No one likes to hear that their pet needs a veterinary procedure. But if the procedure requires anesthesia, for many pet parents this adds a whole new level of worry.
Anesthesia is simply a controlled level of unconsciousness. Unlike sedation (which usually makes a pet feel sleepy or calm), while a pet is under general anesthesia, they are unable to see, consciously move, or feel pain. Anesthesia also helps prevent the body’s “surgical stress response”, an involuntary reaction that happens during surgery that causes the heart rate and blood pressure to increase, which can lead to excessive bleeding and other complications during surgery.
In veterinary medicine, anesthesia is most commonly used for surgery and dental cleaning, but it may also be needed for certain types of diagnostic procedures that require a pet to remain perfectly still for an extended period of time. Because many people are apprehensive about their pet undergoing anesthesia, they may choose to put off necessary procedures that may be vital to their pet’s health and well-being. However, understanding what actually happens during the anesthesia process can help alleviate some of those fears.
The Veterinary Anesthesia Process
Veterinary anesthesia is a carefully-controlled process. It’s customized specifically for each patient, depending on the procedure being performed and the patient’s age, physical condition, even their breed. Some breeds of dogs and cats with shorter noses and flatter faces (such as Bulldogs and Persian cats) have different anesthetic requirements since they tend to experience more difficulty breathing while under anesthesia, so there are special protocols designed just for them.
If your pet needs anesthesia, it’s helpful to know that there are 3 stages of the anesthesia process:
- Before anesthesia: Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical exam on your pet to make sure he or she is healthy enough to tolerate anesthetic. This should include a blood test to check the health of your pet’s liver, kidneys, and other organs. During this time, it’s important to mention any medications (including dietary supplements) that your pet is currently taking.
If you’re instructed to make sure your pet has no food for a certain period of time prior to the anesthetic procedure, and you either forget and feed your pet or he gets into the food supply, tell your veterinarian immediately. Vomiting food while under anesthesia can cause the food to be aspirated into the lungs, resulting in pneumonia or other life-threatening conditions. It’s always better to have to reschedule a procedure than to put your pet at risk.
- During anesthesia: Anesthesia is usually done through the use of a customized mix of injectable medications and anesthetic gas (although in some cases only injectable medications are used). First, an IV catheter will be placed in your pet’s leg. This provides an open port directly into a vein, through which IV fluids and medications can be delivered.
Next, your pet will be given pre-anesthetic medications, which usually consist of a sedative to reduce stress and, if the patient will be receiving gas anesthesia, a drug to slow down saliva production and keep the heart rate in a safe range during the procedure.
Finally, your pet will be “induced” by giving him either an injectable medication to put him completely under, or a drug called an induction agent that will cause him to lose consciousness just long enough for a flexible rubber or plastic endotracheal tube to be inserted down his throat and into his airway. The tube is then hooked up to a gas anesthetic machine that delivers oxygen and anesthetic, which he will receive for the remainder of the procedure. During the entire process, your pet will be kept warm and his vital signs and breathing patterns will be carefully monitored to ensure his safety.
After anesthesia: Once the procedure is over, your pet will be allowed to wake up on his own. He will be kept warm in a quiet, semi-dark area while he recovers. During this time, pets are very closely monitored to make sure that they are waking up smoothly and there are no problems. Patients wake up at different rates; some may be fully alert by the time they’re released from the hospital, while others may be groggy for several hours after coming home.
Are There Risks With Anesthesia?
Anesthesia, whether for humans or pets, always comes with risks. These can be minor (such as post-procedure vomiting) or serious (cardiac arrest, stroke, or sudden death). However, it’s important to remember that serious complications from anesthesia are rare. If they do occur, the veterinary team is right there to monitor any issues and administer emergency care.
That being said, the benefits of putting a pet under anesthesia should always be weighed against the risk. Veterinarians usually exhaust all other alternatives before the decision is made to put a pet under anesthesia, but oftentimes it’s a necessity. In those cases, the risk of anesthesia is minimal compared to the benefits of performing the procedure.
When it comes to anesthesia, some pets are more at risk than others. These include senior pets, very young puppies and kittens, birds, and smaller pets like rabbits, ferrets, and rats. Smaller dogs and cats are more at risk because of their lighter body weight, and brachycephalic dog breeds (such as Bulldogs, Pugs, Pekingeses, and Boston Terriers), as well as flat-faced cats like Persians and Himalayans, are also considered higher-risk.
Obese pets in particular are at greater risk because of their high amount of body fat, which causes them to metabolize anesthetic more slowly. This makes them slower to wake up and more prone to complications.
How To Reduce Your Pet’s Anesthetic Risk
According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, there are several things you can do to reduce the risk for your pet when it comes to anesthesia:
- Keep your pet at a healthy weight.
- Make sure your veterinarian is always kept up to date on any medications (both prescription and over-the-counter) and supplements your pet is taking.
- Let your veterinarian know if your pet has ever had an adverse reaction to a drug or to anesthesia.
- Keep your pet healthy with regular preventive veterinary care.
- Always have blood work done whenever possible prior to your pet being put under anesthesia.
- Follow your veterinarian’s pre-anesthesia instructions to the letter, especially when it comes to withholding food (this includes treats) and water.
To further give you peace of mind, you can also ask the following questions of your veterinarian and/or veterinary technician prior to your pet undergoing anesthesia:
- When will we be running pre-anesthetic blood work?
- Will my pet have an IV catheter in place, and will he be receiving fluids during the entire procedure?
- Is there someone specifically dedicated to monitoring my pet while he is under anesthesia? Who? Are they trained and credentialed?
- What types of devices will be used to monitor my pet while he is under?
- What is the recovery process while my pet is waking up? Will someone be with him the entire time until he is awake?
Anesthesia Doesn’t Have To Be Scary
Anesthesia for pets has come a long way over the years. Many anesthetics currently being used in veterinary medicine are the same ones used in human medicine, and their safety ratings are high. Having a well-trained and well-prepared veterinary team further reduces anesthetic risk for your pet.
If your pet needs anesthesia, talk with your veterinarian about exactly what to expect. Feel free to ask any questions that will put your mind at ease. If your pet is in a particularly high-risk category, ask your veterinarian about the possibility of using a veterinary anesthesiologist for your pet’s procedure. These are veterinarians who have completed several years of additional specialized training in anesthesia and pain management, and their job is to be solely dedicated to managing every aspect of the anesthetic process for their patients.
Has apprehension about anesthesia ever caused you to put off a veterinary procedure for your pet? Please tell us about it in the comments below!