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5 Myths About Anesthesia

Myth #1: Anesthesia is dangerous.

Anesthesia has evolved into a safe medical practice since it was first used in 1799. Initial anesthetic drugs included such things as ether and chloroform, both of  which proved toxic and often fatal not only to the patient but also to the doctor administering anesthesia! Modern anesthetics are very safe and have come a long way from early anesthetic drugs. Having said that however, they are medications and like any medication they can cause harm to the patient or the doctor and the staff in the operating room.

In general, there are two types of anesthetics: injectable anesthetic drugs and inhalant anesthetic drugs (gases.) Injectable drugs can be further classified into short acting medications or longer acting medications. Short acting medications tend to be used for induction of anesthesia (getting the pet to become anesthetized very quickly) or given continuously throughout anesthesia for maintenance of anesthesia (keeping the pet asleep during the entire procedure.) Long acting injectable medications may be used as the sole anesthetic drug and will usually keep the pet asleep during the entire procedure without the need for additional anesthetic. Inhalant or gas anesthetics are used in place of injectable drugs to keep the pet asleep during the entire procedure (although short acting injectable drugs may be given to quickly anesthetize the pet before it is placed on the gas anesthesia for maintenance.)

Both injectable and gas anesthetics can be used safely IF dosed properly, IF chosen considering the pet's medical condition (some drugs should not be used in pets with certain medical conditions if at all possible, such as the use of xylazine in pets with heart disease) and IF proper monitoring of the pet while anesthetized is done (I believe proper monitoring should include at least careful visual observation of the pet's respiration and heart rate as well as monitoring by an electronic monitor that checks the pet's heart rate and oxygen saturation through pulse oximetry).

In my practice, I've performed what I call holistic anesthesia which includes careful monitoring and low doses of anesthetic drugs properly chosen for the patient's condition so that the pet can wake-up immediately following surgery without any anesthetic hangover effects.

Thanks to modern anesthetics and monitoring equipment, anesthesia should no longer be considered dangerous as long as it is properly administered, as is the case with any conventional medication.


Myth #2: My pet will be groggy following anesthesia.

One of the most common complaints I hear from pet owners who seek out my help for anesthesia and surgery is that their pets are groggy for several hours or several days following prior anesthetic procedures. While this commonly occurred many years ago as our anesthetic drug choices were more limited, in my opinion it should never occur today. I believe it is malpractice to send the pet home if it is barely awake following anesthesia or surgery. In general, this hangover or groggy effect occurs when injectable ketamine and xylazine (or similar) drug combinations are used for anesthesia. These drugs, while safe when used properly, are often given by injection for spaying and neutering procedures, especially when these procedures are offered at a discount or low cost (these medications are much less expensive than using gas anesthesia or other injectable medications.) A very common side effect of these medications, especially when given under the skin or in the muscle, is prolonged recovery periods. Many of these pets are groggy for 24 hours or more, and I've seen pets that required hospitalization for supportive care as it took them several days to fully recover. In my opinion a safer (although slightly more expensive) approach is to use a short acting anesthetic followed by gas anesthesia for anesthetic maintenance for surgical procedures including spaying and neutering. Using this anesthetic regimen, pets wake-up quickly following surgery and can be sent home fully awake. If sedation is needed at home to keep the pet from becoming overactive, oral sedatives can be used.


Myth #3: My pet can't be anesthetized too often.

Some pet owners are concerned if their pets require several anesthetic procedures over a short period of time, such as for cleaning severely infected ears or changing bandages or splints following fracture repair. Once again if the proper anesthetic drugs are chosen, these quickly leave the body and do not require extensive metabolism by the liver or kidneys. This is especially the case with gas anesthetics, as the anesthetic leaves the patient while the patient continues to breathe following the procedure. While it is true that we never want to anesthetize a pet more than necessary, some procedures such as those I just mentioned require sedation or anesthesia with some frequency. Rest assured that as long as the proper anesthetics are chosen, there is no increased risk to your pet from having several procedures done over a short period of time (as an example, keep in mind that in human medicine, burn patients are often anesthetized daily to allow cleaning of their wounds and skin grafting.)


Myth #4: Sick pets can't be anesthetized.

Sick pets can be safely anesthetized as long as the proper anesthesia is chosen and the pet is carefully monitored, although it is always preferable to get the sick pet healthy first before anesthesia is done. However, this is not always possible. For example, in my practice I often see older pets with very bad dental disease that are not eating and are feeling pretty crummy. It is often hard to determine if the pet has stopped eating because of the severe dental disease or because of its underlying illness. In these cases, the pet must be anesthetized in order to clean its teeth to allow us to determine if the dental disease or the internal disease is causing the lack of appetite. The good news is that once again with properly chosen modern anesthetics, antibiotics, fluid administration, additional supportive care, and careful monitoring, these pets rarely have anesthetic problems and feel much better following the procedure (and most resume eating as the severe dental disease was the cause of their lack of appetite!)


Myth #5: My pet is too old for anesthesia.

I don't believe that any pet is too old for proper medical care. If that proper medical care includes anesthesia, then the anesthesia must be done in order to help the pet. It is true that some owners choose not to have an anesthetic or surgical procedure done for a pet that they deem too old (for example, performing a total hip replacement on a 15-year-old Labrador with arthritis,) but this is the owner's choice that is made after careful discussion of all the options available for her pet. It is true that older pets don't metabolize some drugs as well as younger pets, and for these reasons the correct anesthesia must be safely chosen for the pet's age and more importantly its state of health or presence of medical problems at the time of the procedure. I see far too many pets who have not been given proper care (especially dental cleanings and tumor removals) because their current veterinarians deem them "too old" for anesthesia and refuse to do the procedure. In my area I'm known as a veterinarian who anesthetizes old and often sickly pets on a daily basis, and pet owners seek out my assistance because they want these procedures done on their older pets and recognize the health benefits the pets receive by having the procedures done. I always tell these owners that if their current veterinarians don't want to anesthetize their pets, then the veterinarians should not anesthetize their pets as there is likely to be a problem if these veterinarians are scared of the anesthesia. I can honestly say that I have not had a single anesthetic problem or death in an older or sickly pet using our carefully chosen holistic anesthesia regimens. I hope that if you get nothing else out of this article, you'll appreciate that older pets and those with illness deserve proper medical care and can receive it safely if  the veterinarian is comfortable performing anesthesia and carefully monitoring the pet during the procedure!


Like all myths, the five presented here are based upon fear and/or inaccurate information. As you can see, anesthesia can be safely done in pets thanks to the use of modern anesthetics and monitoring equipment. If your veterinarian is not comfortable performing anesthesia on your pet he should not do so. Likewise, it's important that you be comfortable with anesthesia before you consent to the procedure. Ask questions and make sure you understand the answers before submitting your pet to any anesthetic, surgical, or medical procedure.



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