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Anesthesia is a wonderful but still frightening thing. It allows us to perform procedures on our pets while preventing pain and fear. But we’ve all heard stories about adverse reactions and unexpected outcomes. Even when things go great, it’s unnerving to see your dog acting weird after anesthesia.
It’s not unusual for a dog to act weird by whining, sleeping a lot, or losing house training habits immediately after anesthesia. The same drugs that prevent pain can make him act a bit loopy for several hours after his procedure. Most dogs should be getting back to normal within 12-18 hours after anesthesia.
What Do Anesthetics Do to Dogs?
From the Merriam Webster dictionary:
anesthesia (noun): loss of sensation with or without loss of consciousness
When veterinarians talk about anesthesia, in most cases we’re talking about inducing a loss of sensation (pain) and loss of consciousness at the same time. This allows us to do minor or major surgery and other painful, frightening procedures without undue stress on the dog.
Most dogs get multiple drugs to induce general anesthesia. Giving a little bit of a few different things allows your vet to get the desired effect from each drug. This sort of balanced anesthesia regimen also reduces the risk that your dog will experience the negative side effects that occur when a high dose of only one drug is used.
Anesthetic drugs all have different actions, but in general, they have the following effects on dogs:
- Makes them unconscious
- Provides pain relief
- Makes the muscles relax
We have to do all these things while keeping the pet alive. Veterinarians and vet tech anesthetists carefully monitor each dog’s level of anesthesia frequently during a procedure. They use personal observation and instruments to monitor blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate/rhythm, pulse quality, gum color, eye position, blood oxygen and carbon dioxide level. Anesthetists make necessary adjustments to make sure body function is optimal while avoiding the sensation of pain and movement by the patient.
There are many drugs to choose from to provide safe general anesthesia, but not every drug is perfect for every dog.
How Long Does It Take a Dog to Recover from Anesthesia?
Most healthy dogs will be mostly recovered from anesthesia by the time you take them home in the afternoon or evening. The effects of the drugs may take 24 hours to completely wear off.
You’ll probably notice their facial expression looks a little goofy. And it’s pretty common for them to be more sleepy than normal. But you should be able to rouse them to alertness.
Changes in Appetite
Some dogs don’t feel like eating the night after a procedure but they should eat by the next morning. Offer something that’s easy to digest and tastes great. Boiled chicken breast and mushy white rice are a popular choice amongst canine convalescents.
If your pet is not eating by 24 hours after the procedure, notify your vet.
Changes in Drinking
Drinking more or less than usual is also common. If intravenous fluids were administered, your pal might not be thirsty for a good 12-24 hours but will still be urinating.
Changes in Bowel Movement
Pooping habits often change during the day or two after surgery/anesthesia. Some anesthetic drugs, opioids, NSAIDs and other medications affect the GI tract leading to less pooping or sometimes more pooping/diarrhea. Severe frequent diarrhea or if it persists more than 8 hours should be reported to your veterinarian.
Pooping/Peeing in the House
Loss of house training would not be surprising, either. Dogs might be too sleepy or confused to make it outside in time. If they had intravenous fluids during surgery, they might have a very full bladder. Don’t punish them, just clean it up and watch them for hints they need to go outside after that.
Hiding or Acting Clingy
Recovering from anesthesia might be scary for your buddy. Some dogs deal with it by hiding and others want to stay near their favorite person all the time. Either one is OK as long as they’re not hiding in a dangerous place or where you can’t get to them to check their health status.
Increased vocalization is pretty common when recovering from sedation. It can be upsetting for a dog owner but it usually passes within a few hours.
Some dogs whine and cry due to insufficient pain management. Look for other signs like reluctance to move, hanging head, heavy panting, crying more when the pet’s incision is lightly touched, trying to lick an incision site, etc.
Call your vet or go to the emergency clinic if you suspect your pet is hurting significantly despite using the prescribed medicine.
Animals have no way of understanding what has happened to them after being heavily sedated. A pet owner can’t tell them, “It’s OK, you’ll feel normal in a few hours.”
They might feel confused and anxious, wondering if they’re ever going back to normal or if there is something really wrong. Wandering or pacing around the house in confusion is not unusual.
Just make sure you keep them from falling or getting into a dangerous situation. Limit them to one room and stay nearby to monitor their recovery.
Staring into Space
Dogs looking “stoned” or “high” is pretty expected after anesthesia. An anesthetic drug can have a pleasant effect or cause anxiety and it’s impossible to predict which dog will react in which way.
Staring into space is OK immediately after a procedure but should be worn off by the next day unless your pup is still taking strong pain medication.
Stumbling, swerving and wobbling are somewhat expected after sedation. Your dog may be restless after anesthesia, too. Most of the time this lasts only a few hours.
Wobbly walking after 24 hours or acting weird days after anesthesia should be reported to your veterinarian.
What To Do During a Rough Recovery
There are some things you can do to soothe your dog and keep him safe after anesthesia:
- Keep him away from hazards
- Bring food and water to him where he’s resting
- Keep him in a quiet area away from other pets and kids
- Reassure him, massage the top of the head over the acupressure point GV 24 to calm
- Offer special food if necessary-chicken and rice with extra water added
- Go outside and watch him when he needs to potty
- Keep him warm (or cool in hot climates)-check temp rectally if in doubt
- Make sure he’s not licking any surgical incisions
- Massage over the acupressure point Liver 3 to on the top of the back foot to soothe pain
- Give meds as directed-call your vet if you can’t get him to take pills
- Ask your vet for advice-you may need different/more pain meds, sedatives
- Play soothing music, I love “Through a Dog’s Ear”
- Ask the vet if you can use an ice pack or cold compress on the surgical area
- Let him rest until fully recovered-no walkies or dog park until fully recovered
- Keep the lights dim
- Stay positive and try not to show your anxiety since dogs feed off their people’s moods!
How Dogs Recover from General Anesthesia
Different drugs are metabolized in different ways. Some of the major pathways depend on the lungs, liver and kidneys.
The lungs expel gas anesthetics during respiration. Diseased lungs might have altered absorption and elimination of gases.
A dog’s liver cells work to break down drugs and eliminate the breakdown products via blood or the GI tract. Very diseased livers don’t have the cellular metabolism capacity to break down drugs. And in rare cases, even healthy livers can have an adverse or allergic reaction causing damage to the liver itself.
The kidneys eliminate toxins and drugs by filtering the blood through their cells. These cells reserve necessary water and blood components the body needs while letting toxins and drugs pass through to the urinary bladder. Diseased kidneys have decreased filtering capacity and can’t eliminate drugs so they stay active in the body longer.
All of these organs depend on good circulation to work properly in their role in drug elimination. Dehydration, hypotension and heart failure contribute to poor blood flow to organs. This can lead to a prolonged duration of action of drugs.
Factors That Can Slow Down Recovery
Brachycephalic Conformation (Smush Faced Dogs)
We all love our English Bulldogs, Frenchies and Shih Tzus but they can have anesthesia complications because the very short noses that make them so cute also cause breathing problems. These guys have breathing challenges even when they’re awake due to a small trachea (windpipe), small nostrils and extra tissue in their throat. And if you live with one of these cuties, you probably know how much they snore when they’re asleep, too.
The good thing is that when they’re intubated during general anesthesia, they often can breathe better than when they’re awake!
The trouble with brachycephalic dogs comes before and after they’re intubated. If they receive too much pre-procedure sedative, they might get so sleepy they don’t breathe well.
Then during recovery, the endotracheal tube has to be removed when the dog regains consciousness. With a short-faced dog, most vets leave the tube in place as long as possible. If they’re still super sleepy when the tube is removed, they might have trouble breathing.
Once you get them home, they should be fully awake and able to breathe normally (for them), but every dog is different. If your short-faced pup is still sleepy from their procedure, they could feel a bit panicky about not being able to get a breath without effort.
It’s definitely a case for the emergency clinic when your dog is acting weird after anesthesia with difficulty breathing.
Identifying renal disease is one of the many reasons vets like to run lab tests before anesthetizing any dog. Most serious kidney problems will show up in a screening blood panel and urinalysis.
Knowing about a kidney problem will allow your veterinarian to choose safer drugs. They’ll also be sure to watch your dog very carefully before, during and after the procedure to make sure things are going well. Plus, it’s good for you to know what’s going on inside your dog’s body and what to expect in the future.
There are a couple of ways kidney disease can impact a dog’s experience with anesthesia. First, some anesthetic drugs are eliminated by the kidneys.
Diseased kidneys might not be able to filter out the drugs at the expected rate so pets experience the effects of the drugs longer. Veterinarians generally avoid certain drugs (like ketamine) that depend on the kidneys for elimination when the kidneys are diseased.
Second, an anesthetic episode can further damage the kidneys by decreasing the blood flow to them. Your vet will monitor for hypotension during surgery, but there is always some concern over being able to protect diseased kidneys.
Don’t be surprised if your vet recommends taking extra precautions like having your pet come in the day before for IV fluids. Proper hydration can help normalize kidney blood flow during anesthesia. Although you’ll incur additional costs, it’s worth it to make sure your dog survives and recovers quickly from anesthesia!
The liver is an important organ in removing many drugs from the body. When the liver is diseased, anesthetic drugs could have a longer than the expected duration of action.
Now, there is a spectrum of liver disease from very mild to life-threatening. Most dogs with mild to moderate liver disease can be anesthetized safely.
Here’s another time when screening lab tests can literally be lifesavers. Most serious liver disease will cause some sort of changes from normal lab values.
If these abnormalities are found for the first time on preparatory lab tests, your vet might recommend delaying surgery until they can fully understand what’s causing the problem.
Dogs with liver failure are a different story. Vets need to carefully choose the drugs they use because sick dogs might not be able to clear the drugs from their bodies. Dogs with liver failure may need to be hospitalized after their procedure or surgery to receive supportive care for the best chance of recovery.
There is another issue with the liver and anesthesia. There is no way to predict which dogs will have an unexpected (idiosyncratic) adverse reaction to drugs. Thankfully, this is pretty uncommon in dogs.
Very Young Animals
Puppies younger than 12 weeks of age are more tricky to anesthetize safely for a number of reasons. For one thing, their liver function is not fully developed and they become hypoglycemic more easily than adults.
Also, their small body size and lack of body fat make them susceptible to hypothermia (getting chilled) during anesthesia.
If you have a young puppy who needs surgery or a procedure under anesthesia, ask your vet what to expect in terms of recovery time. They might want you to do some special feeding and warming after the event.
There is a spectrum of severity with heart disease, too. Many toy breed dogs with a heart murmur have little increased risk from anesthesia. On the other end of the spectrum is a giant breed dog with dilated cardiomyopathy. The big dog likely has or is close to congestive heart failure, making them a bigger risk for safe anesthesia.
One problem is that we don’t always know about all heart disease before we put a dog under anesthesia. Fortunately, this is a pretty uncommon problem. Most dogs with significant heart problems have a murmur plus other symptoms.
If your dog has known heart disease, your vet might recommend more testing so they can make sure your dog’s heart can handle anesthesia. If you know your dog has any issues with their heart, watch closely after the surgery. Difficulty breathing, coughing, and weakness are all cause to see a vet for help right away.
Old age itself is not necessarily a high risk for anesthesia. It’s just that an older dog is more likely to have liver, kidney, lung and heart problems. We often notice that very elderly dogs don’t bounce back as quickly as young ones.
Some breeds of dogs are known for responding to some anesthetic drugs in a unique way. Greyhounds are probably the most notorious for having trouble with anesthesia.
Greyhounds are prone to delayed recovery from some drugs like barbiturates. They sometimes develop a high body temperature after anesthesia (hyperthermia). Some dogs, especially nervous ones, experience excessive excitation during recovery. Finally, a few dogs develop a dangerously high potassium level (hyperkalemia) after being anesthetized.
Discuss these issues with your vet before the surgery or other procedure. If you notice extreme agitation at home, trouble breathing or weakness you must get a vet involved immediately!
Help Your Dog Recover Faster
A good recovery starts even before the day of surgery or a procedure. There are many steps you can take to help your dog have a good experience.
Pre-Anesthetic Lab Tests and Other Diagnostics
In the old days, screening lab tests were optional in vet clinics. Now many vets won’t anesthetize an animal without running at least a small blood panel checking liver enzymes, kidney values, blood sugar and red blood cells. There are occasional surprises when we find a seemingly healthy pet has abnormal lab values. That can save them from having a bad experience with anesthesia, so don’t skimp on the recommended lab tests!
If you’ve ever had a hangover or a bad stomach bug, you know dehydration makes you feel horrible. Imagine being anesthetized in that condition. The same goes for dogs. A dehydrated animal is more likely to have problems while they’re under including low blood pressure and prolonged recovery times.
You can add a little low sodium chicken broth to your dog’s evening meal if you feed dry food. Also, ask your vet if you should keep your pet from drinking water the morning of the procedure. Sometimes they tell you to withhold food but not water. But make sure to ask because every situation is different.
If your pet takes prescription medicine regularly, in most cases your vet will want you to continue giving it even on the day of the surgery or procedure. This is another situation you need your vet’s input on since there are so many variables involved.
If you can’t get your dog to take a pill without food, make sure to tell your vet what you did and didn’t give when you drop your pet off at the clinic.
Oral Sedative for Anxious Dogs
We have some awesome protocols these days for helping super nervous dogs relax on the day of a surgical procedure or dental cleaning. Ask your vet if your pet would benefit from taking oral medication to decrease anxiety even before coming to the clinic.
Dogs who are relaxed when they arrive may require less anesthetic agent so they can recover faster.
Prepare Home for Recovery
Depending on what sort of operation your pet is undergoing you’ll need to prepare your house to keep him safe during his recovery.
At the very least, block off stairs and swimming pools so he doesn’t accidentally fall. You might want to block your buddy into just one room with baby gates so he doesn’t wander all over the house while he’s a bit loopy.
Plan for Problems
Hopefully, you won’t need it, but make sure you know who to call and where to go if you have problems after hours. Most vet clinics refer their clients to off-site emergency clinics after hours. Ask your vet for the phone number and address of the clinic they recommend.
Go to the emergency clinic if your dog has trouble breathing, can’t be roused, is bleeding more than a few drops, has an incision that is coming apart, has a seizure or has repeated vomiting or diarrhea.
Many dogs act strange after anesthesia for about half a day. Wobbling, whining and looking stoned are expected. We don’t expect trouble breathing, extreme pain or ongoing diarrhea.
If your dog is still acting weird or having unexpected symptoms the day after having anesthesia, call your veterinarian to report what’s going on. Your dog is depending on you!
Last update on 2022-01-16 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API