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The Risk of Anesthesia to Pets

Published March 5, 2009
An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth,

Whether a patient is human or animal, there are always risks associated with anesthesia during surgery. However, several studies have shown that the risk of anesthetic-related death in humans is far less than that of veterinary patients.

According to one 2008 paper published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, one of the most prestigious veterinary journals, the estimated risk of anesthesetic-related mortality in dogs is approximately 0.1 percent or 1 in 1,000. Though 0.1 percent is still low, the risk to humans is estimated to be much less, between 0.02-0.05 percent, or about 2 in every 10,000.

Dr. Stuart Clark-Price is a board certified veterinary anesthesiologist at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. He is one of about 150 veterinary anesthesiologists in the country who has spent several years training after veterinary school to specialize in the field. He recommends that, "Owners should be asking their veterinarian if they are meeting the minimum standards for anesthesia set forth by the American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists."

Dr. Clark-Price explains that one reason there may be a disparity between the mortality rates of human and veterinary patients is the fact that in human medicine a highly specialized anesthesiologist is usually involved. In veterinary medicine, it is unlikely that a board certified anesthesiologist will be monitoring your pet unless you go to a teaching hospital or seek out a specialty clinic.

While the risk to veterinary patients may be higher than what is seen in humans, it is important to note that veterinary anesthesia has come a long way compared to where it was several decades ago. With the advent of better drugs and more precise monitoring equipment, the complication rate has decreased.

Nevertheless, "If you are going to place trust in your veterinarian, you should be able to ask them several questions regarding your pet's care during and after surgery," explains Dr. Clark-Price. Some of the questions you should be asking your veterinarian prior to surgery are:

  • Are you using the most current techniques and medications?
  • How are you monitoring the patient during and after surgery?
  • Are you performing the surgery as well as monitoring the anesthesia of the patient, or will a separate person be designated to monitor the patient at all times?
  • Will you be using equipment to monitor blood pressure and blood oxygenation?

Although some people may have heard of "pre-anesthetic" blood work, Dr. Clark-Price says, "for the average young, healthy patient undergoing a routine dental or castration, the need for blood work is minimal." However, in more mature animals, or geriatric patients, blood work is advisable.

"Induction and recovery are the most risky times for anesthetic death," notes Dr. Clark-Price. The increased risk is especially notable during recovery because the patient is no longer hooked up to monitoring equipment. This is where it is important to either have one person designated solely to monitoring the patient's vital signs, or at the least, make sure someone checks on the patient frequently.

To view the guidelines established by the American College of Veterinary Anesthesiologists, or find a board certified anesthesiologist in your area, you can visit If you have concerns about your pet's care, speak with your local veterinarian.

An archive of Pet Columns from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine is available online at Requests for reprints of this article may be directed to Mandy Barth,

Veterinary Extension/Office of Public Engagement
University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine