For some veterinary procedures pets need sedation or an anaesthetic. Sedation is a type of mild anaesthetic that helps pets to relax and reduces pain during some medical procedures. An anaesthetic (sometimes called a ‘general anaesthetic’ or ‘GA’) means your pet will be completely unconscious and unaware of everything happening. General anaesthesia is used for more painful or complicated operations.
It is important that we occasionally give pets sedation or anaesthetic to help keep them still during common and routine medical procedures, such as having an x-ray.
It can be a worrying time for any pet owner when their animal goes to the vets for an anaesthetic, so knowing what to expect can help give you peace of mind.
Just like in human medicine, all operations and anaesthetics carry a degree of risk. Your veterinary surgeons and veterinary nurses are there to ensure these risks are as low as possible and that your pet recovers quickly and comfortably. If you have any concerns or questions, veterinary staff will be happy to answer any questions you have.
Please ensure you listen carefully to all instructions given to you by your vet or vet nurse. It is a good idea to write important information down or ask the veterinary clinic for a written version of instructions.
Usually you will be given an appointment first thing in the morning to take your pet to the clinic and drop them off to be left there for the day.
Different species have different needs before and after an operation. Be sure to ask your vet or vet nurse about your pet’s requirements
For cats and dogs, most procedures require your pet to not be fed or given water between certain times on the day before the operation. This can be difficult, especially if you have more than one pet so you may need to feed them in separate rooms. Cats should also be kept indoors the night before. If your pet does manage to eat some food or has a drink in the morning, ensure you tell the vet or vet nurse on admission.
Smaller animals such as rabbits, guinea pigs and ferrets should not have food taken away before any operation as this can be dangerous. To be healthy, their guts need to work continuously. It is a good idea to take some of their normal food with you to the vets. They may also need to be hospitalised with their companion, especially if they normally live together.
Make a note of the time your pet last went to the toilet and inform your vet or vet nurse. This helps them monitor their recovery much more closely.
A vet or vet nurse will go through some information with you before the procedure. This may include questions such as the time your pet last had something to eat or drink, if they take any medications and when they were last given, and if you would like any other procedures done at the same time (such as nail clipping or microchipping). Before admitting your pet they may also do a brief health check, such as listening to their heart.
Depending on the age, breed and condition of your pet, your vet or vet nurse may recommend a pre-anaesthetic blood test which can check if certain organs are working properly, such as the liver and kidneys. This is also useful to see if they may benefit from further support during the operation or procedure, such as intravenous fluids (a ‘drip’).
The admission appointment is a good time to ask for further clarification if you need it and get answers to any questions you may have.
You will be asked to read and sign the consent form. It is essential you read this carefully, check contact details and sign it. This will stay with your pet throughout their visit and include information such as their details, procedure and other important information such as allergies or current medications.
Vets usually administer a routine sedation and painkiller on admission, often referred to as a ‘pre-med’. This is to help your pet feel relaxed in the veterinary clinic, which may be unfamiliar and stressful for them. This injection is not only a painkiller – it can help reduce the time your pet needs to recover as well as keeping the anaesthetic dosage as low as possible.
Please make sure either you or a nominated friend or family member are easily contactable during your pet’s stay.
Top tip: leave more than one telephone number so vets and nurses can get in touch quickly in case of an emergency.
Vets or vet nurses will accurately weigh your pet to get an up to date bodyweight. This will ensure accurate doses of different medications can be administered throughout the day.
Each pet will have their own kennel for the day within the veterinary practice. Some even have separate areas for dogs, cats and small animals. Your vet or vet nurse will give your pet a clean comfortable bed in a kennel while the pre-med takes effect.
They will wait here until it is time for their operation, then return to the same kennel until they go home.
Not having your pet at home is worrying for any pet owner. Use this time to make sure everything is ready for when they return home.
The clinic will contact you once your pet’s operation is finished or you may be asked to phone in at a specific time. They will offer updates on your pet’s recovery status and condition before booking you in for a discharge appointment.
Note: sometimes if your pet takes a bit longer to recover from their operation, the vet may want to keep a closer eye on them by keeping them in overnight
After operations including a sedation or anaesthetic, pets can still be a bit drowsy when you collect them to take home. They might also be a bit uncoordinated and disorientated, which can affect their balance. Depending on the procedure, they may also come home with a large wound, stitches, bandages or even a buster collar to prevent them licking.
Usually the vet or a vet nurse will wish to speak to you first before reuniting you with your pet. Don’t worry though – this is just to ensure they can give you all information and instructions needed without distractions. At this time you can also ask any questions you have, pay your bill if you have not already done so and organise any check-up appointments so you can take your pet home as quickly as possible once they are brought out to you.
Advice may vary depending on species and procedure. Ensure you listen to the advice given very carefully. Ask the practice to give you written instructions so you can remember everything.
Dogs, cats and small animals may be given a special food to go home with. This is easily digestible and formulated to be kind to their digestive system after an operation.
It is important that rabbits start eating as soon as possible after an operation, so a selection of food is advisable. If your rabbit has not eaten or passed any faeces by the next morning, contact the veterinary practice immediately.
Just like us, animals can respond to pain differently. For example, rabbits may not eat, dogs may whine, cats can hide away, and small rodents may sit hunched up and hide. If your pet is discharged with medicines to give at home, ensure you know:
If you are unsure of what medication dose to give, contact your veterinary practice for help and guidance
Depending on the operation your pet has had, the clinic may want to see them again and will make an appointment to do so.
For larger operations and/or operations which involve bandages, a post-operative check may be carried out at 2-3 days after the procedure to change dressings and/or check wounds are healing well.
For routine operations and procedures, a post-operative check is usually carried out 10-14 days afterwards. If your pet has any stitches these will then be removed.
Make sure you are aware of signs of pain or discomfort. Talk to your vet about any pain relief your pet may need and any tips on how to give it effectively.
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Caring for your pet before and after an operation, June 2020 © Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF). AWF is a registered charity (287118). Photos: ©