A-Z of dog wellbeing: X-rays and anaesthetics

A-Z of dog wellbeing: X-rays and anaesthetics
  • By Two Happy Tails
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  • X-rays have been used for nearly 125 years to identify everything from broken bones and tumours to bullets and other foreign objects in the body. They paint a clear picture for vets to utilise before deciding on the best course of treatment.

    If your dog has an injury, falls ill, or displays unusual symptoms, an x-ray may be taken to help identify the problem, however the x-ray process does carry risks for our dogs.


    X-rays imaging is a type of low-level electromagnetic radiation known for its ability to see through skin and reveal images of the bones beneath it. Problems that may be detected during an X-ray include bone fractures and breaks, intestinal blockages, dental problems, tumours, bladder stones, lung problems; dysphagia (swallowing problems) and heart problems.

    Generally, the amount of radiation your animal is exposed to during an X-ray is the equivalent to between a few days and a few years of exposure to natural radiation from the environment. Being exposed to X-rays for diagnostic purposes does carry a risk of causing cancer many years or decades later, but this risk is thought to be very small.

    High energy radiation therapy uses more intense sessions of radiation as a treatment for diseases such as cancer which works by damaging the DNA in cancer cells. This treatment takes quite a toll on the body and can include skin changes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, lower blood cell counts and weaken bones.


    The difference between a human and a canine x-ray is that humans can be told to keep completely still for the procedure, whereas dogs will usually need to be sedated, and this carries additional risks…


    A general anaesthetic is given to suppress your dog’s nerve response. It puts them in an unconscious state, so they are unable to move and don’t feel any pain. Anesthesia can also be administered locally, to numb a specific area or part of the body—such as a tooth, area of the skin, or the spinal column.

    There are always risks when any anaesthetic is used with approximately 1 in 100,000 animals having some sort of reaction to an anaesthetic 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.

    In recent years, advances in equipment, medication and training mean serious problems are much less frequent, however approximately one in 1,000 healthy cats and one in 2,000 healthy dogs die under anaesthesia or during recovery from the anaesthetic each year.

    While these statistics seem alarming, there are things you can do to reduce your dog’s risk.

    Reducing the risk of anaesthesia

    A detailed assessment of your pet’s health will collect any medical history and lab results and perform a physical exam.  Your vet will determine if any specific interventions might be helpful to reduce anaesthetic risk for your pet.  Complications such as low blood pressure, shallow breathing, low body temperature, slow heart rate, and delayed recovery from anaesthesia can all be anticipated and planned for.

    Questions to ask your vet:
    Are there specific conditions or other aspects of my pet’s health that increase their risk for anaesthetic complications? And, if so, what precautions are you taking to minimise those risks and to deal with those complications should they occur?

    Fasting for several hours prior to anaesthesia, as directed by your vet, is important to prevent them vomiting which could allow food or fluid into the lungs, which could potentially result in a condition called aspiration pneumonia, which can be life-threatening.

    Questions to ask your vet:
    How long should my dog fast for prior to the anaesthetic?  Can they have water?

     Awareness of the anaesthetic process that has been planned specifically for your pet is important. You may wish to discuss these aspects of the process with your vet:

    • ‘Pre-meds’ provide preventive pain management, reduce stress, and minimize the necessary dose of other anaesthetic drugs.
    • An intravenous (IV) catheter allows the vet to deliver the anaesthesia directly into the blood stream, which is safer and less stressful than mask induction. Presence of an IV catheter is especially important if an emergency drug is needed to treat a complication.
    • Pre-oxygenation charges the lungs with oxygen and it, along with the IV induction step, promotes a smooth, controlled transition to unconsciousness.
    • Endotracheal intubation (breathing tube) protects the airway and lungs from accidental inhalation of foreign material such as stomach contents or saliva.
    • Monitoring of your pet is crucial to assess vital signs and enable recognition and prevention of complications, or timely treatment of them should they arise. At a minimum, you want your dogs’s heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, temperature and oxygen saturation to be monitored regularly throughout the procedure.

    Questions to ask your vet:
    Who will be delivering and monitoring the anaesthesia for my dog?  What is their experience level and qualification?  Will they be dedicated to solely monitoring my pet, or will they also be performing other tasks?

    Recovery is when the majority of anaesthetic deaths occur, so you want to know that your dog will be observed and cared for during this critical time period (the first 1 – 3 hours after awakening from anaesthesia).  Monitoring of pulse and breathing as well as temperature are important.  Temperature support and continued IV fluids may be helpful for some pets.

    Questions to ask your vet:
    How often will my pet be monitored during recovery from anaesthesia?  What will be monitored?

    Detoxing from anaesthesia

    We are exposed every day to various toxins, but sometimes they are induced toxins such as vaccinations, anaesthesia, flea and worming treatment or known exposure to toxic chemicals. When toxins enter the body, whether through ingestion, inhalation, or injection they become a burden to the liver so detoxifying is crucial to maintain health and support recovery.

    How to help your dog detox:

    • Avoid any inflammatory foods such as wheat, dairy, sugar, corn and soy.  Check your dog’s food to make sure these aren’t present.  If they are, consider switching to an alternative food in the weeks prior to the treatment if possible.
    • Avoid ‘nightshade’ foods for several days prior to and after anaesthetic exposure. These include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers and aubergine which contain enzyme inhibiting compounds called solanaceous glycoalkaloids (SGAs), that prevent the breakdown of anaesthetic drugs.
    • Consider Craniosacral massage after any dental treatment to help un-stick the cranial base which can cause issues with anxiety, digestion, and respiration, and assisting detoxification because it helps to flush the cerebral spinal fluid, therefore, assisting with the flushing of toxins.
    • Offer herbal remedies to help their systems flush out the toxins. A Herbal Self-Medication session can help to boost the immune system and support the liver.

    Keep in mind that as the body is eliminating toxins, it is not unusual for there to be a brief “healing crisis,” in which a dog may develop symptoms like a runny nose or changes in bowel function or appetite. Such symptoms should subside in a few days. As always, observe your pet closely when you administer any remedy, stop any remedy if symptoms develop that concern you, and consult with a holistic expert for guidance.