When confronted with a recommendation for anesthesia for their pet, many pet owners have serious concerns about the safety of the anesthesia, especially when the recommended anesthetic procedure is for something that is not immediately life threatening such as spay or neuter, torn ligament in the knee, or a dental cleaning. So how safe is veterinary anesthesia? The short answer is very safe, but like most things I write about, there is a lot more to that story.
The safety of anesthesia for dogs and cats is largely dependent on several factors:
1,) Stability of the patient (presence of heart murmurs or other mitigating physical factors that may affect anesthetic stability).
2.) Choice of anesthetics (not all anesthesia agents are created equal).
3.) The use of an endotracheal tube (a tube placed in the throat to maintain an and protect an open airway, ventilate the patient if necessary, and modulate gas anesthesia).
4.) The use of an indwelling IV catheter (for steady administration of anesthesia induction agents, administer IV fluids during the procedure, and an open port to administer life saving drugs if necessary).
5.) The use of IV fluids to maintain blood pressure and replace fluids lost in respiration.
6.) Whether or not the anesthesia is administered by a formally trained veterinary nurse.
Under the best of circumstances where the patient is stable, the best and safest anesthetic agents are used, an endotracheal tube is placed, an IV catheter is placed, the patient is maintained on IV fluids, and anesthesia is administered by a formally trained and experienced veterinary nurse, here are the statistical risks for death due solely to complications from anesthesia:
Dogs: 0.014% (1.4 out of 10,000)
Cats: 0.024% (2.4 out of 10,000)
For dogs and cats that are sick or systemically compromised, these are statistical deaths due to complications from anesthesia:
Dogs: 0.23% (2.3 out of 1000)
Cats: 0.24% (2.4 out of 1000)
Clearly, the statistical data for anesthesia – when administered properly per criteria 1-6 – strongly favors the patient even when sick or systemically compromised. Despite that, no veterinarian can guarantee the safety of anesthesia 100%. Because the safety of anesthesia largely depends on how it is administered, be certain to do your due diligence as a pet owner to know that safety is not compromised by lack of adherence to the criteria I laid out that were prerequisites for the study I am quoting. For example, many low cost, high volume spay/neuter clinics do not administer gas anesthesia using an endotracheal tube, instead administering the gas by mask. This practice increases the rate of death due to anesthesia complications in both dogs and cats by 6 times.
When confronted with the recommendation for an anesthetic procedure, it is important to understand the risks and that you are asking the right questions and have the faith in your veterinary clinic of choice to minimize the risks to best ensure your pet’s safety. Any diversion from the safety criteria I outlined in this article, should be a red flag to any pet owner, whereas adherence to these criteria, make anesthesia risk extremely low.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and well regarded media personality throughout a number of subjects and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.