The new kitten exam for Mrs. Smith’s grey tabby had gone very well. She appeared to be completely normal and healthy and we had just finished discussing what schedule would be appropriate for her remaining vaccinations. Now it was time to talk about spaying her cat. Suddenly Mrs. Smith got very quiet. “I’m not sure I want to spay her.” she told me. I asked her if she was intending to breed the cat and she said no. “I am just worried about the anesthesia and I don’t want to take the risk.”
The idea of anesthesia and the risk associated with anesthesia and surgery is a very real stumbling block for a lot of people. I commonly have clients shed tears as a result of anxiety for their pet’s safety when checking them in for routine procedures. I also commonly have people who are very reluctant to consider doing important or even life-saving procedures for their pet’s health simply because it involves anesthesia.
It is true that the use of anesthesia does carry real risk of problems. There is no veterinarian on the planet who hasn’t had a completely unexpected anesthesia related death at some time during their practice, and some animals as a result of the nature of their illness are at higher risk for anesthesia related problems, but it is helpful to keep some perspective on the actual risk associated with anesthetic procedures. Dogs and cats who are not spayed have a nearly 50% chance of developing untreatable breast cancer or other reproductive illnesses that are likely to claim their lives when they get older. The number of healthy female dogs and cats who die unexpectedly under anesthesia for a routine spay is vanishingly small. An animal with rotten teeth is sick. An owner can choose to accept the small risk of anesthetic complications in order to cure the sickness and heal the mouth, or they can choose not to have any risk associated with anesthesia and continue the 100% fact that their animal will continue to be sick and in pain.
It doesn’t help that the only stories about anesthesia in pets that one is likely to hear are the ones involving unexpected consequences. I have yet to run across an internet account where somebody says “I went to the veterinarian to have my dog spayed and everything went exactly as expected and my dog recovered without incident!!!” Exclamation points are much more dramatic at the end of a dramatic story, so the process of publicizing dramatic stories starts giving the impression that dramatic things happen as a result of anesthesia more frequently than they really do.
Sometimes there is the perception that veterinarians use drugs that are somehow less safe than what is used in human medicine, but in fact we use the same products that human hospitals use for human procedures. As better, safer anesthetic agents have been developed for human use the veterinary community has been just a quick to adopt them in our practices, and as a result the safety of animal anesthesia has increased along with the safety of human anesthesia.
Your veterinarian’s job is to be an honest advocate for the best options for the health of your pet, so we don‘t encourage procedures that are likely to result in harm. Although rotten teeth need anesthesia in order to be properly addressed, I will not be likely to recommend it when faced with a 16 year old pug with kidney disease and congestive heart failure, because the chances of causing more harm than good are obviously quite high. On the flipside, however, it breaks my heart to have to stand helplessly by and watch a dog die from malignant breast cancer that could have almost certainly been prevented if she had been spayed before she went into heat, but didn’t get spayed because the owner was afraid of the possible risks of the anesthesia.