Cat Anesthesia and Sedation: Here's What to Expect When Your Kitty Needs Surgery
If your cat needs a medical procedure, there's a possibility your veterinarian will say it needs to be done under anesthesia or sedation. What does this mean for your cat? Why is it necessary?
It's normal to be concerned about putting your cat under anesthesia or sedation. Although there are risks, these are important tools vets use to keep cats safe and comfortable. Here's what to expect when your cat needs anesthesia or sedation.
What Is Anesthesia for Cats?
Anesthesia involves the administration of medications to prevent pain and sensation caused by medical procedures. Sometimes spelled anaesthesia, the term technically means "absence of sensation." Cats are often put under anesthesia for surgeries (like a spay or neuter) and dental treatments.
Michelle Moyal, DVM and member of the Daily Paws Editorial Review Team, says anesthesia or sedation will be catered to your cat's individual needs and your veterinarian will take steps to keep your cat as safe as possible. This begins with pre-anesthesia laboratory testing to look for physical problems that could pose a higher risk to your cat.
"The medications used for anesthesia rely on properly functioning organs like the liver and kidneys," Moyal says. "While [lab work] does not tell us everything going on inside the body, it is the easiest option to help us try to ensure as safe a procedure as possible."
When your vet says your cat needs anesthesia, they're usually talking about general anesthesia. "General anesthesia consists of the administration of drugs that will provide sedation, pain relief, amnesia, and muscle paralysis, which will result in a controlled loss of consciousness," Moyal says.
Anesthesia enables vets to conduct invasive or uncomfortable procedures without causing pain or stress to the cat, who hopefully won't really remember the surgery. Cats are closely monitored by trained staff during anesthesia to keep them safe.
Local anesthesia involves the use of a numbing agent to remove sensation from a specific area of the body. This is typically reserved for quick, simple procedures like removing a small skin mass. Local anesthesia may also be used alongside general anesthesia or sedation to decrease sensation and reduce the overall amount of medication needed.
Anesthesia vs. Sedation
When used alone, sedation is the depression of awareness. "This means that sedation is used for simple, short diagnostic procedures which are not typically painful or where we need the pet to lie still, i.e. for X-rays or ultrasound," Moyal says. Sedatives may also be prescribed to help reduce anxiety and awareness during a stressful event.
Risks of Anesthesia for Cats
Overall, the risks of anesthesia are low in cats, according to Moyal. For example, "cats can be difficult to intubate (placing a breathing tube in their airway), making them challenging as patients for staff, and the patient who may undergo some trauma to the airway during the attempts to place the tube," Moyal says. "IV fluids, which are often administered to patients, can overwhelm some cats leading to significant consequences."
Anesthesia complications are relatively uncommon, but they may occur during or after the procedure.
Aspiration occurs when liquid accidentally enters the lungs. This can happen during anesthesia because medications weaken the airway and make it easier for liquids (including stomach contents) to miss the esophagus and enter the lungs. The placement of a breathing tube will prevent this, but aspiration can still occur after the tube is removed.
Aspiration is most likely to occur if a cat vomits after anesthesia, which is possible since anesthesia medications can cause nausea and vomiting. This is why it's essential to withhold food prior to anesthesia. Vets typically recommend a 12-hour fast prior to surgery, but ask your vet for specific instructions.
During the procedure, cats are connected to machines that monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, and body temperature. Special heating systems and blankets are used to maintain body temperature. If the vital signs begin to look unsafe, vet staff will adjust the level of anesthesia drugs to maintain safety. However, complications may still occur during and after anesthesia, including:
Moyal stresses that the risks of anesthesia increase when cats are ill. She adds that smaller cats may carry a higher risk because they are harder to monitor and more prone to experiencing drops in body temperature. Older, overweight, and cats in poor health also face higher risks or complications.
Fortunately, veterinarians and veterinary technicians closely monitor patients during anesthesia and take steps in advance to reduce risks.
How to Help Your Cat Recover from Anesthesia
Your vet will release your kitty once she is awake and able to walk on her own. However, she probably won't be back to her old self right away. Cats often behave in unusual ways after anesthesia—some become more withdrawn while others may vocalize more than usual. Many cats will sleep more than usual for a few days.
Contact your vet if you have concerns or if your cat is not back to normal within a few days. In the meantime, Moyal offers the following tips for cat parents:
- Follow your vet's instructions for giving medications (this often includes antibiotics and pain medications).
- Don't let your cat lick or scratch the surgical area—so keep that cone on if prescribed!
- Offer highly palatable food to encourage your cat to eat (ask your vet for suggestions).
- Prepare a quiet, comfortable room for your cat to recover. The ideal location has dim light, warm temperature, and no obstacles to navigate.
- Watch your cat around stairs and avoid heights to prevent injury or falls.
- If necessary, keep your cat away from other animals and kids for the first few days—your cat may not quite be back to normal and could be less tolerant of them.