For most pet parents, the thought of their pets having to undergo anesthesia instills fear and worry.  This is often caused by a lack of knowledge about what questions to ask your veterinarian, and what constitutes safe anesthesia.  This article by Dr. Louise Murray explains in great detail what you should look for to ensure that your pet’s anesthetic procedure is done safely.

Guest Post by Dr. Louise Murray

As you can tell, my mission is to give pet owners the information they need to protect their pets’ health and to wisely choose the best veterinary practice to help achieve that. I believe that knowledge is indeed power and have seen too many pets suffer because their owners did not have the tools they needed to advocate for their animal companions.

Today I suddenly realized (duh!) that just talking about ways you can protect your pet isn’t enough; I need to show you. It’s one thing to babble on and on about safe anesthesia and having your older pet’s blood pressure checked and ensuring your pet receives safe and adequate pain control. It’s another to let you see for yourself. If nothing else, pictures are a lot less boring then listening to my nagging.

So, today let’s talk about, and take a look at, what is required for safe anesthesia. Safe anesthesia requires monitoring equipment, so that when your pet’s oxygen level or heart rate or blood pressure drops, someone knows about it and can do something to fix the problem before your pet actually stops breathing or her heart stops and…well, you know. Pets can die under anesthesia, and proper monitoring vastly reduces the chance of that.

At a minimum, your pet should be hooked up to a handy gadget called a pulse oximeter. This little gem monitors the animal’s blood oxygen level and heart rate, good parameters to keep an eye on if you want to make sure someone keeps living.

Here’s a picture of a kitty having his blood oxygen level and heart rate measured with a pulse oximeter. I think you’ll agree he seems quite happy about it.

kitty with pulse oximeter

You’re right, he’s not under anesthesia. You can also use a pulse oximeter in awake animals when you are concerned about their breathing, such as animals in heart failure or those with pneumonia. If the oxygen level is too low, the vet needs to do something about it rather quickly, such as place the animal in an oxygen cage.

Another component of safe anesthesia is called intubation. This means placing a tube in the animal’s trachea (windpipe) to deliver oxygen and anesthetic gas. If an animal under anesthesia is not intubated (if the anesthesia is delivered with a mask, or just by injection), there’s not much anyone can do if that animal start to crash or stops breathing. But if the animal is intubated, the vets or technicians can ventilate the animal (breathe for her).For example, if the pulse oximeter shows the animal’s oxygen level is dropping, the folks doing the anesthesia can give the animal a few oxygen-rich breaths by sqeezing on the oxygen bag a few times. Or, as I mentioned above, if the animal stops breathing completely, they can use the tube to breath for the animal. Can’t do that with a mask and certainly not for an animal who just got an injection. Then it’s rush rush rush to try to get a tube in before the pet dies. Not good.

Here’s a kitty who is under anesthesia and intubated.

intubated kitty

See that little black bag on the lower left? If the kitty’s oxygen level drops or she stops breathing, the vets or techs can breathe for her by squeezing the bag.That way they can keep her cute little tongue nice and pink like it is in the picture.

The other thing I want you to notice about the cat above is that she has in IV catheter in her leg. This is also super important for safe anesthesia. If this little cat’s heart slows down, she can be given a drug to speed it back up through the catheter. If her heart stops, she can be given epinephrine to help re-start it. If her blood pressure drops, she can be given a bolus of IV fluids or medications to correct this.

OK, gotta run to work now. Now you know all about safe anesthesia; don’t let your pets receive anything less!

Dr. Louise Murray is an experienced and highly regarded authority in her profession. During her ten-plus years as a practitioner, she has lectured frequently on a wide range of topics, gaining her the respect of her colleagues. She has also been honored with several prestigious awards and has had her research published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association.



Dr. Murray is also the author of Vet Confidential:  An Insider’s Guide to Protecting Your Pet’s HealthFor more information about Dr. Murray, please visit her website.

14 Comments on Safe Anesthesia for Pets

  1. Melissa, I’m very sorry for your loss. These situations are devastating and it compounds the feelings of loss and grief when the death could have been prevented. My heart goes out to you.

  2. Carrie,
    You are RIGHT to question what happened. I had the exact same experience one week ago. The tech was NOT licensed. The vet was in a hurry and at the last moment decided to use gas so that the cat would recover quickly and allow him to go home early. The procedure requires someone with loads of experiene AND there are many hazards. For instance, a very small nose might cause a problem. If a cat is highly stressed, isoflorane should not be used because it has an adverse affect (blood pressure, heart).
    They probably did not intubate and the cat could have starved of oxygen. I believe that cats can be scared to death. I think ours probably were so terriified and they were forced and held down and KILLED with gas masks that should never ever have been used. My vet was previously found to have been negligent with other animals. I am going to sue unless he makes a substantial settlement. He understands one thing. Money. He is clearlly in it for that and I want him to pay dearly for torturing and then killing my cat. Sorry Ingrid, your nicey-nicey answers don’t face up to the fact that there are many many incompetent vets and vet techs and I think that Carrie definitely was a malpractice victim. Bless you Carrie, I am so sorry for you and your poor baby who deserved a good life that was stolen from her.

  3. Ingrid,

    I do see what you are saying. Again I have been present for his vaccines and no problem, I cant help but wonder if the surroundings in the back may have been entirely too stressful for him which may have made them make this decision. I still would have rathered them call me if he were really acting up prior to anything being done so I could have had a say…Is it normal for the vet to administer anastesia or a tech?

  4. This must be so difficult for you, Carrie. I can completely understand that you want to know what happened and why. I wish I had a better answer for you.

    For what it’s worth, it’s pretty amazing what even a small kitten can do when he doesn’t want something done to him. Buckley was a seven pound cat, and it would usually take three or four grown humans to draw blood from her or give her an injection. We occasionally had to use gas anesthesia to mask her down, even toward the end of her life when we already knew she had heart disease. It’s not so much that the “feisty” cat is viewed as a threat to the veterinary staff, it’s more that you simply can’t get a needle into a vein when a small animal is struggling and wiggling so much. The sedation is done more for the animal’s safety than the staff’s to prevent injury to the animal from the struggle.

    That being said, of course it’s possible that there was negligence involved with your kitten – and I can’t even imagine how unbearable that thought must be.

  5. Ingrid, I understand what you are saying, however what I dont understand is why they “gassed” him before the injection…i do understand administering gas once sedated to remain under anastesia…from what I have read masking down is very dangerous, and hard on the heart. If he were haveing a bad day i would much rather them contact me before this was done. It seems based on the notes they “masked him down” due to fiesty. Well what kitten isnt “fiesty” and in my book they shoud have be able to manage a small kitten for an injection, this procedure was in addition to the other anestesia and my feeling is it was too much for him. We opted not to due the blood work as according to the vet wouldnt detected any underlying heart conditions any only liver/kidney functions which is uncommon in young kitties, moreso a threat in older or sick adults.
    I have a horrible feeling the vet herself didnt administer the anestesia and a tech may have just had a bed day and didnt want to struggel with my little guy.

    I have contacted 3 other vets in the area, all of which never use this as an alternative to being able to manage for and injection of an animal and according to my research is used on violent uncontrollabel animals. My thought is a larger animal which can be a threat to you. Also no good way to monitor the masking down, unlike the airway tube with gas and oxegyn….

    Something doesnt seem quite right to me…

    Thank you for your thoghts and condolenses!!

  6. I’m so sorry for your loss, Carrie. Losing a pet is always hard, but when it’s one as young as Lou and when it happens as suddenly and unexpectedly, it’s simply devastating.

    I’m not a veterinarian, but I can comment on what constitutes best practices for anesthesia and surgical procedures based on the twelve years I spent working in quality veterinary practices. It’s always a good idea to obtain a pre-anesthetic blood chemistry panel . The article above by Dr. Murray covers everything that can and should be done to ensure that your pet’s actual anesthesia is as safe as it possibly can be. Unfortunately, no anesthetic procedure is ever without risk.

    “Masking down” is a common procedure. A small oxygen mask is placed over the animal’s nose and mouth, and instead of running oxygen through the mask, an anesthetic gas is used. Usually, that’s isoflurane, which, to my knowledge, is the safest veterinary gas anesthesia currently available. It achieves only mild sedation – just enough to allow the vet to proceed with inducing the deeper anesthesia that is necessary for a surgical procedure. I don’t know what the protocol is for using this form of anesthesia on kittens, but I’ve seen it used without any problems on older animals, even animals with multiple known health issues.

    Unfortunately, without an autopsy, you will probably never know what really happened. There could have been an underlying heart condition that was not diagnosed. He could have had a reaction to any of the drugs that were used.

    I hope this helps in some small way. My heart goes out to you as you mourn your loss. May you eventually find peace and may memories of your much too short time with Lou replace the pain and sadness of missing him. You’re in my thoughts.

  7. I need some assistance understanding why my 4 month kitten died in recovery after a neuter on March 1st.

    Lou, was 4 months old and began spraying. I asked my vet if we could do the neuter at this time. She stated yes, we could. I gave instructions to call if his exam that day showed in any way it wasn’t safe for him to have the surgery this early.

    I dropped Lou off in the morning and later received a call he has passed away during recovery. She had no good reason why and stated his check up was good and breathing during the surgery was fine, she check him in recovery and he had passed away. She stated she double check the dosages and all were based according to his weight etc and were accurate.

    I requested the surgical notes and noticed a sentence that gave me a red flag. It stated “had to mask down due to being feisty”. I have read some info on this procedure and it all seems negative and dangerous and not often used unless there is an uncontrollable animal. I find it hard to believe they couldn’t control a 5.5 pound kitten for an injection. He had always taken his vaccines just fine. The vet never told me he was having trouble and they “masked him down”. I would have given anything if they would have simply called me and said he was having a bad day and seemed to stressed to have surgery that day and gladly would have rescheduled for a later time. I never received a call until he had passed.

    I am so terribly sad, we have lost a joyful baby in our home who cannot be replaced! Our senior cat is missing him as well.

    I also noticed a sentence in the note which stated “ owner pushed the procedure due to spraying” This statement is incorrect as I gave explicit instruction not to perform the surgery if for any reason after his exam he was not ready and I would pick him up.

    I suppose what I need is some understanding from a impartial party what this all means.

    What is considered the “best practice” for anesthesia/neuter procedures these days? What are the pros and cons of masking down? What are the risks to a small kitten by doing this?

    I have spoke to 3 other vet clinics which never use this procedure and before I continue to use this vet in the future I need some assistance understanding.

    I know this may be an unusual request, however your assistance would be greatly appreciated and help me with my grief.

    For the love of our lost baby and in remembrance of Lou,

  8. Thank you! You have provided me with so much information about this. I want to be a vetrenarian when i get older so this really helps me learn.

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