Is dental cleaning safe for older cats?
Cat Health and Wellness

What Are the Risks of Teeth Cleaning in Older Cats?

Brushing your cat’s teeth at home will reduce the need for dental treatment. This is particularly important for senior cats as professional teeth cleaning requires anesthesia, which can be dangerous for older felines.

The anesthesia used to sedate a cat during teeth cleaning can affect a senior cat’s heart, kidneys, respiratory tract, and body temperature. A vet will assess whether an older cat is sufficiently healthy to undergo the procedure.

Deciding whether a senior cat should have its teeth cleaned isn’t always easy. There are dangers associated with placing an older cat under anesthetic and significant risks associated with tooth decay and gum disease. You’ll need to weigh up the pros and cons so that you can make the right choice for your cat.

Does My Cat Need Its Teeth Cleaned?

All cats need help cleaning their teeth. Cats are skilled at grooming, but they cannot brush their own teeth. This leads to plaque and tartare. This, in turn, leads to painful gum disease. Cats can be skilled at masking pain. Your cat may be hiding dental issues from you.

Gum disease is not simply restricted to the mouth. It can spread to the cat’s internal organs, leading to a range of issues. Warning signs that your cat is living with gum disease include:

  • Reluctance to eat or groom
  • Pawing at the mouth and face
  • Foul breath
  • Stained teeth
  • Black gums or red, inflamed gums
  • Bleeding gums
  • Loose teeth

Senior cats start to lose their teeth with age. It is a mistake to believe this means you can let nature take its course.

When cats lose teeth, it is often a result of gum disease. This could spread to elsewhere in your cat’s body. Look into cleaning the remaining teeth.

If your cat loses its teeth naturally with no sign of disease, it’s not a problem. Senior cats can thrive without teeth. You’ll just need to moderate your cat’s diet appropriately.

Is My Cat Too Old for Dental Work?

Some vets will hesitate to approve a tooth cleaning for senior cats. This is because anesthesia will be required.

There is no formal cut-off point when a cat can no longer be placed under anesthesia. Your cat will need to undergo a number of health checks. Your vet will also ask you questions about your cat’s health and lifestyle.

You must answer these honestly. Cats with any of the following conditions are unlikely to thrive under anesthesia:

  • Weak or irregular heartbeats
  • Hypertension
  • Chronic renal failure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Prominent or serious allergies

A healthcare professional will advise whether your senior cat is strong enough for tooth cleaning.

In most cases, the final decision will lie with you as the owner. Short-term safety and long-term quality of life must both be taken into consideration.

when is a cat too old for anesthesia?

What Anesthetic Do Vets Use?

There are multiple types of anesthesia available for feline patients. Some are injectable, and others are inhalable gases.

Different surgeries will have access to varying tools. Discuss options with your vet. You need to agree on which drug poses the least risk.

Inhalant anesthetics are considered safer than injectables for senior cats. The cat will also come around faster if an inhalable anesthetic is used.

Before your cat is placed under anesthesia, it will need a sedative. Acepromazine is the most common sedative used by vets.

According to The Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, acepromazine dulls the senses. This means the cat is less likely to be stressed by the administration of anesthesia.

Some cats fall at this first hurdle. Acepromazine slows the heart and respiratory system and drops the temperature. It is not safe for all senior cats. If your cat is deemed safe for anesthesia, one or a combination of the following will typically be used.

Barbiturates (Injectable)

Barbiturates are commonly used for short procedures, such as tooth cleaning. Thiopental, methohexital, and thiamylal are popular examples of barbiturates.

Barbiturates are considered risky in older felines, especially if the cat is obese. Such cats require a higher dose to be effective. As barbiturates can slow down respiratory function, this is not ideal.

Barbiturates can also leave a cat feeling groggy for a prolonged period after anesthesia. Your cat will bounce back faster from a different form of anesthetic.

Ketamine (Injectable)

Ketamine is a powerful tranquilizer. It is used on horses, which gives you an idea of how potent it can be. This means that some vets will use ketamine as a full anesthetic in small animals.

Ketamine is wildly considered to be among the safer animal medications. It is not suitable for cats with kidney or liver problems, though.

The use of ketamine can flood a cat’s body with fluid. If the cat is anesthetized, it will struggle to manage this.

Propofol (Injectable)

Propofol is arguably the safest cat anesthetic. It is unsuitable for cats with liver issues, but most other felines tolerate it well. The cat will also recover quickly from propofol injection when waking up.

Most vets will check for propofol tolerance before considering another anesthetic. Just ensure your vet has experience in using this drug. Used too quickly or to excess, it can lead to cardiac arrest.

Isoflurane (Inhalant)

If possible, ask your vet to use isoflurane to put your cat under. Many vets use isoflurane on pregnant queens as it rarely impacts a cat’s heart rate. This is as close as you’ll find to a completely safe anesthetic for senior cats.

Isoflurane is also among the more cost-effect anesthetics available to vets. This is because the drug lost its patent a few years ago. This will be reflected on the bill for your cat’s tooth-cleaning.

Halothane (Inhalant)

Halothane is another inhalable anesthetic, but it is less secure than isoflurane. While still preferable to many injectables, this drug can cause sharp drops in temperature. Low heart rates are also a risk.

Risks of Anesthesia in Older Cats

The Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association surveyed 683 anesthetized cats over a one-year period. 10.5% of these felines experience post-anesthetic health complications. Thankfully, only 0.43% died.

The age of the cats in this survey was not recorded. This suggests a cross-section of different cats. Many of the patients would have been young and healthy. Older cats often live with pre-existing health complications. These enhance the risks of anesthesia.

If your vet is adamant that tooth-cleaning under sedation is necessary, ask some key questions.

  • What anesthetic will be used?
  • How long with your cat be under?
  • How many surgeons and nurses will be present to assist?
  • How will your cat’s vital signs be monitored throughout the procedure?
  • How will an unexpected emergency be managed?
  • How long after the procedure can your cat come home?
  • What aftercare services will be available, and will there be extra fees?

Anesthetizing a senior cat is not a decision to make lightly. You should approach multiple healthcare professionals before committing. These are some of the most common risks.

Kidney Failure

Veterinary Radiology and Ultrasound stated that anesthetic will affect a cat’s kidneys. As many older cats already live with restricted renal function, this can be a serious concern. The cat may experience acute kidney failure, or chronic renal failure in the future.

Renal failure one of the main concerns surrounding anesthetics in older cats. Your vet will need to run a range of tests on these organs. If the procedure is considered unsafe, heed this advice. Kidney failure in senior felines is irreversible, and it will eventually cost a cat its life.

Heart Problems

Alongside the kidneys, the heart is the organ most at risk during the anesthetic. The dosage must be just right to ensure safety. Anesthesia often slows down the heart rate. As senior cats have weaker hearts, this can have significant repercussions.

Ensure your vet runs tests on your cat’s heart before attempting a tooth clean. Inhalant anesthetics are preferable, as they will have less effect. If your cat’s heartbeat is too weak, find a different way to clean its teeth.


One of the risks of anesthetic is to a cat’s body temperature. Cats always lose body heat while sleeping. This risk is enhanced under anesthesia. Unlike a nap, a sedated cat cannot wake up and move to a warmer location.

Veterinary Surgery recommends the use of a forced-air warming blanket (FAWB) while a cat is under anesthetic.

This reduces the risk and impact of hypothermia while the cat is sedated. Ask if your vet has such a tool at their disposal.

Allergic Reactions

Does your cat have any allergies? If so, these must be disclosed to a vet before a tooth cleaning begins. If a cat goes into shock while under anesthetic, it can be fatal.

Your cat may have an allergy that you are unaware of. Vets performing a tooth clean will wear latex gloves. A cat will a latex allergy will react poorly to this. A cat could also have a sensitivity to tools or cleaning products used during the cleaning.

Cats can develop allergies at any stage of life. Do not assume that, because your cat has not experienced a reaction before, it never will. To be safe, run tests before the procedure. If your cat displays any sign of allergy, the tooth cleaning must be canceled.

is cat teeth cleaning necessary?


While a cat is under anesthetic, it will likely require intravenous fluids. This will aid the cat’s organs in completing essential functions while sedated. It will also flush the anesthetic out of the cat’s body faster. This will help the cat recover faster.

A vet will decide how much fluid is required. This will need to be monitored constantly. If the cat does not receive enough fluid, it will grow dehydrated. This is dangerous in a conscious cat. A cat under anesthetic cannot drink, making it especially risky.

While cats typically need to fast before surgery, they can usually drink. Try to encourage your cat to drink water before a tooth cleaning. This will not eradicate the risk of dehydration, but it reduces it. 

Blood Sugar Levels

Diabetic cats are not excluded from the anesthetic. In fact, many diabetic felines need to undergo surgery during their life. Alas, if your cat has diabetes it adds an extra risk of anesthesia.

Blood glucose in an anesthetized cat must be checked at least every 30 minutes. If the cat develops hyperglycemia or hypoglycemia, it can be a major concern. Intravenous injection of dextrose may be required.


Some cats placed under anesthesia experience complications with hypoxia. Hypoxia occurs when a part of the body does not receive sufficient oxygen. This can happen to a sedated cat if assisted breathing apparatus is not used.

Veterinary Ophthalmology recounts an incident of a healthy, young cat losing its eyesight following anesthetic. The cat also displayed behavioral problems after the procedure, resulting in euthanasia. A post-mortem confirmed that hypoxia, caused by the anesthesia, was the root of the issue.

Senior cats often struggle with their eyesight, so this is a cautionary tale to bear in mind. Ensure that a vet will be assisted by capable partners during the tooth cleaning. Your cat must be able to breathe throughout the process.

Only you can decide if the risks of tooth cleaning in older cats outweigh the rewards. Discuss your options in detail with a professional. Tooth decay should be treated, but in rare cases, it may be the lesser of two evils.