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Cats and Anesthesia: When They Need It, the Risks and How to Care for Cats After Anesthesia

Your cat will likely get anesthesia at some point. So, what are the risks associated with cats and anesthesia and how do you care for cats after anesthesia?

Cait Rohan Kelly  |  Feb 22nd 2018


Dealing with cats and anesthesia has always been an … interesting experience, at least for me. Especially when your cat comes home after she’s had anesthesia. One time, my cats, Merritt, who is normally cuddly and sweet, and Gabby, who is usually a bit of a curmudgeon, were both put under anesthesia on the same day (for a spay and tooth removal, respectively). When we picked them up from the vet, they were both wobbly and not themselves … but how they reacted to the anesthesia was completely different. Merritt, even though she was out of it, was giving us some serious stink face and emitting a low, constant growl (she also had her e-collar on and kept falling over. Between the growls, the e-collar and the face-planting, she looked like a tiny, inebriated Triceratops dinosaur. It was funny but also sad). Gabby was like a happy drunk, teetering around with shiny eyes and contentedly rubbing himself all over any carpeted surface.

There’s not a lot of information out there on cats and anesthesia and how to handle a cat at home who’s just had anesthesia. So, I asked Dr. Sasha Gibbons of Just Cats Veterinary Hospital in Stamford, Connecticut, just what to do. 

First off, what is anesthesia?

Poor Merritt (Mimi for short!) wobbling around like a drunk Triceratops after receiving anesthesia for her spay! It was so adorable yet so sad to not be able to help her. I had to catch it on video, but I stopped the moment she tried to scratch her e-collar!

“Anesthesia is a deep plane of sedation that causes loss of sensation,” says Dr. Gibbons. Or, according the English Oxford Living Dictionaries, anesthesia is, “insensitivity to pain, especially as artificially induced by the administration of gases or the injection of drugs before surgical operations.

When is anesthesia given to cats?

“Anesthesia is given to cats for surgeries, and certain procedures,” says Dr. Gibbons. “Anesthesia is not necessary for quick, non-painful procedures, such as blood draw, intravenous catheter placement, X-rays or grooming.” In my own cat parenting experience, my kitties have received anesthesia for spay/neuter, an incident with swallowing ribbon and tooth removal.

What are the benefits of giving anesthesia to cats? What are the risks?

“Anesthesia allows for loss of pain perception so it is appropriate for painful procedures, such as surgery,” Dr. Gibbons explains. As for the risks, she says, “Anesthesia also lowers heart rate and respiratory rate, which comes with a greater risk than sedation.”

How can you minimize the risks associated with cats and anesthesia?

A kitten at the vet.

Be sure to tell your vet your cat’s entire medical history before she goes under anesthesia. Photography ©SbytovaMN | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

“Luckily, anesthetic complications are rare,” Dr. Gibbons says. An article from VCA Hospitals by Dr. Ernest Ward states, “It is estimated that approximately 1 in 100,000 animals will have some sort of reaction to an anesthetic agent. Reactions can range from mild to severe and include a wide variety of symptoms, such as swelling at the injection site to more serious outcomes, such as anaphylactic shock or death.”

So, what causes anesthetic complications? “This can be related to underlying heart, liver or kidney disease or a reaction to the medications,” Dr. Gibbons states. “Testing (bloodwork and imaging) can be done prior to anesthesia to evaluate cardiac, liver and kidney function. Unfortunately, there is no way to predict how a cat will react to sedation and anesthesia. During anesthesia, equipment is used to monitor heart rate, heart rhythm, respiratory rate, oxygen content in the blood and blood pressure. Monitoring these values allows for rapid response if there is a change in the cat’s condition.”

More ways to minimize risks of complications for cats and anesthesia include following your vet’s directions for having your cat fast before an anesthetic procedure. In line with what Dr. Gibbons suggests, the VCA Hospital article by Dr. Ward states that cat parents may want to ask for a pre-op physical exam, preoperative blood and urine tests, and radiographic examination. The article also says that having an IV line in place during any anesthetic procedure could provide life-saving fluids and drugs should issues arise. Always share your cat’s entire medical history — including any medications or supplements he has received in the past few weeks, pre-existing medical conditions, drug reactions, past surgeries, diagnostic tests, vaccine history and reproductive status (ex. spayed or neutered and if not, the time of the last heat cycle) — with your vet before he puts your cat under anesthesia.

How do cats react as anesthesia wears off?

Cats after anesthesia.

My cats after anesthesia. Merritt (left), the angry drunk, and Gabby (right), the happy drunk. Photography by Cait Rohan Kelly.

I always think of cats after anesthesia as small, drunk humans. Gabby, who has had anesthesia and been sedated (more on that later) multiple times, will usually just wobble about and act super-lovey. After the anesthesia for an incident where he swallowed some Easter ribbon, he wallowed around in his litter box, like a Warthog in a muddy swamp. When it was time for bed, he knew it was time to go upstairs to sleep with us, but he couldn’t make it. He waited by the foot of the stairs, let out a slow meow and I carried him up.

“Most cats are groggy and lower energy as the anesthesia wears off,” Dr. Gibbons says. This was true for my cats, even though, as mentioned above, one was the “happy drunk” while the other was the “mean drunk.”

“However, certain cats can have a paradoxical reaction, where they become more hyperactive or irritable when recovering from anesthesia,” Dr. Gibbons says. 

What should pet parents know about cats after anesthesia?

Back to my stairs incident. I know it’s not safe to let my “drunk cats” wander around freely right after anesthesia, but Gabby was under close observation and he was only able to make it the far distance to the stairs hours after his procedure. In fact, there are a few guidelines to follow if your cat is still experiencing the lingering effects of anesthesia after surgery or another procedure.

“Following anesthesia, veterinarians will commonly keep cats in the hospital under observation until the cat is mostly recovered from the sedative effects of anesthesia and ready to resume the majority of normal activities,” Dr. Gibbons says. “After a procedure, the veterinarian should guide the owner on specific restrictions. General guidelines recommend placing the cat in a carrier in a room without other animals. If the cat had surgery, the veterinarian may recommend a room where the cat is not able to jump or climb furniture. The carrier door should be left open so the cat can come out when he or she feels ready. Most veterinarians will recommend a small meal that evening, and perhaps more food later if there is no vomiting after eating. How long it takes to recover from anesthesia depends on the procedure, duration of anesthesia, type of anesthesia and overall health status. In general, most young, healthy cats undergoing routine procedures are often groggy the first day of the anesthesia but are back to normal the following day.” If your cat is unusually tired or out of it and you can’t arouse him easily, contact your vet for advice ASAP.

Are uncooperative cats ever put under anesthesia at the vet for routine checkups?

Gabby is a nightmare at the vet, so he always requires some sort of sedation, even for a routine exam — but it’s not the same or as strong as anesthesia. After sedation, he usually exhibits the same “drunk cat” behaviors. “Veterinarians can give oral or injectable sedatives for uncooperative cats,” says Dr. Gibbons. “Sedatives cause immobility and some have anesthetic effects, but many do not provide any pain relief, which is why they are not recommended alone for surgery. The effects of sedatives are often shorter acting than anesthesia, but cats recovering from sedation should follow the same guidelines as those recovering from anesthesia.”

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Thumbnail: Photography ©IvanJekic | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

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