Are you afraid of anesthesia?

“I am absolutely terrified of surgery”

I probably hear this statement from loving pet owners once or twice a week. Since I am a surgeon, this statement obviously hurts my feelings.

Surgeons have feelings too, you know!

I typically ask questions to try to understand where my client is coming from. The story usually involves fear of the unknown, or the loss of an older or sick pet under anesthesia years and years ago.

Then I help the client realize that their fear is not really about surgery, but about the anesthesia. Even though surgeons hate that quote, in our profession we say that “there are routine surgeries, but there is no routine anesthesia.”

So we take anesthesia extremely seriously. And you should make sure that the veterinary team about to treat your pet takes it seriously as well.

What does that mean? It means doing blood work to ensure your pet is a good candidate for anesthesia. If there are abnormalities, it gives us a chance to correct them. If the bloodwork is normal, then this is wonderful news.

I feel strongly that every pet should have a trained, dedicated nurse monitoring them throughout anesthesia. This allows the doctor to focus on your pet and the surgery, while the nurse focuses on the anesthesia. This is similar to what happen in human medicine.

Years ago, a huge scientific study (almost 100,000 dogs and 80,000 cats) found out that the death rate around anesthesia time is 0.17% in dogs and 0.24% in cats. I said “around anesthesia time” and not “under anesthesia” because the researchers looked into pets who died up to 48 hours after the end of anesthesia.

Even better: these numbers are actually the average death rate. It’s the average between perfectly healthy patients, extremely sick patients and everything in between. And the study included puppies and kittens, adults as well as seniors.

So if you have a healthy pet, you’d think that going under anesthesia for a planned (ie non-emergency) surgery, the risk of death under anesthesia is even lower.

Sure enough: in healthy dogs, the death rate around anesthesia time is 0.05%. In healthy cats, it’s 0.1%.

Numbers are a bit worse for sick patients. In sick dogs, the death rate around anesthesia time is 1.3%. In sick cats, it’s 1.4%

These numbers are incredibly small, which means that anesthesia is incredibly safe in our cats and dogs.

That said, the risk is sadly never zero. And that is why we take it so seriously – and you should too.

Now… there is something else you should know.

Anesthesia is not the riskiest thing for your pet. The biggest risk, believe it or not, is the period right after anesthesia, when they wake up.

This is not the time to be complacent and walk away from a patient. This is the time to continue to monitor and make sure the pet is comfortable and warm and breathing well.

Monitoring after anesthesia should be taken very seriously.

So how do you ensure that your veterinary team takes your pet’s anesthesia seriously? As your pet’s best advocate, you have the right to ask questions.

Here are 10 suggestions to discuss openly with your vet:

. Will someone monitor my pet during anesthesia?

. How qualified is this person?

. Will you monitor my pet after surgery?

. Will you monitor my pet’s blood pressure?

. Will you monitor my pet’s CO2 level?

. How will you ensure my pet remains warm during and after surgery?

. What kind of pain medications will my pet receive?

. Will my pet have an IV catheter and receive IV fluids?

. Does my pet have specific risks under anesthesia?

. What will you do if my pet gets in trouble?

If you’re not happy with the explanations you receive, then you have the right to investigate another option you’re more comfortable with.

If you’re happy with the answers you hear, then rest assured that your veterinary team will do the absolute best to ensure your pet’s safety.

This is not about ego or offending someone.

We’re talking about your pet’s safety after all.

And you have a right to take it very seriously.

Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, Fear Free Certified

Dr. Phil Zeltzman

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile veterinary surgeon and award-winning author who’d like to share his adventures in practice along with information about veterinary medicine that can really help your pets. Sign up to get an email when he updates his blog, and follow him on Facebook, too!