I’ve said it before: I’m a nerd. My particular nerdy passion is medicine and surgery, so when my cat, Kissy, needed to have her leg amputated, I asked if I could watch. My vet said that was fine. Not only was this a chance to satisfy my curiosity about this aspect of cat health — what happens during an operation — I also thought it would be a great opportunity to share this knowledge with you.
After you drop your cat off in the morning and she’s had all necessary blood work, here’s what happens:
The first drug your cat receives is a sedative. This relaxes her for the handling she’ll require for the next stage of pre-operative preparation. The sedative also reduces the amount of drugs your vet will need in order to induce and maintain anesthesia.
A small patch of your cat’s fur is shaved, usually on her foreleg, and a special needle is inserted into her vein. This IV catheter is used to administer drugs and fluids, if needed.
Your cat gets a dose of anesthetic medicine through her IV catheter. This makes her fall deeply asleep and keeps her from feeling pain during surgery. These injected anesthetics are very important, because they reduce the amount of inhaled anesthetic needed.
Once your cat is in deep enough sleep that she won’t cough, a breathing tube is inserted in her throat. The breathing tube is important because when your cat is under anesthesia, she needs help to breathe. Inhaled anesthetic drugs are also delivered through the breathing tube. Because inhaled anesthetics lower blood pressure a lot, vets try to use as little as possible to keep your cat asleep and pain-free.
Once your cat is under anesthesia, your vet attaches machines that monitor her vital signs — a blood pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter to measure how much oxygen is in her blood, and EKG leads to monitor her heartbeat.
While your vet is getting her sterile mask and gown on and scrubbing up for the operation, the tech shaves the surgical site and washes it with an iodine-based antiseptic. This orange liquid is one reason your cat’s surgical site looks so weird.
Depending on the type of surgery, this stage could take anywhere from five minutes to multiple hours. During the surgery, the vet tech records your cat’s vital signs every one to two minutes. The tech also helps your vet by being an extra set of eyes on the monitoring equipment and keeping track of your cat’s level of anesthesia.
Several layers of tissue need to be sutured shut once your cat’s surgery is over. The inner layers are closed with sutures that are absorbed by the body, and the outermost layer (the skin) is closed with thread sutures, stapes, or — in some cases — superglue. (I didn’t share any photos of this part of the procedure because I didn’t want to completely gross you out!)
After your cat’s incision is closed, the process of waking her up begins. Your cat stays on the operating table until she’s awake enough to start coughing. At that point, the breathing tube is removed and your cat is taken to a recovery cage.
Because anesthetic drugs reduce your cat’s ability to control her body temperature, your cat is covered with a towel and surrounded with bottles of warm fluids to keep her warm enough. Her vital signs are very carefully monitored until she’s fully awake and ready to go home.
This procedure is pretty much the same whether the surgery takes five minutes or five hours. The only exception is for neuter surgeries — because they are so short, most practices choose to use an oxygen mask rather than a breathing tube, unless there’s a specific reason a cat needs a breathing tube.
Photos by JaneA Kelley