Understanding Anesthesia

It can be scary to hear that your pet will need to be anesthetized. But knowledge can banish fear. Learning more about how anesthesia works can help you be the best advocate for your pet’s health.

Safe anesthesia involves knowledgeable drug choices and close patient monitoring and support of the pet before, during, and after anesthesia.

Anesthesia occurs in several steps, and each step has risk factors that can be addressed or ignored. These are best practices; you should check with your veterinarian to see how they handle each of these steps.

STEP 1. Assessment. The medical team assembles any needed medical history and lab results, and performs a physical exam. At this stage the medical team should assign an anesthetic risk factor and determine if the procedure is compatible with your pet’s state of health. Complications such as low blood pressure, shallow breathing, low body temperature, slow heart rate, and slow recovery from anesthesia can all be anticipated and planned for during the assessment stage. An anesthesia plan is written to help guide the process and keep the procedure on track should complications arise.

STEP 2. Pre-medications. Pre-meds provide preventive pain management, reduce stress, and minimize the dose of other anesthetic drugs. Pre-meds can be specifically chosen for your pet, based on its unique anesthesia profile.

STEP 3. IV catheter. Allows administration of IV drugs and fluids, and allows for IV induction, which is safer and less stressful than mask induction. Having an IV catheter in place is especially important if an emergency drug is needed to treat a complication.

STEP 4. Pre-oxygenation and IV induction. The lungs are charged with oxygen and your pet undergoes a smooth, controlled transition to unconsciousness.

STEP 5. Intubation. A tube is inserted into your pet’s windpipe to protect the airway and lungs from accidental inhalation of foreign objects such as stomach contents, saliva, water, etc.

STEP 6. Maintenance of anesthesia and patient support and monitoring. Your pet is unconscious and the procedure is well underway. Patient support might include administration of IV fluids and drugs to treat complications and warming of the patient to treat low body temperature. Your pet is closely monitored to assess vital signs and enable proactive treatment of complications if they arise.

STEP 7. Pain management. Local blocks are very effective at reducing post-procedure pain. Go home meds may also be prescribed.

STEP 8. Recovery. Anesthetic maintenance ends and the endotracheal tube is removed. Your pet is usually transferred from the procedure room to recovery, where they are made comfortable, kept warm, and observed for normal return to consciousness (normal heart rate and breathing, animal becomes more alert).

STEP 9. Discharge. Procedural details are discussed with you, any medications prescribed, and follow-up visits scheduled.

Imagine managing all of the above steps, all while performing surgery on a beloved pet. It’s a lot for one practitioner to handle.

Veterinary anesthesia specialists are rare in private practice. Most of the vets who undertake the extra study to become anesthesia specialists go on to teach anesthesia in vet schools. Consequently, many veterinarians don’t realize that there is an option to bring in a specialist to handle anesthesia for higher risk pets.

If you are worried about your pet undergoing anesthesia, or if your vet says your pet shouldn’t be anesthetized, ask your vet about bringing in a veterinary anesthesiologist to help.