Dogs going under anesthesia is usually safe, but you'll have to help with the recovery.
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Golden retriever lying on the operating room before surgery under anesthesia
Credit: Chalabala / Getty

Your veterinarian says your dog is going to need sedation or anesthesia for a procedure. What exactly does this mean? Dog anesthesia can sound a bit scary at first, but it's often necessary and the best way to keep your dog healthy.

Anesthesia can pose some health risks, but the drugs are usually safe for healthy dogs who need a tooth pulled or neuter surgery. Most dogs recover well from anesthesia—though they may need a little help from you. Here's what to expect when your dog undergoes anesthesia or sedation.

What Is Anesthesia for Dogs?

Anesthesia is the use of medications to prevent pain and distress during medical procedures like surgery. The term anesthesia—sometimes spelled anaesthesia—technically means an absence of sensation. When anesthesia is used in human and veterinary medicine, it enables doctors to perform a variety of procedures without causing discomfort to patients. 

Michelle Moyal, DVM and member of the Daily Paws Editorial Review Team, says there are different types of anesthesia used in veterinary settings, depending on the situation. Then, there's sedation, which is a little different.

No two dogs are alike, so anesthesia or sedation will be catered to your dog's individual needs. Your vet will also recommend pre-anesthesia laboratory testing to make sure your dog's organs are working properly and there aren't any illnesses or diseases that could endanger the procedure.

"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." 

General Anesthesia

If your dog needs to "go under" for a procedure, general anesthesia is necessary. Those drugs perform a variety of vital functions, Moyal says, including:

  • Sedation
  • Pain relief
  • Amnesia (patients won't remember being under anesthesia)
  • Muscle paralysis, which results in controlled loss of consciousness

Most vets use a combination of injectable drugs as well as an inhalant gas to maintain the safest, most effective level of anesthesia for the dog. Ideally, it makes the veterinary staff's work easier while keeping the patient comfortable.

"For sick patients, general anesthesia is sometimes recommended as it allows for better monitoring and control of cardiorespiratory variables in comparison to a simple sedation," says Cristina de Miguel Garcia, DVM, MSc, MRCVS, Dip. ECVAAm, and an anesthesiologist at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

General anesthesia is necessary for invasive procedures, including dental extractions and intestinal surgeries. Same goes for spay, neuter, and cruciate ligament repair surgeries.

Local Anesthesia

When a dog doesn't need to be unconscious for a procedure, the vet may use a numbing agent to temporarily block nerve sensation so the procedure doesn't cause pain. This is just like the injections you get before fillings at the dentist. Local anesthesia can be used when dogs need something like a small skin mass removed, Moyal says. However, because dogs are unlikely to remain still, your vet may use sedation along with a local anesthetic for minor procedures.

Local anesthesia is sometimes used in conjunction with general anesthesia because it can reduce the amount of anesthetic drugs needed. This is common for dental extractions—numbing prevents pain from dental work, so the dog will not need the anesthesia levels turned up to manage pain.

Sedation

When your dog needs a simple diagnostic procedure—think X-rays or ultrasounds—your vet will likely choose sedation, Moyal says. These procedures aren't painful, but the dog still needs to be still. It's a little bit like the twilight sedation people undergo when they have a colonoscopy or minor surgery.

"Sedation, on its own, is the depression of awareness," Moyal says.

In veterinary settings, injectable sedatives are typically used for healthy dogs. In sick patients, anesthesia is usually preferred over sedation. That's because sedation often requires higher drug doses, which can increase side effects, de Miguel Garcia says.

Oral sedatives may be prescribed for dogs who need sedation at home. These may be recommended to keep dogs calm and allow healing after surgery. Sedatives may also ease fear and anxiety because of thunderstorms or fireworks.

Risks of Anesthesia for Dogs

Moyal says the overall risks of anesthesia are quite low in healthy dogs. Veterinarians and veterinary technicians monitor patients closely during anesthesia and take steps in advance to reduce risks. Although anesthesia complications are relatively uncommon, they can still occur during or after the procedure. 

Aspiration

Aspiration occurs when dogs accidentally inhale stomach contents into their lungs, and it can happen after your dog's procedure or surgery.

Anesthesia weakens the airway and makes it easy for dogs to regurgitate and aspirate stomach contents. That's partly why a breathing tube is placed into the airway during general anesthesia, preventing liquids from entering the lungs. It's removed once the dog starts waking up, and this is the time aspiration becomes more likely.

The anesthesia medications can cause nausea and vomiting, and the moving stomach contents can cause aspiration, which in serious cases can lead to pneumonia. That's why it's so important to withhold food prior to anesthesia. Vets usually recommend fasting dogs for about 12 hours before surgery, but be sure to follow specific instructions for your dog. 

Other Complications

During the procedure, the dog is hooked up to various machines that monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels, blood pressure, and body temperature. They are kept warm with special heating systems and blankets. If the vital signs begin to shift to unhealthy levels, the veterinary team will adjust the level of anesthesia drugs as needed to keep the dog safe. Possible complications during and after anesthesia include:

  • Low body temperature (hypothermia)
  • Low blood pressure
  • Low oxygen levels
  • Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia)
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Slow breathing
  • Organ failure (kidney, liver, or heart)
  • Visual impairment
  • Seizures
  • Allergic reaction

Dogs With Health Concerns

Moyal notes that the risks of anesthesia increase in dogs with health issues. This includes brachycephalic (flat-faced) dog breeds who, due to their abnormal airways, have an increased risk of reflux—when stomach acid makes its way back into the esophagus or throat.

Anesthesia also poses a higher risk in dogs with kidney disease, liver disease, or heart disease. Dogs undergoing a long, invasive surgery requiring longer periods under anesthesia are also at high risk, Moyal says. Same goes for smaller dogs. 

"They are harder to monitor and more prone to becoming hypothermic," Moyal says.

If your dog needs an anesthetic procedure, your veterinarian will discuss the risks and benefits to help you make an informed decision.

Dog Anesthesia Side Effects and Recovery

We've all seen funny videos of people waking up from anesthesia saying silly things or acting generally loopy. Well, the side effects of anesthesia in dogs are similar; they just don't express themselves with words.

Side effects in dogs often include whining or crying as they wake up from anesthesia. They may seem disoriented or restless, even once they're up and walking around. Your vet will monitor your dog in the hospital until they're awake enough to go home, but some dogs will need to stay overnight for monitoring depending on the procedure and their response to anesthesia. 

Your dog's unusual behavior may continue after getting home. Many dogs will vocalize or seem restless, leading pet parents to worry that they're in pain. These signs are often related to anesthesia, but it's important to talk to your vet about post-operative pain management during home recovery.

Most dogs bounce back from anesthesia within a day or two, but it may take several days for some dogs to fully return to their old selves. Remember, your dog may still have some healing to do even after the anesthesia wears off. Moyal has some tips for helping dogs during surgery recovery:

  • Follow medication instructions from your veterinarian; some dogs will be prescribed antibiotics and pain medications to be given at home.
  • Prepare a room for your dog in a quiet place with dim light and a warm temperature, and decrease the number of obstacles they might need to navigate. Make sure to watch them around stairs and avoid heights to prevent falls or injuries.
  • Don't let your dog lick or scratch the surgical area—that means keep the cone on.
  • Offer highly palatable food to encourage them to eat (discuss what type with your veterinarian first) and provide frequent bathroom breaks.
  • Keep your dog isolated from other animals or kids if needed—they may not feel like themselves!

Your vet is just a phone call away, so don't hesitate to call them if you have any questions or concerns during your dog's recovery. It's also a good idea to keep information on hand to contact nearby emergency veterinary services in case something happens after hours.