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Why Does My Vet Have to Use Anesthesia on My Dog? Isn’t it Dangerous?

We have a reader whose veterinarian has recommended surgery to remove an abscess tooth. The reader is worried about the anesthesia, but Dr. Winkler addresses her worries.

” My mom’s dog died from anesthesia. Now my own dog needs surgery to remove an abscess tooth, but I’m worried that he will die too. Can the tooth be extracted without anesthesia? Is there a way to tell whether my dog will have a bad reaction to the anesthesia?”                                                                                                                                – Robert, Florida

“I am glad to see you are watching your dog’s dental health!  You have two questions; let’s start with the first.  Can a dog have a tooth removed without anesthesia?  The easy answer is, would you want yours done that way?  Two main reasons exist for using anesthesia for tooth extractions.  The first is pain and patient comfort.  Though teeth look like hard solid blocks, they still contain nerve endings.  Just ask anyone who has had a tooth abscess of their own!  Like us, a dog’s abscess tooth is painful, even if we don’t notice that.  Sometimes all we see is a reluctance to play with a toy that was a favorite.   The pain is present and real.  Don’t forget, if it is abscessed, that means it is not just painful, it is also infected.  So, removing that tooth is important to the overall health of your pet.

There are different methods used for tooth removal depending on the tooth location, health, and abilities of your veterinarian.  Removal involves freeing the tooth root(s).  We slowly stretch the fibers holding the tooth until it is free.  Some teeth have a single root and some have two or three roots.  Since the roots may go in opposite directions, removal becomes more difficult.  Now, the tooth must be split or sectioned.  In that way we remove each root individually.   Removal must be complete, including the tips of the roots.  If not, the abscess may not go away.  So how do I split a tooth into different sections?  Remember that awful noise and smell when your dentist drills a hole to repair a cavity?  Yep, we do the same.  Now imagine drilling a tooth until it splits into sections.  Then we use a blade to elevate or remove the root.  Wait!  We are not done.  Sometimes we leave the hole open.  Sometimes, we cut part of the gum to stretch and cover the hole.  That decision is a medical choice your doctor can discuss with you.  Now you understand why we use anesthesia.   But you may be thinking, ‘What about my dog’s tooth?  It’s so loose it should come out easy.’  Generally, if the tooth is that loose, there is plenty of other dental disease that also should be addressed.

So why not just a local anesthetic block?  This is where human and canine medicine differs.  My dentist will use a local anesthetic and then tell me when to open or close my mouth.  I know you have a great dog, but there is no dog I trust enough to have my hands in his mouth during a tooth removal while he is awake.  I need my hands, they are my business.  My staff deserves the same protection.  I would bite if a tooth was removed from me without some form of anesthesia.  We just cannot ignore and risk the potential of human injury.  For all of these reasons, anesthesia is necessary to remove your dog’s abscessed tooth.

Your concerns about anesthesia are always valid.  Don’t ever let someone say my dog is “just going in to be spayed!”  Any procedure which requires general anesthesia carries some risk and that should never be discounted.   Can I predict a bad reaction to anesthesia…?  No.  If I could predict them, I would never have an anesthetic complication.  The reality is, in most procedures, anesthesia goes well.  Yet, up to 1% may die during the procedure.  While this risk is small, your pet’s risk can be minimized.  Blood work should be routinely checked before anesthesia.  Problems in the  blood work may not cancel the procedure, but they may result in a change in the medications which are used.  Remember, you are your pet’s best advocate!  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

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