Is death one of the side effects of anesthesia in dogs?
Original Question: I was wondering if the following event is something that you would comment on. My objective is to try to find some reason for my dog's sudden death. The veterinarian is also somewhat baffled. So I was wondering if you had any thoughts that might be useful both to me and to listeners of your program. If so, I would like to keep it completely anonymous, out of respect for my vet. My 12-year-old, 20kg, healthy Shar Pei died suddenly this week about an hour after having a growth (likely a benign hamartoma) removed from just below her right eye. The operation itself, under a dexmedetomidine sedation, took about 20 minutes and went well. About one hour after the operation she was released. A little groggy, but good. We drove home in about 5 minutes. We had to walk up two flights of stairs to my apartment; something she usually did 4-5 times per day. Part way up the first flight of stairs, she hesitated. I thought this was because she was unused to navigating the steps with a cone on. In hindsight, I just wish I had carried her up. Just as we were walking into my apartment, she gave a little cry and collapsed inside my doorway. I thought maybe she fainted from some residual anesthetic, so I tried some water to revive her but she did not respond, maybe a twitch. I noted that her pupils had dilated almost completely and that was not a good sign. I couldn't tell if she had a heartbeat as my own pulse was racing. Then I carried her right into the apartment and started a lame attempt at CPR, breathing into her snout but didn't know how to do chest compressions on a dog. By now her eyes had totally dilated and I still couldn't detect a heartbeat. I called the vet and then brought her back in. This probably took 20 minutes. Despite their best efforts to revive her, my dog had died, likely when she first collapsed in my apartment. Later in the day a gross post mortem was conducted. There was nothing of significance detected. No detailed pathology was conducted. There was no reaction when the dog was given the initial sedation in the hind muscle. Her vitals were normal during the procedure, she was given a partial reversal of the drug when the surgery was completed and then she came out of the sedation relatively quickly. As I said, just slightly groggy when we left the office. Based on your experience, do you have any thoughts or explanations as to what might have happened? - Brendan
I’m so sorry to hear about this.
Unfortunately, I have heard this story before and I’ll be honest, one of the only anesthetic deaths I saw in 16 years occurred similar to this. I performed a common surgery on a dog’s leg and it went perfectly. The dog recovered well and was standing in its cage and walking around. Then 2 hours later it just died suddenly. There were no unusual symptoms and no KNOWN pre-existing conditions. I sent the body to the top veterinary pathologist in the province for an autopsy and had them collect a variety of samples for evaluation and nothing came back to explain the incident. I reviewed the anesthetic protocol with my trusted technician which was redundant because I watched it myself, but all was in order. There was absolutely no explanation. It was unsettling for myself, the family and my clinic family. It was the only animal I lost in the past 16 years of doing countless anesthetics and surgeries.
All I can say is that there can be small imperfections that are impossible to know about before an anesthetic. There can be an extremely rare reaction to one of the drugs. It could be the sum total of stress on the body. There are these explanations that are impossible to confirm after the fact.
My only advice would have been to have the autopsy done by a pathologist at a veterinary school since these procedures are done extensively there and the pathologists have a vastly superior amount of knowledge and experience in this area than a general veterinarian. We just don’t do autopsies that often.
So I’m sorry to say that you are left with no explanation. But I’ll leave you with a point that is undeniable. You loved your dog through her life and that is the most important thing. Please don’t take this unfortunate event and make it more than it is. Don’t make that the memory you hold on to. It was a brief event in a lifetime of companionship with her. Try your best to celebrate her life and recognize that your mind is going to the thought of her mysterious death because it was traumatic for you but it holds little to no value. Try to celebrate her life often and you’ll find that the other issue fades.
Good luck and I wish you well.
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