Why Did My Dog Pass Away Under Anesthesia?

Anesthesia always carries the risk of complications, but you should make sure your vet is equipped to do the job properly.
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I recently received a very sad query from a reader who suffered a great tragedy.

Dear Dr. Barchas,

My heart is broken and I can’t stop crying. Last Thursday my 2-and-a-half-year-old Wheaten Terrier went in for a biopsy and passed away under anesthesia before surgery began. They said they waited for him to go under and when they saw him he was purple and not breathing. My first instinct is not enough oxygen.Tucker was healthy; he had his yearly physical three months earlier and everything was great. The day before he passed he was lying around a lot and I told the vet assistant that I didn’t think Tucker was feeling well. She said, “I will tell the doctor, because typically they won’t do surgery if the dog isn’t feeling well.” But she neglected to tell the doctor.

I am just angry because I don’t know what happened. The doctor said, “I don’t know if we did something wrong; if something was wrong with Tucker, I just don’t know.” He had no symptoms of illness, had a good appetite, etc. I miss him so much, and the entire block cried for Tucker.

Cindy

Cindy, I am deeply saddened by your loss. I strongly empathize with your sorrow, anger, and desire for answers.

It won’t help your pain, but it’s important for other readers to know that what happened to Tucker is extremely rare. I have anesthetized animals — old and young, sick and well — almost every day for more than 12 years, and I haven’t lost one yet. Although anesthesia is easily one of the greatest advances in the history of medicine, it gained notoriety early on, mainly because of a high rate of complications in humans. Veterinary medicine has piggybacked on human anesthesiology, and anesthesia for humans and animals no longer carries significant risk for the overwhelming majority of individuals.

However, it is unlikely that anesthesia will ever be completely safe. Complications, although now exceedingly rare, are still possible. Idiosyncratic reactions can cause sudden cardiopulmonary arrest. Sick and elderly animals are most at risk, but as you have learned through miserable experience, problems can occur in young dogs and those who seemed previously healthy. These reactions can occur even when vets use the most advanced pre-anesthetic screening techniques and the most modern and sophisticated anesthetic protocols.

The causes of such reactions, sadly, often cannot be determined. Cindy, you are entitled to answers, but you should be aware that there might not be an answer. Tucker’s lethargy the day before may have been linked to a health problem (such as a heart condition) that contributed to his death. It also may have played no role whatsoever.

Although complications can occur even under the best of circumstances, not every vet performs comprehensive pre-anesthetic screening or employs the most modern and sophisticated anesthetic techniques. I am aware of vets who say they’re more expensive, or have never made the effort to become familiar with them. I also know vets who don’t administer intravenous fluids during anesthesia because they assume that their clients won’t want to pay for them. I would expect these vets’ patients to suffer higher (although still very low) rates of anesthetic complications.

There is only one way to find out if your dog will benefit from the best anesthetic practices: Talk to your vet. Here are some specific questions to ask:

  • What sorts of screening tests — blood tests, blood pressure measurement, urine tests, electrocardiography, and chest X-rays — will be used to confirm that there are no contraindications to anesthesia?
  • Will my dog receive intravenous fluids during the procedure? (IV fluids support blood pressure and circulation. An IV catheter also allows for the rapid administration of emergency drugs if any complications occur.)
  • What sort of anesthetic monitoring will be performed, and what are is the person monitoring the patients experienced? (Pulse oximetry is standard. Electrocardiography and blood pressure measurements are recommended for lengthy or complex procedures.)
  • Will you be using the most modern and safe anesthetic induction and maintenance drugs?
  • Are you convinced that the benefits of the procedure outweigh the risks? (The answer should be an unhesitating and unqualified yes.)

If you’re not satisfied with your vet’s answers, you might want to rethink the procedure or consider having someone else perform it. And if your vet chafes at the questions or refuses to answer them, that tells you everything you need to know.

Anesthesia cannot be made 100 percent safe. But all members of the patient healthcare team must make sure that every animal gets the best care. Owners should not hesitate to get involved.

25 thoughts on “Why Did My Dog Pass Away Under Anesthesia?”

  1. We lost our 16 month old Pug named Boo yesterday. She went in for a lumpectomy, it was cancerous and pretty severe but the vet was able to remove it. But she did not wake up from the anesthetic. I dont understand why. She had one 6 months ago when she was speyed💔💔💔

  2. I lost my 5 month old chow due to Cardiac arrest yesterday. Clearly because of anesthesia, I just brought him for a very minor cherry eye surgery thinking that it will free him from discomfort and I’ll bring him home safely and healthily. He died just after the anesthesia was given.. How I wish I did not bring him to that Vet who’s so sure of himself and made it seem simple. I can’t stop crying. I invested all my attention, love and effort to my Noa since he’s my first pet. I can’t really forgive the Vet for this but at the same time I feel like I shouldn’t have brought him there. Is that normal? I just want the best for my puppy. I bought everything he needed and showered him with all the love I didn’t knew I even had. my family is grieving and I don’t even know how to normally function now that he’s gone. It’s so painful. How did you guys cope? When will I feel better? I no longer pestered the vet but my mom voiced her frustration to him.

  3. Hi all, I’m reading posts here with great sadness. Anesthesia is so risky and I’m apprehensive, especially after reading these stories. I would add that I have always had non-anesthesia dental cleaning, much to the chagrin of my vet. I found a tech who visits our home, gently cleans and scales. I’m sorry to all who have lost their fur babies.

    1. Diane Shore Casey

      Thank you. I just lost my Diva to a dental cleaning under anesthesia. I will not let my remaining dog have anesthesia again, unless it’s an emergency to save his life. I wish I knew I could get their teeth cleaned without anesthesia like you did. It was never recommended. I wish the Vets told me the risks were great with Diva and I nearly cancelled her appt. that morning. I am so sorry I didn’t cancel it. Jax came through OK. I can’t stop crying as we just lost her weeks ago. Everywhere I look is a reminder of her. I will miss her every day of my life.

  4. I lost my five-and-a-half-month old Shih Tzu mix today during recovery from neutering surgery. I found this site looking for answers. The vet said the dog had difficulty breathing during recovery and they were unable to turn him around after chest compression and a shot of a stimulant to his heart. We have used the vet for a few years, and I feel he and his staff do good work. The vet has anesthesied our other dogs for dental cleaning without problems. However, I understand the odds are .05% (according to some sources) of a dog dying during this procedure, I can’t help but wonder what caused the dog’s death. I am at a total loss for words. He was a funny, loving dog that will be missed.

  5. We took our 2 daschunds in for teeth cleaning just a few days ago. Our younger 5 year old didn’t make it out of anesthesia. His heart stopped. They told me he had an enlarged heart and liver. He seemed to be very healthy and went through pre screening and blood tests beforehand with no signs of any problems (so they told me). We are heartbroken and devastated. We miss him so much and our older 9 year old daschund has lost her best friend.

    1. I lost my sweet Diva this way, 3 weeks ago. She was my companion for almost 12 years, my little shadow. She died on the table. Her heart just stopped . They couldn’t revive her. I never would have had this done if I knew it would take her life. All her tests came out good with no signs of any problems. I am heartbroken too. Our 10 year old Jax misses his buddy too! I cry every day. I am so sad to know she is buried in the yard, and no longer here with me. Jax was fine after the procedure, but I’ll never put him through this again unless it’s an emergency. I’m so sorry for your loss! I share in your pain!

  6. I took my 8 year old chihuahua to get teeth done yesterday , was told she died after being revived from anisthesia , I got no answers ,
    Was told beforehand she was a healthy wee thing and be just fine ,
    We’re ushered out a side door , so other clients couldn’t see us , they brought her out to us at the car .
    I feel as if I took her there to die .
    She was an amazing wee thing . Totally heartbroken
    We tend to trust vets , thinking they know best .
    Ask loads of questions .
    And look into what your baby’s about to go through

    1. I just lost my 7 yr old Chi today. She was healthy & happy as could be. Just a routine teeth cleaning, I brought her home from the vets office & she died 20 minutes after I got her home. I’m so devistaded, the vets office said they are baffled as to what happened, refunded me for the unused meds & then charged me to creamate her.

      1. So sorry! The same thing happened to my nearly 12 year old Yorkie, Diva. She was my companion, my shadow. I had her since she was a pup. I cry every day. She was having trouble jumping up on things, and a bit of trouble with stairs too. I could tell she was slowing down and getting old, but her tests looked good. It is so heartbreaking!

    2. My dog died on the table having her teeth cleaned 3 months ago. She was my constant companion for almost 12 years. I am heartbroken and I share your pain!

  7. Lost our healthy 8 month old Shih Tzu to anesthetic overdose while being spayed. Vet apologized but didn’t take responsibility. Later we learned he didn’t have anyone in the operating room with him for the procedure. His aid had called in sick, but he decided to go ahead with the procedure anyway “because it was routine & he had done it a thousand times before without an aid”. So this led to him not being able to efficiently monitor the dogs health while Operating.

    Such a loss, follow up examination & autopsy by Cornell University stated that it was accidental overdose. Which probably could have been avoided.

    We have also since learned this vet has lost a few on the table in recent years but always has an answer why.

    Please everyone, VET YOUR VET! Had we known our little Willow Bear would still be frolicking today….

  8. My 14 1/2 yr. old bichon died during anesthesia during teeth cleaning. His heart stopped beating. His last teeth cleaning at the same vet was when he was 12. He was fine in the past under anesthesia since he would get his teeth cleanew every 2 to 3 yrs., so I dont know what happened. His blood test was fine and he was healthy. He couldn’t climb stairs nor hear very well though. I guess sometimes things happen for no reason. He was such a sweet dog. RIP Cody

  9. My 8 yr old male Chihuahua died today under the same circumstances. I dropped both of my dogs off for dental cleaning, and then I get a call from the vet saying he had a slow heart rate and that there was a 70-80% chance he would not make it out of anesthesia. I called back 1/2 hour later and was informed he did not make it. I’m more shocked than anything else.

    1. Our three year old Cairn Terrier, Bella, died yesterday at the vet having gone in for a teeth cleaning. We got a call from the vet saying Bella had a heart attack and may not make it and we should come right away. When we arrived she was dead. She had been completely healthy. The vet said he had not had anything like that happen in 20 years of practice. I suspect the technicians got the pre med dosage or anesthesia confused with another dog (maybe larger) that was also in for a teeth cleaning. We are devistated, but can do nothing. Bella is gone.

  10. I feel the pain everybody has here. We took our 13 year old bichon in to have some tooth extractions done March 20,2018. He was healthy and playful with No Problems. After the operation he came home and slept. The next day he was not the same, He was crying, could not walk and so we took him back. The Vet did some blood work and gave him steroid shots and some prescriptions that did not help and his health became worse. We took him back again and they said it is probably infection. 7 Days after the tooth extractions My Best Buddy Bentley Died in My Wifes Arms. I am So Sad and can’t stop crying. We Buried him in our yard in peace. I am so angry and the Damn Vet never called to check on him. I will never recommend him to anyone.

    I Miss Bentley Everyday!!

    1. I’m so sad reading this. My dog died having her teeth cleaned under anesthesia. She was my constant companion and was nearly 12. I had her since she was 6 weeks old. I miss her and cry every day. I share your pain.

  11. My dog Trixsie died from anesthesia today, she was 3 1/2 years old and overall pretty healthy. She was getting her leg amputated because she had been born with a cleft leg. They say it was a blood clot. I’ve been crying since I found out. Now I’ll never get to see her again.

  12. Judith L. Williams

    Do you really think a veterinarian is going to speak against another veterinarian? My 2 yr old dog , just had a teeth cleaning and died 5 days later. No apology from the vet, nothing but to offer to do a necropsy and then tell me that his stomach was empty meaning he hadn’t ate in 6-10 hours and he had gas, oh and he had abrasions in his mouth that could have been rat poison. No the abrasions were from the dental cleaning. My dog is dead at the hands of a careless animal hospital.

    1. This happened to my 12 year old Carin Terrier as well. He had all sorts of testing ($2k with) before to ensure he could go safely under. 6 days after dental surgery, I had to put him down since he was in severe kidney failure. Worst week of my life.

    2. lisa agurney gurney

      I, yesterday, brought my Australian Shepard puppy in to be spayed. She is,..was eight months old and healthy. I have a house full of pets and always have, and have seen the same veterinarian for the past 23 years. She does not do the pre-screening,..bloodwork, etc. as a regular thing but asks all clients if they want to have it done as it does make the cost twice as much. I have always had and always will have the pre-screening done as I love my pets as if they were my own children. My baby, Lunas bloodwork and all came back fine and she died suddenly after receiving the anesthesia. I am heartbroken and have been crying non stop for the past 30 hours. The puppy was a gift to my 15 year old daughter who has been terribly depressed and going through a ton of, what we will cal teenage pressures. This puppy was her best friend. She cant eat, sleep,..or do anything for that matter. I don’t know what happened or even why I elected to post this, but I guess maybe I just needed to let it out somewhere. Thanks for listening, and im so sad for everything you all have been through with your loved ones.

      1. I just lost my 7 year old 4 pound Pomerania yesterday morning. I kissed him goodbye while my girlfriend took him to drop him of at the vet’s on her way to work. What I would give to have that moment back. He was having something as stupid as having a tooth pulled. According to the vet they administered the anesthesia and right before they were about to pull his tooth his heart just stopped. My girlfriend is very overly protective him, due to his small size, and normally she blows things way outta the water. Normally when she’d call to tell me something was wrong with him I’d be able to convince her it wasn’t anything to worry about but I could tell by her voice she was trying to keep me calm, so I knew it was serious. I rushed to the vet’s thinking there must be some type of mistake and they where confusing my dog for someone else’s or at the worst he’d pull through. When I got there, just saying his name brought me to tears and then seeing the doctor’s face confirmed my biggest fears. He was rushed to the ER down the road when his heart initially stopped, my girlfriend had already beaten me there. They were still trying to resuscitate him but he was gone. I couldn’t bring my self to look at his face only pulling back the blanket just enough to see one of his eyes still open. It still doesn’t feel real especially when I go about planning the day with him included, having to stop myself while I reach for his leash to take him out or adjusting my sleep position to include his comfort in the bed too. Thank you for sharing your story because reading these brings comfort we’re not alone in the confusion, anger, and heartbreak something like this can bring. RIP Jiggy! Momma, Daddy and Buddha will love you forever!

        -Chris and Lauren

        1. I’m so sorry about Jiggy! We lost our Diva this way 3 weeks ago. She was almost 12. I can’t stop crying and grieving. Thank goodness Jax made it through his procedure just fine. Reading these stories makes me realize I’m not alone in my grief and pain.

    3. I took my dog in to get there ears cropped, when I picked them up they were still very drowsy I had to carry boy pups to the car, at home I let them lay down went to take a shower came back both were dead, they never came back from the Anesthesia

    4. My beloved nearly 12 year old Diva died this way! I am heartbroken! It was 3 weeks ago. I share your pain and cry every day!

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