Written by Anna Hollisey
Taking your dog for surgery is super stressful. The minutes feel like hours until the vet calls. They’re waking up! And they’ll soon be doing a happy wag when you arrive to collect them. Here’s a round-up of common questions about dogs and anesthetics.
Anaesthesia involves suppressing the animal’s central nervous system so that they can’t feel any sensations. Anesthesia can be local - they can’t feel any sensation in a localized area, or general, which means the animal will become unconscious.
An anesthetic drug is usually given by injection or inhalation (through a tube). While they’re unconscious, your dog will be monitored very closely; heart-rate, blood pressure, and body temperature are all observed.
Before administering anesthesia, your vet will carry out a few checks:
Many dogs will experience anesthesia when they are young, since it’s used to perform neutering and spaying surgery. Other common causes for anesthesia include:
For healthy dogs, anesthesia is usually considered very low risk. If your vet has diligently checked the medical history and physical health, they will be pretty confident that your dog will recover very well from anesthetic treatment.
However, some dogs have a negative and unpredictable reaction to anesthesia. Between 0.001 and 0.1% will experience this – ranging from swelling at the site of the injection, a lowered heart-rate, a seizure, or anaphylactic shock. In rare cases, anesthesia can cause death.
Be sure that your vet has carried out all the pre-surgical tests, ensuring that your dog’s heart, kidneys and liver are healthy. At home, ensure that you follow the instructions for prep and recovery – including keeping your dog away from food at least 12 hours prior to surgery.
Before the surgery or treatment, your vet will probably give you a consent form to sign. It will outline the risks. This isn’t there to scare you – it’s simply to ensure that you’ve been told about the treatment, and you understand what will happen. This is a good time to raise concerns with your vet. It’s also a good moment to check that you’re aware of the costs, including post-treatment medications.
The night before your dog goes to surgery, you’ll be asked to ensure they stop eating from evening onwards. This can seem awkward, especially if your dog is hungry at dawn! But it’s really important. If your dog has food left in their stomach, it can be regurgitated during surgery and, because the dog’s unconscious, it might be drawn into the lungs. This causes aspiration pneumonia, which can be serious. So take away all bowls (except water), tape up the dog food, and leave a notice on the food container so that everybody in the household sticks to the rule!
Thanks to modern medicine, dogs tend to bounce back fast after anesthetic. In general, you can expect your dog to feel normal again after 12-48 hours. They may be sleepy, and your vet might advise keeping them indoors for the day.
If your dog has a wound, it could remain inflamed and painful. Your vet will prescribe medication to help. Since your dog can’t tell you how they feel, observe them closely for signs of pain – if you see any, refer to your vet.
If your dog’s behaving weirdly, don’t worry.
Lots of love can help your dog to recover after a stressful operation. Give them their favorite treats (but not too many) and if they’re coming for a snuggle, lift them onto the couch. No vigorous games for a while!
It is difficult to get an accurate figure on the rate of deaths caused by anesthetic. This might be because the dogs are undergoing surgery for a wide range of reasons, many of which can cause death – especially if treatment was unsuccessful.
In 2022, one study looked at 157,000 dogs undergoing anesthesia. It reported a death rate of 0.1% (159) in the first 48 hours after sedation. The same study also identified factors which increase the risk of death:
It’s always scary when our beloved pets have to be put under anesthesia but it’s never something a vet would recommend lightly. More often than not, it’s to relieve pain or discomfort that’s negatively impacting their quality of life. All good vets will be more than happy to answer any of your questions and ensure you and your pup are as comfortable as possible.