10 things you need to know about AAHA’s Anesthesia Guidelines

The word “anesthesia” can strike fear into the hearts of many pet owners. Some will avoid procedures that require anesthesia even when it’s the best thing for their cat or dog. But anesthesia protocols have come a long way in the past few decades, and when done correctly, it’s much safer than you might think.

That’s why AAHA created anesthesia guidelines to provide your veterinarian with scientifically based recommendations for keeping anesthesia as safe as possible.

Top 10 things you need to know about these guidelines

  1. Your veterinarian will vet your pet. Before anesthesia, your veterinarian will check for underlying conditions such as diabetes or heart, lung, kidney, and liver disease. Testing may include bloodwork, radiographs (X-rays), and ultrasound. If abnormalities are found, your veterinarian will tailor the anesthetic protocol to your pet’s specific needs.
  2. IV access is key. Your veterinarian will insert an IV catheter to administer sedatives, anesthetics, sterile fluids, and pain medications. This should be done prior to anesthesia so that the veterinary team always has immediate access to your pet’s bloodstream.
  3. Premedication will calm your pet for the procedure. Veterinarians administer pain medications and sedatives to allow cats and dogs to relax prior to being fully anesthetized. You may be familiar with some of the drugs they use, like valium, which helps “take the edge off.” This eases the body’s transition from being fully awake to fully asleep.
  4. Intubation helps everyone breathe easier. Once your pet is heavily sedated or anesthetized, your veterinarian will slip a firm but flexible endotracheal tube through the mouth and down the trachea (windpipe). That tube is then hooked up to an anesthetic gas/oxygen mixture. With this tube in place, a pet cannot accidentally inhale saliva or stomach contents if regurgitation occurs while he’s anesthetized. Also, if his breathing slows or stops, a technician or veterinarian can breathe for him using equipment attached to the anesthesia machine.
  5. Treatment will be tailored to your pet. It is beneficial to use multiple anesthetics and pain medications at the same time—this actually lowers the overall dosage and decreases the side effects of each one. Veterinarians use a personalized approach for every patient and procedure so your pet will receive a combination of drugs that suits his specific needs.
  6. At least one veterinary professional will constantly monitor your pet’s vital signs and “depth” of anesthesia. Anesthesia teams are constantly monitoring cardiovascular, respiratory, and central nervous system function throughout the procedure to assess the “depth” of anesthesia. The team works with skill and precision to keep the anesthesia level as light as possible without the pet waking up.
  7. The team is ready for anything. Emergency drugs and equipment are standing by before, during, and after anesthesia. Your veterinary team will precalculate drug dosages, so if an emergency arises, they can give these life-saving treatments within seconds of being needed.
  8. Your pet will get extra attention when “going under” and “coming up.” When a pet is going through the transition of entering or waking up from anesthesia, he needs to be closely monitored by a skilled team, as there are several changes occurring rapidly within the body. They’ll pay special attention to his body temperature, level of sedation, and respiratory function while also working to keep him as pain free as possible.
  9. Your team will take steps to keep your pet warm. When pets are anesthetized, they can lose too much body heat and become hypothermic. The AAHA guidelines recommend many safe and effective tools to counteract this, such as using circulating warm-water blankets and warm-air circulation systems (think high-tech hairdryer on a low setting) to keep pets toasty while under anesthesia.
  10. Help us help you. For the best possible outcome, be sure to adhere to your veterinary team’s instructions, like withholding food and water for 8–12 hours before the procedure. When pet owners accidentally or intentionally feed their pet before anesthesia, it can have unintentional consequences, such as causing the dog or cat to regurgitate while under anesthesia (another reason endotracheal intubation is so important). Also, be sure to tell your veterinary team about any medications you’ve been giving your pet, including aspirin or herbal supplements, since those can affect the medications your veterinarian might use.

What to ask your veterinarian about anesthesia

  • Will you premedicate my pet? If not, why?
  • Will my pet have an IV catheter placed? If not, why?
  • Will my pet be intubated? If not, why?
  • What underlying diseases have you tried to rule out prior to anesthetizing my pet? Would you recommend any additional tests before my pet’s procedure?
  • Who will be monitoring my pet?
  • What should I expect from my pet when he comes home? Is it OK if he is drowsy or should he be alert? If you expect he may be drowsy, how long would you expect him to be so?
  • When and what should I feed my pet after anesthesia?

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