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Veterinary Anesthesia Demystified

February is Pet Dental Health Month. Since I have written multiple articles on dentistry, I thought I would focus on the area that concerns clients the most about veterinary dentistry: the anesthesia. I have recently written an article about the newest trend of “anesthesia-free dentistry.” Anesthesia-free dentistry is, according to veterinary dental specialists, only for cosmetic purposes of cleaning the teeth above the gum line and doesn’t address dental disease below the gum line.

There is definitely a common thread of questions I hear from clients regarding anesthesia, so I will address those in an effort to help give some understanding to modern day anesthetic practices in small animal medicine.

“My dog is too old for anesthesia”

I’ve heard this more times than I care to count. Of course, there are more things we need to be concerned about with an older pet than with a younger one, but age doesn’t automatically mean a pet cannot be anesthetized. Age isn’t a disease. I like the analogy that the time spent under anesthesia is more like running a marathon, then a restful sleep, so understandably it is a little harder on an older animal. We need to take more precautions prior to the procedure to make sure the pet can tolerate the anesthetic process, and do as much as possible to support the pet during and after the process. That is the reason many older pets need testing beyond basic blood panels prior to receiving anesthesia, such as x-rays and ultrasound examination. With the proper management older pets can still be good candidates for anesthesia

“I was told my dog’s breed is especially sensitive to anesthesia”

I’m not quite sure where this all started, but I have had people tell me this about every possible breed. There are very few breeds that have actually documented sensitivities. Sighthounds (Greyhound, Saluki, Whippet, Afghan hound) are more sensitive to barbiturate anesthetics that were commonly used to put pets under anesthesia. Current anesthetics, such as propofol are a much safer and have for the most part replaced the barbiturates previously used for anesthetic induction.

There is also a known genetic mutation that was discovered by a veterinarian at WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, it is the multi-drug resistance or MDR1 gene. I am especially interested in this genetic mutation because it affects the breed of dog I own, Australian Shepherds. Other breeds that are affected include Collies, Long Haired Whippets, and Mini Aussies. This mutation makes affected dogs unable to process many different drugs, including some commonly used for sedation. There is a simple test that can be done to find out if a dog carries this mutation prior to anesthesia. I recommend anyone owning an “at risk” breed to have their dog tested.

Some breeds are prone to being thin, some are prone to being heavy, that can affect the amount of anesthetic they need and how quickly they can metabolize the anesthetic agents. Some breeds are more prone to heart disease and require careful screening prior to anesthesia. But honestly, I feel like every anesthetic patient requires specific evaluation to decide the best anesthetic protocol for THAT particular pet.

“What happens to my pet?”

I know it seems like a big secretive process sometimes, we take your pet into the back and you come back later and pick up your pet. What happened? I have made a photo album on the Wilderness Animal Hospital’s Facebook page that shows the process of a dental cleaning. I’ll have a cat anesthesia photo album up soon. A picture is worth a thousand words, right?

“How will my pet act after anesthesia, is there any special care once I get my pet home?”

Some pets will feel groggy, maybe a little nauseous and possibly disoriented. It is very important to keep them in an area where they will be safe and comfortable. For the pet’s safety and any children in the house, keep the pet away from children until things are back to normal. If the pet goes home the same day of the procedure, limiting water and food for the first night is often a good idea. Keeping the pet indoors for at least the first night is also a good idea, and maybe longer depending on the procedure. Some pets may act drowsy and depressed for a day or so, but it is amazing how most pets bounce right back and act like nothing happened, especially when proper anesthetic support is given to the patient.

I hope this helps anyone whose pet needs an anesthetic procedure. I understand that fear of anesthesia is a real concern for many clients. And even though current anesthetic medications and protocols are so much safer than just a few years ago it’s important to discuss all your concerns with your veterinarian prior to any procedure. I’ve posted a great handout on Wilderness’ Facebook. It’s by a board-certified veterinary anesthesiologist and has a list of questions to ask your veterinarian when your pet requires anesthesia.

As usual, feel free to e-mail me,, with any additional questions and/or comments you may have. Visit our website and Facebook page.