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How often do dogs and cats die during anesthesia?

Statistics for veterinary medicine are difficult to compile. There are no systematic methods for reporting anesthetic complications and objective independent assessment of the clinical course of events leading to anesthetic morbidity and mortality are virtually non-existent. Several retrospective studies have been performed over the last 50 years documenting the anesthetic death rate in dogs and cats. In 1955, one study reported that at a single institution the death rate was 1.1% in dogs and 1.8% in cats.(1) The same institution was reevaluated in 1979 and the death rate decreased to 0.43% in dogs and 0.25% in cats. In a similar study of 10,000 feline anesthetics, the death rate was similar (0.3%).(2)

A 1990 study in the United Kingdom reported mortality rates in dogs and cats of 0.23% and 0.29% respectively.(3) This study stratified patients based on the presence of preexisting disease. When analysis was complete the death rate was 3.12% for dogs with preexisting disease and 0.11% for healthy dogs. Cats also had increased risk with disease (3.33%) and decreased risk when healthy. Subsequent studies have provided similar results.(4-6) These studies suggest that as the patient population ages, and more animals with concurrent diseases are anesthetized, anesthetic care must improve in order to reduce or even maintain current mortality rates.

It is imperative to recognize that death, while easy to define, is a catastrophic outcome. Many other risks of anesthesia such as respiratory depression, low blood pressure, and adverse drug reactions may not cause death, but can seriously complicate patient recovery and long term health.

1. Lumb W, Jones E. Veterinary Anaesthesia, 2nd Edn Philadelphia: Lea and Febiger 1973; 611-29.
2. Dodman N. Feline anesthetic survey. J Small Animal Practice 1977; 10: 653-8.
3. Clarke K, Hall L. A survey of anaesthesia in small animal practice. AVA/BSAVA report. J Ass Vet Anaesth 1990; 17: 4-10.
4. Dodman N, Lamb L. Survey of small animal anesthetic practice in Vermont. J Anim Hosp Ass 1992; 28: 439-45.
5. Gaynor J, Dunlop C, Wagner A, Wertz E, Golden A. Complications and mortality associated with anesthesia in dogs and cats. J Anim Hosp Ass 1994; 35: 13-7.
6. Dyson D, Maxi M. Morbidity and mortality associated with anesthetic management in small animal veterinary practice in Ontario. J Anim Hosp Ass 1998; 35: 325-35.


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