Earlier this month I was half-veterinarian, half-client, as I took my boy Boone into the hospital with me for an elective procedure. Boone is an almost-9-year-old Labrador Retriever that we have had since a puppy, and he’s a big part of our family along with his little Labrador sister, Ruby.
For the most part, Boonie has been pretty healthy, but after 9 years of life on this planet, he had developed a few small tumors that I felt needed to be removed, as well as enough tartar buildup on his teeth to validate putting him under to clean them. Though I’m no stranger to the anxiety felt as a pet owner about having to put your dog or cat under anesthesia and surgery, it never gets easier.
On paper, as well as in real life, putting animals (and people) under general anesthesia is extremely safe. Many of my clients will still share stories of a family pet or a friend’s pet who went under anesthesia for something simple and elective and died. Unfortunately, these stories never leave a person’s memory and sometimes are so paralyzing that many pets are left suffering with rotting teeth or bleeding tumors because of an unrealistic fear of anesthesia.
I will admit, back in the 80s and 90s anesthesia was not so fine-tuned in veterinary medicine as it is today. There are several reasons why:
The drugs. The anesthetics (drugs) used for anesthesia these days are extremely safe and effective. Although there are no 100 percent safe medications, today’s anesthetics are able to effectively create a sedated, unconscious, pain-free state with very little cardiovascular effects. In other words, we can knock you out fully, but safely! Even 20 years ago, the anesthetics commonly used still carried significant side effects such as low blood pressure, heart arrhythmias, and rough recoveries. Today’s anesthetics have come a long way in safety and provide us, the people doing the anesthesia, a much larger margin for error.
The protocols. Along with the medications, the HOW of doing anesthesia has improved. Twenty years ago, most dog spays would get an injection of a strong sedative, would be put on a strong gas inhalant with no IV fluids and no monitoring, and to top it all off, probably not much pain medicine. Today, I am happy to say that we are pretty much doing exactly what our human brothers and sisters are doing. Everyone gets IV fluids (which combats the most common side effect of anesthesia—low blood pressure), and everyone gets monitored like crazy. ECG, heart rate, respiratory rate, oxygen saturation, CO2 output, body temperature, and blood pressure. The standard of care is that every patient undergoing anesthesia should have all these things monitored. When a patient that Dr. Smith was doing anesthesia on in 1980 was having a significant problem, he had no idea until that dog just up and died on the table. Now, if your pet is having so much as a low-normal blood pressure reading, we see it coming from a mile away and quickly address it before it becomes an issue.
The staff. Another huge difference between then and now is trained support staff. Here in 2019, I would never work at a veterinary hospital without numerous licensed veterinary technicians. These are our trained nurses, who all have completed two years of post-graduate study to receive that degree. They are some of the most committed and caring people I know and they love your pets. And, they make anesthesia more safe. While I am doing surgery or another procedure, I don’t have some high school kid watching your pet, I have a trained professional. I would expect the same for myself!
So there you have it—safe drugs, great protocols, and a great team of people—that’s why anesthesia is so safe these days.
And yet, I am just like everyone else. When I remembered the night before that Boone was scheduled for his teeth cleaning and tumor removals, I felt a knot in my stomach. Argh, we hate stress in our lives, don’t we?!
Early that morning, Boone and Ruby knew something was up when they didn’t get fed. These dogs live for food. They make a beeline for the food bowl. They want to eat! And so, when the food never materialized, like it has for the prior 3,000 mornings of their life, they were bewildered.
When finally it was time to take Boone, but not Ruby, in the car with me, they both didn’t know what to do. Boone, I think, was grateful. Ruby was a mess. But she got fed and was less of a mess.
The staff knows I get tense when I bring my own dog in, and to my credit I am perfectly okay letting them draw blood, sedate him, and get him under. I try to stay out of their way while they do their jobs, but it’s hard not to hover when it’s your boy! But this is what makes a good team—trust. I trust them with my own dog as much as I trust them with yours. Boone’s teeth were beautifully clean in no time and then he was moved into the operating room, where I had to disconnect a bit as I removed three benign tumors from his skin.
After sewing him up, I did overstep my normal boundaries and waited with him in his cage while he woke up. He was such a cute groggy dog, whimpering as he was coming too, so confused, but also wagging his tail when he saw I was with him. Or maybe he thought I was a big steak or a penguin?
Later on in the day, as he lay sleeping in his cage, he started howling like a wolf—lips puckered, and neck straight. I have been trying to get my dogs to howl their whole life, but they have never once indulged. It was so great to see they are indeed my little wolf pack, even if they live a sheltered indoor dog life here in Crozet.