Wake up to the facts about animal anesthesia

PETS AT HOME

September 04, 1993|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

The health problems associated with deteriorating teeth and gums in older dogs and cats generally outweigh the risks of modern anesthesia.

But despite the advances in veterinary practice, not a day goes by that I don't hear someone say, "The vet said my pet's teeth are in bad shape, but I can't take a chance on anesthesia -- my pet's too old."

For your pet's sake, educate yourself on anesthesia. Although it's a mainstay in any veterinary practice, there are many misconceptions about its use and its risks, especially where older animals are concerned.

Anesthesia can be defined as the use of drugs to put an animal into a state of unconsciousness, able to tolerate a medical procedure. Although there are different types, the most commonly used combine injection and gas.

Before undergoing anesthesia, it's important that the animal be in a calm state of mind, not stressed by fear or aggression. That's where the injection comes in, pre-anesthetizing the animal with a sedative. The injection is important because a stressed animal will require more gas, increasing the risk of ending up with too deep an anesthesia.

The sedation extends beyond the influence of the gas, easing the animal into and out of the major part of the procedure. When a pet is sent home wobbly as a drunken sailor, it is in most cases the result of the pre-anesthetic sedation.

One of the advantages of such long-lasting sedation is that it gets the recovery off to a good start, since it will help keep the animal calm after awakening.

The major part of anesthesia is accomplished by letting the animal inhale a gas mixture either through a mask or, more commonly, through a tube inserted into the windpipe. The effects of the gas are short-lived, extending just beyond the time of treatment.

The entire procedure is not without risk, especially for older animals, but these risks can be greatly minimized by a few basic tests, including a laboratory evaluation of blood and urine, a chest X-ray and possibly an electrocardiogram. If abnormalities are revealed, these must be corrected first.

While these precautions admittedly add to the cost of anesthesia, they allow the life-extending -- and possibly life-saving -- benefits of such procedures as dentistry to be given to all our pets.

No discussion of anesthetic danger can be complete without a few words on the pet-owner's responsibilities where anesthesia is concerned:

* Follow your veterinarian's instructions on preparing your pet for surgery. If no food is specified, then make sure you deliver a pet with an empty stomach. Following this one piece of advice is one of the easiest and most basic ways to reduce risk. During anesthesia, the contents of a full stomach can be inhaled into the lungs.

The danger is a sore point with veterinarians, who often find themselves operating on animals with food in their stomachs in spite of specific pre-surgery instructions to pet owners. Food should be withheld at least 12 hours before anesthesia.

* Be prepared to provide home care for your pet after surgery. It is common practice for veterinarians to release animals before the pre-anesthetic sedation wears off. Such animals must be kept safe from extremely hot or cold environments, since their reflexes are reduced.

If you do not feel comfortable caring for a sedated pet, arrange for your veterinarian to extend the care.

* Don't hesitate to ask questions. Make sure you understand what the procedures are, and what to expect. For example, it is common for pets to have a cough after anesthesia, since the tube used to deliver the gas may cause some irritation. If the cough does not clear in a couple of days, call your vet.

Just as with humans, even the most carefully prepared animal may have a problem with anesthesia. The risks are highest for ill or debilitated animals, while the failure rate is lowest for such preventive procedures as spays and neuters, and dental scalings and polishings.

No matter what the age of the pet, chances are high that the anesthetic will present no problem, if both the pet owner and veterinarian work to minimize the risk.

In other words, anesthesia is no longer a good reason to avoiding regular dental care for your pet.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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