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By Gina Spadafori
Pet Columnist

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Safer Anesthesia: Advance Screening and other Techniques Reduce Risk

While no medical procedure or medication -- or even home remedy, for that matter -- can ever be completely without risk, safer anesthetic agents, monitoring by specially trained veterinary technicians, and protocols that stress a pet's safety and comfort before, during and after anesthesia have minimized risks substantially, even for older and chronically ill pets.
That's the good news. The bad news? Pet owners too often opt out of potentially lifesaving protocols or don't follow veterinary advice before sedation, increasing the risks for their pets.
With proper pre-op care, anesthetic risk is very low. That wasn't always the case, of course, and old fears based on old information can be difficult to ease. But don't let your fears keep you from providing your pet with care that can dramatically improve quality of life, such as necessary dental care. (If you doubt how much, just think of how desperate you were for dental care the last time you broke a tooth or even had a toothache!) Bringing your knowledge up to date and working with your veterinarian to minimize risk will help you make the best decisions when it comes to your pet's care.
So what's changed in recent years? In a word: everything. Everything, that is, except your veterinarian's guidelines for how to present your pet on the day of a procedure -- with an empty stomach.
Anesthetic drugs tend to induce vomiting, and that can lead to aspiration pneumonia. That's because the larynx relaxes during anesthesia, which means vomit may end up going down the trachea to the lungs instead of through the esophagus and back to the stomach. And once in the lungs, pneumonia can develop. If you give your pet food or water after midnight on the day before surgery, call your veterinarian and 'fess up. It's always better to reschedule an elective procedure than to go forward at higher risk than necessary.
Your active role in your pet's anesthesia may not have changed much, but that's not true of the role of your pet's veterinarian and veterinary technicians in a pre-anesthetic examination and diagnostics. These are intended to spot and address any health problems your pet has before anesthesia.
While many pet lovers probably think of veterinary anesthesia as a gas given through a mask over the animal's face, the modern practice of preparing an animal for surgery is a no-size-fits-all combination of injectable medications (often combining anesthesia and pain-control agents), anesthesia-inducing gas and pure oxygen -- the latter two delivered through a breathing tube to maintain an animal's unconscious state. The use of intravenous fluids during anesthesia is another safety measure, meant to allow a veterinarian to react rapidly if something unexpected happens during surgery.
Keeping tabs on it all is a veterinary technician with special training in monitoring the animal during anesthesia, providing the surgeon with the information he or she needs to adjust or react to any unforeseen problems. Heating pads are another safety measure, preventing organ damage if a pet's body temperature dips -- and increasing comfort as a pet recovers.
Just as the pre-anesthetic advice from the veterinarian needs to be followed to the letter, so, too, do any take-home instructions. While pain medications and antibiotics may already be on board as the pet leaves for home, these medications may also need to be given in the days to follow.
The improvements in anesthetic agents and protocols have such high levels of safety that you should no longer dismiss essential care because of what may be an outdated knowledge of the risk. Do your part to help your pet, and your veterinarian will do the rest. - By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
Will leather couch deter cats' scratches?
Q: We're considering purchasing a leather couch. We have two indoor cats who have completely destroyed our fabric couch. We have given them a scratch post recently, and although they use it, they still use the couch. We do not deter them from using the fabric couch.
In regard to the leather couch, we have heard that cats don't like leather and won't scratch it. But before we shell out the money for an expensive piece of furniture, I wanted your opinion. -- M.B., via email
A: While it's true that cats prefer fabrics, especially those with a coarse woven texture, I wouldn't bet the farm on them not touching the new leather couch. Before you make such a huge investment, make a determined effort to convert your cats to using the scratching post.
First, make sure the post is adequate. I recommend a cat tree rather than a scratching post. Trees are taller, less likely to fall over, and offer room for two or more cats to scratch, play and nap. The cover should be a loose-weave fabric or a rough rope, like sisal.
Then make your current, old couch less attractive to scratching. Cover all the areas on the furniture where your cats love to scratch with something they'll hate to touch -- the sticky side of shelf-lining contact paper. Secure the sheets (sticky side out) to the scratched areas with double-sided tape. Don't scrimp: Go for full coverage!
Next, move the scratching post beside your cats' most popular part of the couch. The idea is to give them a nearby alternative to putting their paws on their former scratching post -- your old couch. Play games with your cats on the post, and give them food and treats for scratching in an appropriate place.
Be patient, since cats aren't keen on change. Once you notice your cats using the post (and not using the booby-trapped couch), you can very slowly -- like, a couple feet a week -- move the post to a less prominent part of the room. But don't move it so far away that your cats lose interest.
When you get your new couch, you can booby-trap it without marring the leather by mounting the sticky paper to sheets of cardboard and leaning them against the sides, corners and back of the new couch. The cardboard is to keep the cats from trying out the new couch, and it can come down once you observe that the cat post is getting all the action. -- Gina Spadafori
The Buzz
Hurricane ups demand for pet blood donors

  • Blood donors are often needed after disasters, and Hurricane Sandy is no exception. But while most people think about rolling up their own sleeves to help, they don't realize blood donors for dogs and cats are also in short supply. DVM Magazine reports that veterinary blood banks throughout the Northeast are asking for help. While most feline blood donors are in-house residents of their veterinary practices (and are given good forever homes after a short period of service), healthy large dogs are welcomed as blood donors at many practices. Some even offer discounts on veterinary care for regular canine blood donors. 

  • Dr. Jan Pol, a Michigan veterinarian who is the star of a popular reality show, was fined and ordered to complete coursework after being found by the state's disciplinary panel to have been negligent in a case from 2010. Pol maintains he did nothing wrong in the case of 10 puppies who died in utero and were removed from their mother by caesarian performed at another veterinary practice. While some veterinarians have called for "The Incredible Dr. Pol" to be canceled, it is Nat Geo Wild's highest-rating program, and the network told that it had no plans to take the series off the air. 

  • The cost of a becoming a veterinarian has concerned the profession for years, and there's no sign of relief in sight. According to The New York Times, new graduates can carry debt loads approaching a quarter-million dollars, with entry-level salaries of less than half the average $121,000 annual salary for the profession as a whole. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori

Date Published: 11/19/2012 8:56:00 AM
Date Reviewed/Revised: 11/19/2012


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Gina Spadafori is the award-winning author of Dogs for Dummies, Cats for Dummies and Birds for Dummies. She is also affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network Inc., an international online service for veterinary professionals. Write to her at

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