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.
Would my decision process be different today, when she is nearing ten years of age?
How essential is the 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
- Deep wounds
- Open bone fractures
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.
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 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 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 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:
- swelling, bruising, and seromas
- poor incision healing
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.