dog’s chances are clear—the potential reward outweighs the risk.

That includes surgical intervention in cases such as:

  • Gastric Dialation and Volvulus (GDV)
  • Airway or intestinal obstructions
  • Urinary obstructions
  • Linear foreign bodies
  • Intussusception
  • Deep wounds
  • Open bone fractures
  • Dystocia
  • Pyometra
  • Hemoabdomen
Elective surgery

Procedures that fall under elective surgery include treating conditions that are not immediately life-threatening.

There are degrees of optionality depending on the situation. The surgery might extend your dog’s life expectancy or improve their quality of life.

Elective surgery involves anything from removing a wart to cancer surgeries. Examples of elective surgery include the treatment of:

  • Cancer—from removing a growth to removing an organ or a limb
  • Serious injuries such as torn knee ligaments
  • Developmental problems such as hip dysplasia or patellar luxation
  • Severe arthritis such as hip or elbow replacement
  • Dental surgery
  • Eye removal such as with glaucoma

You do have a choice to make in such circumstances. You might elect surgery to relieve pain, improve mobility, and so on. You might research non-surgical approaches.

Anesthesia consideration

There is, of course, the risk with anesthesia that increases with age and underlying medical conditions. Pre-anesthetic examination and lab work can help guide the decision of anesthesia protocol or whether or not it is safe enough.

Further reading: Anesthesia Considerations for Large-Breed Dogs

You need to weigh any remaining risk against how your dog will fare if you pass on the surgery. On the other hand, if your dog would have to spend the rest of their life in severe pain, how would that fit into the picture? Even a senior dog with existing health conditions can make it and gain great quality of life.

Gabriel

Gabriel was a 17-year-old Cairn Terrier. He had a heart murmur, cataracts, arthritis, and severe dental disease. Dental surgery changed his life, and he got to enjoy another 18 months of a full and happy life.

Noel

Noel was almost 18 years old, and her underlying conditions included kidney disease, hyperthyroidism, and heart murmur. She came down with a splenic tumor. She could have died of severe internal bleeding any day. Removing the spleen got Noel two more full years.

Kip

Kip was 18-years-old Jack Russel Terrier, and he also suffered from terrible dental disease. Dental surgery got Kip six more months without pain.

Read three stories of senior dogs who benefited from surgery: Is My Dog Too Old for Surgery?

What are other potential complications?

As your dog ages, they might not be able to heal as well as they did when they were young. Anesthesia isn’t the only risk with surgery. Every surgical procedures carries risk of potential complications during and after such as:

  • bleeding
  • swelling, bruising, and seromas
  • poor incision healing
  • infections

Discuss with your veterinarian how your dog’s age might increase the risk of complications and how you can minimize it.

Quality of life considerations

Risks aside, quality of life is a crucial element to consider. What will your dog’s quality of life be without the surgery? Is there a non-surgical option that can achieve the same goals? For example, a dog with a severe dental disease might spend the rest of their life in pain. Not only might they lose their teeth, but the infection may also even erode their jaw. If it was you, would you consider that amount of pain worse than the risk of death during the procedure?

What about bone cancer? Did you know that the primary purpose of amputation is pain relief?

Similar applies to splenic tumors. Even a benign tumor can cause untimely, painful death from internal bleeding. Removing the spleen might prolong life to various degrees but will definitely improve life quality.

Same rationale applies to any conditions treatable by elective surgery:

  • Can you successfully treat it without surgery?
  • Will the surgery improve your dog’s outlook and quality of life?

What are other choices?

Some of the conditions that are candidates for elective surgery can be successfully treated medically or with an alternative approach. Acupuncture, regenerative therapies, and physical therapy can go a long way in many cases. No magic will cure a bleeding spleen, though.

However, your veterinarian should discuss all treatment options and their likely outcomes with you before you make a decision.

Further resources: Veterinary Visit Checklist Part III: Surgery Checklist

How long is the recovery?

That is the part that has a big impact on my thinking now that Cookie is reaching her average lifespan. She might, of course—and I certainly hope so—live well past it. But that is an unknown, and as such, it’s not workable to me.

Some surgeries have recovery time that might be a couple of weeks to a month. But what about those that it might take, say 6 months, for my dog to be able to get back to her normal life? If my dog might only have months left, do I want her to spend them recovering from surgery such as the cruciate ligament repair?

So that is the biggest question. Will the procedure add to my dog’s life or take away from it? I am less likely to opt for knee surgery now than I was a year or two ago especially since there are alternatives.

As I said, it always depends and the decision doesn’t get any easier.

Did you opt to have your senior dog undergo surgery? How did you decide?

Related articles:
Senior Dog Care: Should I be Doing Things Differently When My Dog Gets Older?

Further reading:
Is My Dog Too Old for Surgery?
What Age is a Dog Too Old for Surgery?
Older Dogs and Surgery

Categories: Dog careDog health advocacySenior dog careSenior dog careTreatments

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Jana Rade

I am a graphic designer, dog health advocate, writer, and author. Jasmine, the Rottweiler of my life, was the largest female from her litter. We thought we were getting a healthy dog. Getting a puppy from a backyard breeder was our first mistake. Countless veterinary visits without a diagnosis or useful treatment later, I realized that I had to take Jasmine's health care in my own hands. I learned the hard way that merely seeing a vet is not always enough. There is more to finding a good vet than finding the closest clinic down the street. And, sadly, there is more to advocating for your dog's health than visiting a veterinarian. It should be enough, but it often is not. With Jasmine, it took five years to get a diagnosis. Unfortunately, other problems had snowballed for that in the meantime. Jasmine's health challenges became a crash course in understanding dog health issues and how to go about getting a proper diagnosis and treatment. I had to learn, and I had to learn fast. Helping others through my challenges and experience has become my mission and Jasmine's legacy. I now try to help people how to recognize and understand signs of illness in their dogs, how to work with their veterinarian, and when to seek a second opinion. My goal is to save others the steep curve of having to learn things the hard way as I did. That is the mission behind my blog and behind my writing. That is why I wrote Symptoms to Watch for in Your Dog, which has turned out being an award-winning guide to dog owners. What I'm trying to share encompasses 20 years of experience.

6 Comments
  1. When my previous cat was diagnosed with cancer, I chose not to do the surgery because of her age (16) and her quality of life. The vet told me she only had about 6 months to a years left, even with surgery, so I chose to pamper her the last month she was with me.

  2. This is very thoughtful advice, especially considering every circumstance is different. You laid out the factors well regarding older pets, especially quality of life is a big factor. Whatever decision made is a big one and not to be taken lightly. Whatever is in the best interest in the pet is the right decision for me.

  3. This is great advice. My girl is 13 now, which is old for a German Shepherd mix. With that in mind, I would be reluctant to agree to an elective surgery. In most cases, these surgeries would involve more risk and recovery than I would be willing to put her through at this stage of her life. As you said, quality of life should really be the top concern. That being said, I wouldn’t write the idea off – I am more than willing to hear all of my options and find out the information before making decision. But I would have a harder time putting her through it than I would have when she was young.

  4. All of my dogs are seniors, and we are considering whether or not to have their teeth cleaned. If their bloodwork looks good, I think we will for Theo and Nelly, but Sophie has some other medical complications, and I think it will be too risky for her.

  5. This must be one of your best ever posts. It deserves an award. Why? Because it will resonate with every dog owner (and with a lot of cat owners in the same position). You put yourself in the place of every owner with a senior and give us a balanced reflection on the options, and what we might do in the same position.

    With this, people will feel they can take a step in the right direction providing their pet with the best end of life care.

    Thank you.

  6. Layla is 14+ and has cataracts in both of her eyes and because of her age I have decided against surgery which my vet agrees upon also. She gets daily eye drops which seems to be working and would rather leave it at that. If my vet thought she needed surgery for an emergency I would then think about it.

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