Study reveals true risks of anaesthesia in dogs - Veterinary Practice
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Study reveals true risks of anaesthesia in dogs

A team of researchers at the Royal Veterinary College and the University of Manchester used data from more than 150,000 dogs in the UK to assess the risk of death from sedation and general anaesthetics

A new VetCompass study, led by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) and the University of Manchester, has revealed a relatively low risk of death from sedation and general anaesthetics for dogs in the UK. The research was carried out with the aim of generating up-to-date information to help improve shared decision-making between veterinary professionals and owners.

The paper, “Mortality Related to General Anaesthesia and Sedation in Dogs under UK Primary Veterinary Care“, published in Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia, used data from more than 150,000 dogs attending first opinion veterinary practices around the UK.

The study examined the overall risk of death for each dog which had at least one sedation and/or anaesthesia procedure over a set period of time. The study also specifically focuses on anaesthesia related to neutering (spaying and castration) in dogs because these procedures are so common in the UK and the worry about the anaesthetic risk can cause real concern for owners.

The findings showed that currently this risk is 14 deaths in 10,000 dogs within two weeks of sedation/anaesthesia procedures carried out for any reason, of which 10 deaths per 10,000 are within 48 hours of these procedures.

For neutering surgeries specifically in dogs, this risk was much smaller, with one death in 10,000 neuter procedures related to sedation and/or anaesthesia.

No association was seen between the age of puppies at the time of neutering and risk of death.

While in humans the risk of death linked to anaesthesia during surgery is minutely small, general anaesthesia carries higher risks for companion animals. Weighing up these benefits and risks for anaesthesia and surgery can be a major source of distress for owners.

Some of the key factors associated with increased risk of sedation and anaesthetic-related death in this new study included:

  • Older age
  • Poorer overall health
  • More urgent surgeries
  • Certain breeds such as Rottweilers and West Highland White Terriers compared with mixed breeds

Factors that were associated with decreased risk included breeds such as Cocker Spaniels compared with mixed breeds.

The team also investigated whether flat-faced “brachycephalic” breeds were associated with higher risk. Surprisingly, longer-nosed “dolichocephalic” breeds showed four times the odds of sedative/anaesthetic-related death compared with medium-length nose dogs, whereas no additional risk was seen in flat-faced breeds.

These results should provide some reassurance for the veterinary and dog-owning communities regarding the safety of neutering for young puppies, as well as the relative safety of sedatives and anaesthetics for more complex procedures.

For older dogs, those with poorer health or undergoing planned complex surgeries, the results emphasise the value of careful planning to manage the anaesthetic risks.

Urgent procedures, regardless of complexity, were shown to carry greater risk and therefore should be approached with high vigilance and caution.

Dr Dan O’Neill, associate professor in companion animal epidemiology at the RVC and co-author of the paper, said: “This new VetCompass study can help owners deal with these fears by understanding the real anaesthetic risk is not that high: 14 deaths in every 10,000 dogs.

“Decision-making based on the known can now replace fear of the unknown.”

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