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Whether you have a young dog and you’ve scheduled routine neutering, an old dog who needs dental work, or an active dog who has torn a ligament – you may be scheduling a veterinary procedure that requires anesthesia.

There’s a risk involved any time a dog is given drugs to put them under for surgery. So it’s important for responsible dog owners to be aware of potential complications, have a plan in place beforehand, and work with a veterinarian to ensure your dog’s safety.

When it comes to routine procedures, what dog owners least expect is a call that something’s gone wrong. But that’s exactly what happened to first-time pet owners Lisa Marchese and Gudry Genao after they brought their 5-month-old Havanese puppy in for a neutering procedure. Minutes after the procedure began, their beloved “Petey” died.

“We weren’t nervous about the neutering; if anything, we felt bad for what we heard he was going to experience afterwards,” says Marchese. “It never crossed our minds something would happen.”

Although anesthesia-related deaths are rare, they can occur. Approximately 1 in 2,000 healthy dogs die under anesthesia each year, says Preventative Vet author and veterinary anesthesiologist Dr. Heidi Shafford.

What Are the Risk Factors for Dogs Undergoing Anesthesia?

Certain dogs have a higher anesthetic risk due to their breed, size, health, or age. These risks can run from minor problems, such as mild vomiting after recovery from anesthesia to life-threatening problems such as cardiac arrest or stroke. The American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia advises that, “The anesthesiologist’s main task is to provide safe, optimal anesthesia, specifically tailored to your pet. Anesthesiologists are trained to administer anesthetics safely to patients who are sick, injured, pediatric, geriatric, or healthy.”


Some breeds have specific sensitivities to anesthesia. The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) guidelines warn that Greyhounds may have prolonged recoveries after receiving some anesthetics such as barbiturates, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels may be predisposed to cardiac disease. Brachycephalic breeds, such as BulldogsPugs, and Boston Terriers, have higher airway-related complication rates.


Toy breeds are at increased risk for anesthetic complications because they are more prone to hypothermia, may be more difficult to intubate and monitor, and are more easily overdosed, according to the AAHA. Giant breeds also can be at increased risk since dosage amounts required are larger. A dog’s weight can also be a factor. If your dog is overweight, and the procedure is not an emergency, most veterinarians will prefer that your pet lose a few pounds before surgery.


Senior dogs and very young dogs can have an increased risk under anesthesia because of changes in or immaturity of some of their body’s organs or systems. However, Dr. Berit Fischer, who serves on the American College of Veterinary Anesthesia and Analgesia Board of Directors, says, “Age is not a disease, and the anesthetic risk is not much greater for a geriatric patient than a patient who is younger, as long as they are healthy with no co-existing disease.”

Post-Surgery Monitoring and Time of Day:

The AAHA reports that almost half of anesthetic-related dog deaths occur during the first few hours of the postoperative period. Monitoring of the recovering patient by trained personnel is critical. Procedures occurring late in the day or after normal office hours have also shown higher risk. This is most likely because they involve emergencies that limit time to examine and stabilize the dog. These procedures can also involve more tired veterinary staff.

Sick Labrador Retriever laying on an operating table.
Chalabala / Getty Images Plus

Plan Ahead When You Can

Having a plan in place before your dog experiences anesthesia will help make the procedure as safe as possible. Here are the steps that you and your veterinarian can take before, during, and after surgery to reduce the risk.

Before Surgery

Before even scheduling a procedure, your veterinarian will give your dog a physical exam.  In most cases, this exam will include blood work including blood chemistry, blood count, and an electrolyte test, to make sure their overall health is good enough to avoid complications. Your vet will ask you to share your dog’s medical history, including any allergies. At this point, you can ask questions about the procedure, risks, recovery, and alternatives to surgery.

Your vet will ask you not to feed your dog for about eight hours in advance for most procedures. This will help reduce the risk of your dog aspirating food or fluid into the lungs. Once you arrive at the office, your dog may be given a mild sedative. They may also have an intravenous (IV) catheter placed in a vein, usually in a leg, after the site is shaved and cleaned.

During Surgery

General anesthesia makes your dog unconscious, so they won’t move or feel pain. While under anesthesia, your dog will receive monitoring and care comparable to what you’d receive.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, this may include intravenous fluids and/or medications to support your dog’s circulation and blood pressure; an endotracheal tube inserted into their trachea (windpipe) to deliver the anesthetic gas and provide oxygen to their lungs; pulse oximetry to measure the oxygenation of their blood; blood pressure monitoring; temperature monitoring and warming blankets to prevent hypothermia (low body temperature); and electrocardiography to monitor your dog’s heart.

After Surgery

When it’s time for your dog to wake up, they’ll be placed in a quiet crate with warm blankets and will be closely monitored for any problems. Some pets, depending on the type of surgery and their medical condition, may be sent home later in the day if they awaken well from the anesthesia and their pain is under control.

At this time, your vet should give you discharge instructions. Your dog may take several days to get back to normal. Some dogs whine a bit when they first come home. A dog’s body may take a while to regain control over temperature – so keep them warm, but not too hot.

Golden Retriever getting comforted while lying on a table at the vet.
alexsokolov/Getty Images Plus

What Can You Do to Reduce Your Pet’s Risk?

The AVMA recommends dog owners take the following steps to help reduce the risk of anesthesia for their dogs:

  • Let your veterinarian know if your dog has ever had a reaction to sedation or anesthesia.
  • Make sure your veterinarian is aware of all medications and supplements (including over-the-counter products) your dog is receiving.
  • Keep your dog healthy with regular preventive care.
  • Keep your dog at a healthy weight.
  • Take steps to prevent injuries whenever possible.
  • Follow your veterinarian’s instructions before anesthesia, especially with regards to withholding food, water, and medications.

“The anesthesia dogs receive has been improved through years of research and experience, while veterinary training has also advanced,” says Dr. Jerry Klein, AKC chief veterinary officer. “Although you can never be 100% certain of how your dog may react to anesthesia, taking advanced precautions and working with a trained veterinarian to make the best choice for your dog will help keep him as safe as possible.”

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

Related article: Drug-Free Pain Relief Options for Dogs You Can Use at Home
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