If you feel nervous about having your dog “put under” for veterinary procedures, you’re not alone. While there are risks involved, anesthesia is safer than you might think.

Many people have postponed or even declined important veterinary procedures for their dogs because they don’t want their companions to be anesthetized. Like everything else in life, anesthesia does carry some risks, but advances in technology have rendered it much safer than it used to be.

Myth #1: Anesthesia is Dangerous

Anesthesia was first used in 1799. Original anesthetic drugs included ether and chloroform, both of which proved toxic and often fatal, not only to the patient but also to the doctor administering them! Modern anesthetics have come a long way since those days, and are now very safe if used properly. In general, there are two types.

1. Injectable anesthetic drugs can be divided into short-acting and long-acting medications. Short-acting medications tend to be used for the induction of anesthesia (getting the dog to become anesthetized very quickly) or are given continuously throughout anesthesia to keep the animal asleep during the entire procedure. Long-acting injectable medications may be used as the sole anesthetic drug and will usually keep the dog asleep during the entire procedure.

2. Inhalant anesthetic drugs (gases) are used in place of injectable drugs to keep the animal asleep during the entire procedure, although short-acting injectable drugs may be given to quickly anesthetize the dog before he is placed on gas for maintenance.

Both injectable and gas anesthetics can be safely used if dosed properly and chosen with the dog’s medical condition in mind. Some drugs should not be used in animals with certain health problems, such as xylazine in those with heart disease. Proper monitoring of the dog while anesthetized is also imperative It should include careful observation of the dog’s respiration and heart rate, and the use of an electronic monitor to check his heart rate and oxygen saturation through pulse oximetry.

Thanks to modern drugs and monitoring equipment, anesthesia should no longer be considered dangerous as long as it is properly administered.

Myth #2: My Dog will be Groggy Following Anesthesia

One of the most common complaints I hear from people is that their dogs are groggy for several hours or days following anesthetic procedures. While this frequently occurred many years ago when anesthetic drug choices were more limited, in my opinion, it should never occur today. I believe it is malpractice to send an animal home if he 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 a discount or low-cost spaying and neutering procedures because they’re much less expensive than 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 a prolonged recovery period. Many of these animals are groggy for 24 hours or more, and I’ve seen some that required hospitalization for supportive care because it took them several days to fully recover.

In my opinion, a safer (though slightly more expensive) approach is to use a short-acting anesthetic followed by gas anesthesia for maintenance during surgical procedures, including spaying and neutering. Using this regimen, dogs wake up quickly following surgery and can be sent home fully awake. If sedation is needed at home to keep the dog from becoming overactive, oral sedatives can be used.

In my practice, I’ve performed what I call holistic anesthesia. It involves careful monitoring and low doses of anesthetic drugs properly chosen for the patient’s condition, so he can wake up immediately following surgery without any hangover effects.

Myth #3: My Dog Shouldn’t be Anesthetized too Often

Some people become concerned if their dogs require several anesthetic procedures over a short period, perhaps for cleaning severely infected ears or changing bandages or splints following fracture repair. Once again, if the proper drugs are chosen, they quickly leave the body and do not require extensive metabolism by the liver or kidneys. This is especially the case with gas anesthetics since they leave the patient while he continues to breathe following the procedure.

While it is true that we never want to anesthetize a dog more than necessary, some procedures such as those I mentioned above require more frequent sedation or anesthesia. Rest assured that as long as the proper anesthetics are chosen, there is no increased risk to your dog.

Myth #4: Sick Dogs Can’t be Anesthetized

Ill dogs can be safely anesthetized as long as the proper drugs are chosen and the animals are carefully monitored, although it is always preferable to get them healthy first. However, this is not always possible. For example, in my practice, I often see older dogs with very bad dental disease. These dogs are not eating and are feeling pretty crummy. It is often hard to determine if the dog has stopped eating because of the dental disease, or because of another underlying illness. In these cases, the dog must be anesthetized for teeth cleaning so we can determine which disease process is causing a lack of appetite. The good news, once again, is that properly chosen modern anesthetics, antibiotics, fluid administration, additional supportive care, and careful monitoring ensure these dogs rarely have anesthetic problems. And they feel much better following the procedure!

Myth #5: My Dog is Too Old for Anesthesia

I don’t believe any dog is too old for proper medical care. If that care includes anesthesia, then it must be done in order to help the animal. Some people may choose not to have an anesthetic or surgical procedure done for a dog they deem too old (for example, a total hip replacement for a 15-year-old Labrador with arthritis) but this is the person’s choice and is made after careful discussion of all the available options.

It is true that older animals don’t metabolize some drugs as well as younger ones. For this reason, the correct anesthesia must be chosen for the dog’s age, and more importantly, his state of health and/or the presence of medical problems at the time of the procedure.

I see far too many dogs who have not been given proper care (especially dental cleaning and tumor removal) 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 animals on a daily basis, and people seek out my assistance because they want these procedures done and recognize their health benefits. I can honestly say I have never had a single anesthetic problem or death in an older or sickly animal, using our carefully chosen holistic anesthesia regimen.

Older animals and those with illness deserve proper medical care and can receive it safely if the veterinarian is comfortable performing anesthesia and carefully monitors the animal during the procedure.

Myths like these are based on fear or inaccurate information. As you’ve now learned, anesthesia can be safely done thanks to modern drugs and monitoring equipment. If your veterinarian is not comfortable performing anesthesia on your dog, s/he should not do so. Likewise, it’s important that you’re comfortable with it before consenting to the procedure. Ask questions and make sure you understand the answers before submitting your companion to any anesthetic, surgical, or medical procedure.