General anaesthesia will be required if your pet is having surgery and in some cases for procedures such as X-rays. Many procedures which would not normally require a general anaesthetic in humans do need one if carried out on animals. This is because humans understand the procedure and the need to remain still and calm whereas animals have no way to know this. They would find procedures such as dentals extremely distressing and it would be impossible for the vet to work safely and effectively if the animal were conscious and needing to be restrained for the procedure to be carried out. In some cases treatment may be carried out under sedation or local anaesthesia but both of these have their own risks and may not be suitable for all cases. Your vet should be able to explain why any procedure is necessary and whether a general anaesthetic will be required.
You will probably be asked to with-hold food and water from your cat or dog for approximately 12 hours before an anaesthetic is given. This is generally not the case for small animals such as rabbits and rats. Your pet may be admitted into the surgery by a vet or a veterinary nurse. Make sure that you raise any concerns that you may have at this stage so that you can leave the surgery feeling confident that the best is being done for your pet. All vets and nurses understand that this is a stressful time for you and will be happy to explain anything that you feel unsure about at this stage. Often pets are admitted into the surgery in the morning and although this can be a busy time with school runs and journeys to work, do try to allow about half an hour for the admission procedure at your vet's.
During the admission procedure you will be asked to fill out and sign a consent form which details the procedure to be undertaken and a statement that you understand that there is always some risk to your pet during surgery and anaesthesia. You will be asked for contact details for the duration of your pet's stay. It is important that these are correct and can be used to contact you if the vet needs to speak to you urgently. Therefore it is really helpful if you make sure any mobile phones you have given out the number for are actually turned on during the day!
Before your pet is given a general anaesthetic your vet will check them to ensure that they are fit enough to undergo the procedure. Your vet will take a history for your pet if it is not already known to him or her. The vet will need to take into consideration the animal's age, breed, weight and general health when deciding which anaesthetic drugs are most suitable. Pre-existing conditions such as epilepsy or kidney disease will also be considered when deciding upon a suitable anaesthetic protocol for your pet. Your pet will be examined thoroughly to ensure that any conditions which may cause problems under anaesthetic such as heart or renal disease will be noticed before anaesthesia is given. A blood sample is sometimes required before a general anaesthetic is given. Results of any tests carried out will be discussed with you prior to the surgery, especially if there are any concerns regarding the health of your pet.
Some animals, (especially dogs) may become distressed when you leave them at the surgery. I always find that it is best if owners walk away from their pet rather than the vet having to coax the dog away from the owner. This is upsetting for owners, but just like toddlers at nursery they soon settle once you have gone!
Your pet will be weighed so that the appropriate dose of anaesthetic may be given, any necessary blood samples may be taken at this stage and then your pet will be settled into an individual kennel with clean and comfortable bedding. A pre-med may be given at this stage to get your pet ready for surgery. This calms the animal (is a sedative) reducing stress and also allows a smaller dose of the actual anaesthetic agent to be given. The use of pre-medication generally gives a smoother recovery from anaesthesia and often contains an analgesic to provide post-operative pain relief. Most pre-meds take about 20-30 minutes to have an effect.
It is always difficult in most surgeries to give an exact time at which any procedure will take place. However rest assured that in the rare cases of animals which are very unsettled they will generally be given priority if possible so that they may go home early if appropriate. You can usually telephone for a progress report during the morning but do not be offended if you are not able to speak to the vet; they are generally very busy and cannot answer the phone whilst they are operating. Veterinary nurses will usually be very informed about all the animals in the surgery and able to give you a progress report for your pet. If there are any concerns or problems during the day the vet will almost certainly contact you as soon as possible.
When your pet is ready for the surgical procedure to commence it will be taken out of the kennels and the general anaesthetic will be administered. The most common way in which this is done is to give an injection into a vein (usually the cephalic vein on the dorsal surface of the foreleg). You may notice that a small area of hair has been shaved away to allow clear identification of this vein. The particular anaesthetic agent administered will depend upon many factors and will be chosen to be the most suitable and safest agent for your pet.
Once anaesthesia has been induced in this manner it will usually be maintained using a gaseous agent such as isoflorane. An endotracheal tube will usually be used to administer anaesthetic gases. (This is why some animals develop a cough for a few days following an anaesthetic.) This is the safest way to give gaseous anaesthetic agents and the animal will be closely monitored throughout. Oxygen is always administered via the endotracheal tube together with the anaesthetic agent. Your pet's breathing, and pulse, often together with blood oxygen levels and blood pressure will be closely watched while your pet is under anaesthetic. Sometimes intravenous fluids will be given during the surgery and other drugs such as analgesics and antibiotics may also be required.
Once the surgery is over your pet will be allowed to gently wake up. Your pet will be kept warm and quiet while coming round from the anaesthetic and will also be closely monitored until they are fully conscious and able to breathe unaided. Your pet will not usually be allowed to go home until he or she is able to walk reasonably steadily without help. (However a dog should not be expected to walk home and may have difficulty in getting into the car as normal.)
When you collect your pet from the veterinary surgery you will be informed about the procedure which took place, any after-care or special considerations which apply to your pet and you will have the opportunity to book a follow up appointment as necessary. Now is the time to ensure that you ask any questions you may have regarding your pet's condition. Do ask what you should feed your pet following the surgery and remember that in many cases an animal's appetite may be reduced for a day or so following a general anaesthetic. When you get home you should expect your pet to be a little "groggy" as it can take a day or two for the effects of the anaesthetic to fully wear off. Keep your pet quiet and do not allow other pets or children to disturb him or her unnecessarily. Give any medications as directed by your vet. If you feel that your pet is not recovering as well as expected or if you notice any problems with surgical wounds then you should speak to you vet or arrange an appointment as soon as possible.