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What happens during a surgical procedure?


During their lifetimes, our pets all go through at least one and, more often several, anesthetic procedures, such as spay, neuter, dental cleaning, non-elective soft tissue and orthopedic surgeries. As veterinarians, we often recommend anesthesia or sedation, but many owners may not fully understand the process and monitoring involved. Current practices in veterinary medicine minimize risk during anesthesia with thorough monitoring, patient support during and after procedures, and careful anesthetic drug and pain medication choices. Below is a brief step-by-step summary of how anesthesia is performed in a general veterinary practice.

The day of a procedure, your veterinarian will examine your pet, paying close attention to any issues that could affect anesthesia. Often blood will be drawn to assess organ function. The results of this blood test may reveal potential risks for anesthesia and may, in turn, affect drug choices. Blood test results are especially important for our senior pets, pets with medical issues, and emergency or critical cases.

If any problems arise within the physical exam or blood work, your veterinarian will contact you and either cancel/postpone the procedure or adjust their drug choices and anesthetic plan accordingly. Before beginning the procedure, your veterinarian will write down an anesthetic plan, which outlines all the drugs to be used and how they are to be given.  

Although each anesthetic plan varies based on the individual needs of the patient, below is an example of a typical plan:

      Premedication: Injectable medication is
      administered either under the skin, into a muscle, or into an intravenous
      catheter.  This can be a single drug or,
      more commonly, a combination of drugs. Usually these medications have pain
      and/or sedative effects. Depending on the premedication, very mild sedation to
      a deep sedation can be attained.

      Catheter Placement: In most cases an intravenous
      catheter is then placed in the pet’s front or rear legs. Sometimes this is done
      before the premedication or in certain short procedures an intravenous catheter
      may not be required. The intravenous catheter allows for administration of
      fluids and drugs during and after the procedure.

      Intravenous Fluid Administration: Fluid therapy
      will be administered through the intravenous catheter to keep the patient
      hydrated in order to maintain good blood pressure and blood flow to the vital

      Induction: Depending on the premedication used,
      an induction agent may be required. This is usually a short-acting drug used to
      get the patient into a state of unconsciousness and to allow for the tracheal
      tube placement.

      Intubation: A firm rubber tracheal tube is
      placed into the patient’s airway. The tracheal tube is hooked up to an
      anesthetic machine that will administer oxygen and gas anesthetic and maintain
      an open airway.

      Monitoring: During the procedure, a licensed
      veterinary technician or veterinarian will monitor some or all of the
      following: respiratory rate, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature,
      reaction to stimulation, oxygenation of blood, levels of exhaled oxygen, and
      carbon dioxide.

      Additional Medications:  During some procedures, additional pain
      medications may be given during the procedure to keep our patient comfortable.

Now that the patient is anesthetized safely, the surgical, dental, or other procedure can begin. In most clinics, the team involved includes a veterinarian and a licensed veterinary technician. While the veterinarian performs the procedure, the technician will closely monitor the patient and communicate with the doctor about the patient’s condition. If any problems arise, the veterinarian/technician team can adjust their anesthetic protocol appropriately.  

Once the procedure is complete, the pet is removed from gas anesthesia. The technician or veterinarian will watch the pet closely until the patient is fully conscious and resting comfortably. The patient is kept in a comfortable, warm, quiet area until fully recovered and ready to go home.

While there is always risk in anesthetic procedures, the modern practices used in veterinary medicine today help to minimize risk and maximize comfort for our pets. Being an informed owner and having clear communication with your pet’s healthcare team allows you to be comfortable and confident about your pet’s procedure.  

Nick Delahanty, DVM
Animal Hospital of Pittsford
Monroe Veterinary Associates

Dr. Delahanty joined the Animal Hospital of Pittsford in 2010 after earning his Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine from Kansas State University and his undergraduate degree in biology from the University of Rochester. Dr. Delahanty holds a certificate in dentistry from the Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He has two dogs, Chester and Kansas, and a cat named Pheobe.

What happens during a surgical procedure?

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