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Five Pet Anesthesia Fictions Veterinarians Debunk Daily

By Dr. Patty Khuly

As a veterinarian, I find myself defending the need for anesthesia and sedation on a daily basis. After all, surgery’s not exactly doable without anesthesia and our animals’ limited ability to understand us means we often have no choice but to sedate them. Yet that doesn’t keep owners from balking at our recommendations along these lines.

Consequently, the speech in which we describe the risks and benefits associated with an anesthetic event is one companion animal veterinarians are well-practiced at. In fact, I’d count it among my top five diatribes, right up there with allergic skin disease, weight management, and periodontal disease. Which makes a lot of sense. After all, most pets wouldn’t tolerate deep ear flushing, above-the-gumline dental cleanings, or routine sterilization procedures without full-on anesthesia. So it is that we veterinarians exercise our anesthetic muscles a lot more than most general practitioners.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy on the patients’ caretakers. For some reason, rendering a pet either sleepy or insensate so we can do what needs doing has a way of striking fear deep into the heart of most pet owners - which I completely understand. There’s just something scary about drug-induced sleep.

As a result –– or so I surmise –– a good deal of mythology attends this topic. The internet, in particular, is chock-a-block with scary stories of anesthetic deaths, tales of veterinarians-gone-drug-wild, and admonitions for owners of specific breeds whose fanciers claim to have identified unique sensitivities to certain anesthetics or sedatives.

In this case, however, the truth often lies far a field of the chatter. Indeed, I find most online anesthesia and sedation commentary to be overblown, fear monger-y and often just plain wrong.

How so? Here are five common fictions that help illustrate my point:

Fiction #1: Death is common.

Fact: Everyone seems to know someone whose pet died under anesthesia –– a neighbor, a relative, a friend… but for normal, healthy pets, multiple studies have concluded that the risk of death with today’s veterinary medicine is only about one in two thousand. Even if certain pre-existing diseases are a factor, the risk of death is still a relatively low one in five hundred. Identifying risk factors with pre-operative screening and monitoring and minimizing them with excellent monitoring tools and practices is what we do on a daily basis.

Fiction #2: My pet (or her breed) is sensitive to anesthesia.

Fact: While some breeds do have certain sensitivities to specific drugs, these are uncommon. In fact, in most cases, monitoring a pet’s condition (anesthetic depth, blood oxygen level, respiration, blood pressure, body temperature and heart electrical activity) throughout an anesthetic procedure is far more important than which drug is selected.

Moreover, most veterinarians are already in the habit of tailoring an anesthetic protocol to each patient’s needs. We well know that in the anesthesia world, one size does not fit all.

Fiction #3: Most complications happen while pets are asleep.

Fact: The truth is that almost half of anesthetic deaths occur after anesthesia. During recovery is when pets most need attention. So if you want to be sure your pet is as safe as possible, always ask your veterinarian how your pet will be cared for after a procedure.

Fiction #4: Most veterinarians provide a similar level of anesthetic care and monitoring.

Fact: Every veterinarian has a different way of doing things. Some use lots of monitoring tools, hire more heavily-schooled staff, and have a higher staff to patient ratio. You’ll pay more in these cases… but it’s worth it for those who seek to minimize their pet’s risk as much as possible.

Fiction #5: The Internet is the most reliable source for information about potential anesthesia risks.

Fact: Most information online is JUST PLAIN WRONG. Why would it be any different when it comes to information about your pet’s anesthesia?

Your vet is always the ideal source of information about your pet’s specific needs. And if you don’t trust your vet on the subject of anesthesia for your pet… you clearly need another one.

Note: Always ask your veterinarian for details before your pet undergoes any anesthetic procedures, and then make an informed decision about what’s best for your pet.

Remember: It’s YOUR pet. YOU have the final say. And you deserve to be comfortable with your pet’s healthcare –– or at least as comfortable as you can be.

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