Safety is one of the biggest concerns my clients have when their pets must have a procedure that requires anesthesia. I’m happy to tell them that advances in both drugs and anesthesia techniques have made anesthetic procedures safer than ever. Although there’s always some risk with every anesthetic procedure, with the right precautions, even very young animals, older pets or animals with medical conditions can undergo dental cleanings and surgery with relative ease.

How Anesthesia Has Changed

The most up-to-date method of inducing general anesthesia is through intravenous injection of induction drugs. It’s a more controlled way of putting a dog or cat under anesthesia than with gas alone. The drugs help pets go to sleep smoothly before they are intubated and maintained with gas anesthesia.

Other techniques include providing pain relief before surgery — known as pre-emptive analgesia — as well as during surgery. Veterinarians can provide pain relief through injections and skin patches as well as epidurals, constant rate infusion and regional blocks.

With epidurals, drugs are delivered through an injection into the space surrounding the lower part of the spinal cord. Epidurals help prevent pain in the abdomen and lower part of the body, so they’re especially beneficial for pets undergoing orthopedic procedures in those areas.

Constant rate infusion (CRI) is an ongoing trickle of pain-relieving drugs into the circulation over a period of time. Administering pain medications in this way helps the veterinarian maintain an even level of pain relief while avoiding peaks and valleys in drug levels in the blood.

Blocking the pain signal helps reduce the volume of gas anesthesia during the procedure and is more comfortable afterward, which can assist them in recovering more quickly.

If you’ve ever had a cavity filled or a root canal, you know what a regional block is — that shot of novocaine that numbs your face. It blocks the nerves in a localized area that would otherwise carry pain signals to the brain. In pets, regional blocks might be used during dental procedures, along an incision line prior to surgery or in a cat’s limb prior to a declaw procedure.

What to Ask Before the Procedure

We veterinarians want your pets to have a safe and comfortable anesthetic experience. Before your pet undergoes a surgical or dental procedure, it can be reassuring to ask your veterinarian the following questions:

Will my pet get a preanesthetic assessment? No matter what his age, your pet should have lab work to assess kidney, liver and bone marrow function. Abnormalities could indicate a bacterial or viral infection or other conditions that would make your pet a poor candidate for anesthesia at that time, or could alert the veterinarian to the need to modify the anesthesia to make it safer.

Will my pet be induced intravenously? In the past, it was common for pets to be “masked asleep” with gas. My friend and colleague Dr. Robin Downing, founder and past president of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, says that masking a pet asleep with gas is not safe because it’s not a controlled technique. “We have safe and effective agents to put in the vein that help the pet go to sleep smoothly,” she says. “One of the key features of anesthesia is that if you go to sleep smoothly, you’ll wake up smoothly.”

Will my pet receive intravenous fluids while he’s anesthetized? Dehydration and low blood pressure can be side effects of anesthesia. IV fluids help prevent those issues.

Will my pet’s blood pressure be monitored? Monitoring blood pressure is easy and inexpensive and provides important information about the animal’s condition while under anesthesia.

Will my pet be kept warm during and after surgery? Pets can become cold during anesthesia and surgery. Maintaining their body temperature with warmed blankets or heating pads keeps them comfortable and helps the body metabolize pain drugs more effectively.