Most cat guardians worry when their cats have to go under anesthesia. I’m certainly one of them. Even though I’ve assisted with all sorts of anesthetic procedures and surgeries in my years working in veterinary clinics, understanding how it all works, and what constitutes safe anesthetic practice, still doesn’t completely take the worry out of it.

Knowing what to expect when your cat has to undergo anesthesia, and knowing the right questions to ask at your veterinary clinic prior to the procedure so that you can be sure that  your cat’s anesthesia will be done in the safest possible way, can help ease the worry factor.

The recently released AAHA anesthesia guidelines for dogs and cats (AAHA is the American Animal Hospital Association) cover the entire process from pre-anesthetic evaluation to recovery. Make sure that at a minimum, your vet adheres to these guidelines.

Here’s what happens prior to, during and after anesthesia:

Preanesthetic evaluation

This includes a thorough physical exam that takes a full health history of your cat, as well as a complete blood chemistry, bloodcount and urinalysis. This information will allow your vet to assess possible anesthesia risks, and to tailor anesthesia accordingly to minimize the chance of complications.

The night before anesthesia

Your cat will be required to fast prior to anesthesia to reduce the risk of vomiting and aspiration of food during or after the procedure. Fasting times will vary with age, and also depend on the time of day a procedure is being performed. Most commonly, clients are asked to stop feeding their cats after 10pm the night before a procedure. It is usually okay to give your cat access to water up to the morning of the procedure, but always follow your veterinarian’s directions.

Patients with pre-existing conditions

Your veterinarian will adjust anesthesia protocols for patients with existing health problems to minimize risk. Diabetic cats may not be able to be fasted, and insulin levels may need to be adjusted. Kidney and heart disease patients may require different drugs prior to and during anesthesia than healthy cats.

Pre-anesthetic medication

Your cat will be given a sedative as well as pain medication prior to being intubated. These drugs will be selected based on the information obtained from the pre-anesthestic exam and lab work, your cat’s health condition, and the procedure.

Patient preparation

An IV cathether will be placed so that your cat can receive fluids during the procedure. This also facilitates administration of any emergency medications during and after the procedure, should this become necessary. I consider IV catheters and fluids an absolute minimum standard of care for all anesthetic procedures, but I still hear that there are some veterinarians who do not routinely do this. Make sure you ask about this before your cat goes under! Your cat will also be given an eye ointment to maintain lubrication while she is under anesthesia.

Anesthesia induction

After your cat is in a state of mild sedation from the initial medications, an endotracheal (breathing) tube will be placed. This allows administration of both the anesthetic gas as well as oxygen.

Anesthesia monitoring

During anesthesia, your cat’s vital signs should be monitored constantly. This includes heart rate, oxygen saturation, body temperature and blood pressure.

Recovery from anesthesia

This is a critical phase of the process. It includes constant monitoring of the patient’s vital signs. This phase begins when the anesthetic gas is turned off, but it does not end when the endotracheal tube is pulled out. 60% of feline mortalities occur during the first three hours of recovery. It’s vitally important that the veterinary staff who monitors your cat’s recovery is well trained and knows how to recognize potential complications. Don’t be shy about asking questions about their qualifications.


Once your cat is awake, his body temperature has returned to normal, and he is able to interact safely with you, he will be sent home. Cats may still be a little wobbly for the rest of the day, so make sure you keep an eye on him so he can’t tumble down stairs or fall off furniture. Your vet will provide discharge instructions tailored to the procedure your cat has undergone.

Additional suggestions for post-anesthesia recovery

Anesthetic drugs can stay in the system for a few days following anesthesia, and anything you can do to help your cat clear these toxins from her system will help her recovery. Patients who receive Reiki before, during and after surgery can have faster and smoother recoveries. Healthy Helper from Spirit Essences provides physical and energetic support to aid recovery from surgery, illness or trauma. Some holistic veterinarians recommend giving chlorella, milk thistle and dandelion for a week following anesthesia – check with your veterinarian whether this is safe to do for your cat.

Knowing what to expect before, during and after anesthesia and making sure that your veterinarian adheres to accepted standards will help ensure your cat’s health during anesthetic procedures.

Photo: istockphoto

16 Comments on What You Should Know When Your Cat Needs to Go Under Anesthesia

  1. I’m a human doctor who worked in a vet clinic as a summer job in college, so I knew exactly what was going to happen when my cat had his first dental. I was so sad though when we brought him home, and he meowed, and his voice was hoarse from being intubated! He recovered quickly of course. Having been intubated myself for surgery, I sympathized with him. 😉

  2. Great topic, SO important! Just wanted to add that it’s always a good idea to review with your vet just what the pre-anesthetic blood work will entail. Apparently some vets do an abbreviated version that doesn’t include any red or white blood cell profile, they just look at various liver and kidney values. I know it’s not common, but I have a kitty with an autoimmune disease that causes anemia. He’s in remission. We just had a dental done, and the vet was not going to perform any basic check to determine if he was anemic before the dental! The last check was in November: this is May; a lot could have changed! Thankfully he’s fine, and it wasn’t a “hard” lesson. But the lesson is there: chat with your vet and make no assumptions about what will or won’t be done based on your cat’s health and history.

  3. Two quick things. Lisa-no they don’t!! A decrease in respiratory rate is normal, but they most certainly SHOULDN’T stop all together. Something is not right there. And can you add one thing to this list? Keeping a kitty’s body temperature up while under anesthesia is vital and often overlooked. Make sure your vet uses something like a recirculating water blanket AND warm towels that are frequently rotated, or a BAIR hugger. Rice bags from the microwave are not enough and can cause thermal burns. Thank you for publishing this, we will link it to our web page and print it out for clients (all cited, of course!)!

    • Lisa, Ali is correct – they don’t actually stop breathing altogether. And Ali, thanks for mentioning the importance of keeping body temperature up.

  4. Glad to see cats are treated like humans in vet medicine in the “first world”. Here (and specially in public animal hospitals) it’s: 12 hours without food – sleeping the cat – opening the cat – doing the surgery- closing the cat – sending it home.

    • Thanks Teri! If you’d like to use this at the cat hospital, you’re more than welcome to, as long as you provide credit and a link back to The Conscious Cat on the handout!

  5. Thanks for the information. One thing I want to emphasize is that for cats with pre-existing conditions, especially CRF (Chronic Renal Failure) or any kidney issues, it is crucial to check with your vet regarding the pre-anesthetic medication. For cats with kidney issues, most sedatives and pain medications given via needle are very dangerous, and some can in fact knock your cat’s kidneys out in one shot. It is crucial to discuss this with your vet, and to know which medications need to be avoided. Don’t assume your vet knows about this! Check a website like for information regarding sedatives and pain meds.

    • I agree, Catburglar, and that’s why a thorough pre-anesthetic evaluation is so important. I’m not familiar enough with the site you linked to to comment on it, but it’s definitely important to educate yourself about this topic, especially if your cat has pre-existing conditions such as CRF, so you can be your cat’s advocate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.