Pet Connection: Talk to your vet when an older pet needs surgery

My dog Gemma recently underwent surgery to have a lump removed. Gemma is approximately 15 years old and weighs only 6 pounds, so even though we know that anesthesia for pets is very safe these days, my husband and I were a little anxious about having her go under.

To minimize the risks, we had Gemma’s cardiologist check her out beforehand, and I also asked veterinarian and pain management expert Robin Downing for her advice on the special anesthesia needs of older animals. Downing notes that it’s a fact of life that organs suffer wear and tear as the body ages and they metabolize medications differently. Aging pets may have chronic health problems, such as kidney disease, osteoarthritis or congestive heart failure.

Their bodies take longer to heal, and it’s essential to prevent and control pain before, during and after surgery to ensure a good recovery. For all of these reasons, veterinarians may need to modify the anesthesia protocol for senior animals.

Before your pet undergoes anesthesia, whether it’s for teeth cleaning or a more complex procedure, ask your veterinarian about safety and comfort precautions before, during and after surgery. That includes a pre-anesthesia physical exam and lab work – complete blood count, chemistry panel, electrolytes and, in some cases, a urinalysis or electrocardiogram – to make sure there are no underlying health problems that could be worsened by anesthesia.

Once your pet is greenlighted for surgery, a balanced anesthesia protocol includes a pre-anesthesia narcotic; induction with a blend of medications that does not include dissociative drugs such as ketamine; and maintenance with gas anesthesia. Other must-haves are intravenous fluids and careful monitoring by a veterinary nurse who checks blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate and oxygen saturation.

Keeping the patient warm from start to finish is also important. Pets lose a large amount of body heat during anesthesia. From the time they receive their pre-anesthesia medications and anesthesia induction, they should be wrapped or draped in a warm towel or fleece and have a warm towel or fleece draped over the front of their cage. They need a circulating hot-water or hot-air blanket to keep them warm during the procedure, and they should be wrapped in a warm towel or fleece after the procedure.

The staff should continue to observe the pet after the procedure. That means keeping him where there’s plenty of activity, not putting him in a cage in a patient ward where he might not get as much attention. If your veterinarian can’t or doesn’t follow the above procedures, consider having the procedure performed elsewhere.

Not every veterinarian or veterinary practice is equipped to anesthetize pets safely. That doesn’t make them bad, but it does mean they have an ethical obligation to refer clients to a facility that can better meet a senior pet’s needs. Many times, a procedure recommended for an older pet is important but not necessarily urgent.

“It may be that something is uncovered during a pre-anesthesia workup that warrants electing not to do the procedure at that time,” Downing says. “It may better suit the pet to initiate whatever management or supportive care is indicated, re-evaluate within a reasonable amount of time and then proceed with general anesthesia once the pet’s condition is as stable and strong as possible.”

The buzz

Did the Easter bunny come to live with you after the recent holiday? Rabbits can make great pets, but they have some special care needs. Handle them consistently and lovingly so they will become good companions. Teach them to come when you call, stand up for a treat and use a litter box. Female rabbits have a high incidence of reproductive tumors, so be sure to have them spayed. Finally, don’t overfeed your bunny. Obesity, hairballs and intestinal problems caused by a poor diet are common, so avoid giving sugary foods such as papaya, pineapple and, yes, carrots. Timothy hay is the best diet for them.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with Dr. Becker can also be found at or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.