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Equine - Anesthesia - Horse Sedation Vs. Anesthesia And Their Uses

What is the difference between sedation and anesthesia?

That's a great question. Most people that have had horses have probably observed their horses being sedated. And typically, that's just giving them a shot in the vein that will make them sleepy or sedate, as the name implies. This sedation makes them easier to work on. But, in that case, your horse won't be under full anesthesia, meaning laying on their side or back, and completely out of it and asleep.

Sedation will make them a little bit groggy, but they're still going to be able to stand on their own and breathe on their own. When they go under anesthesia, which is typically what we do for many of the surgical procedures that we do, we will follow up that sedation with an injection of an anesthetic that will put them completely under general anesthesia, where they'll be asleep.

At that point, the horse is either lying down on their side or their back. The horse is asleep. We're breathing for them, and we're monitoring them. And they are in a deeper plane of anesthesia so that we could then do a surgical procedure on them.


Dr. Liberty Getman
Tennessee Equine Hospital


What do we need to know before our horse goes under anesthesia? And then, are there any recommendations or requirements for this procedure?

If a horse is going to have general anesthesia, then typically, we do want to fast them for some time before they're going to do that. We don't want the horse to have any issues with having a full stomach while under anesthesia.

It is generally easiest for the horse to come to our facility the day before. That way, we can make sure that they're fasted appropriately, that they don't have any food, that their water is taken away and that they have a good thorough physical exam so that we can look for anything that we might be worried about before putting a horse under anesthesia. Those are the most significant things to know—that your horse will be fasted, and we're going to do a thorough physical exam to make sure they're healthy enough to have anesthesia.

Can you take us through the sequence of events of what occurs when our horse is undergoing anesthesia?

Yeah. Absolutely. So, if you want to look around in this room here, this is the area that we call our induction room. And you can see the walls are nice and deeply padded. When the horse comes in, they are sedated, so they have that sedative that we talked about earlier that will make them groggy.

They will come in, and we'll walk them in and position them against this wall with their head facing this way and their tail facing this way. And then, when we give them the anesthetic that puts them under anesthesia or puts them to sleep temporarily, we use this wall to push them that way so that they can go down in a nice, controlled manner.

Once they are down and they're completely out of it, we put hobbles on their feet and use those hobbles and this hoist to pick them up. Once we pick them up, we then take them and put them on this, which is our surgical table. You can see this is also nicely padded.

We can position them however we need them, sometimes they're on their back, and sometimes they're on their side—whatever way we want to position them. They are then put on this table. And you can see the table has wheels on it, so we then use it to roll them closer to our anesthesia machine, which is over here, and our monitoring equipment.

This anesthesia machine is just like what you would see in a human hospital, only bigger. It's horse size. We have three main tubes that are going to be breathing for them. Our monitor is over there, and we're going to be monitoring things like their heart rate, their expired carbon dioxide to tell us how deep they are, and their blood pressure to make sure that they are oxygenating well.

We do many things to monitor your horse while they're under anesthesia to make sure that, A, they're in a deep enough plane, so that they're not going to feel anything that we're doing to them. But, B, that they're healthy, getting oxygenated, getting blood flow, and that they're going to be able to do well while they're under anesthesia.

Once we're done with this, we will disconnect all these things and wheel them back into another room that looks just like the induction room. It's going to have those nice padded walls. We're going to lay them down on a heavily padded mat until they're able to wake up on their own, so that's kind of the gist of putting a horse under.

What will our surgical team do to ensure a horse's safety undergoing anesthesia and throughout the entire process?

Yeah, the biggest thing is the monitoring. And we're lucky here that all of our anesthesia is monitored either by a licensed veterinary technician specializing in anesthesia or by another veterinarian. We will be monitoring using some of the equipment that you see here. A lot of it is through this monitor. Again, we look at things like their heart rate, their blood pressure, and their carbon dioxide.

By measuring all these variables, we can make sure that they are in a good anesthetic plane and not getting too deep, and having any breathing or blood flow issues. They also have an EKG on them, so we're monitoring their heart rhythm. Anything that would be monitored on you if you went to the hospital and had surgery, we're monitoring those things on your horse.

If you still have other questions and you'd like to reach out to us, you can call us directly at (615) 591-1232, you can email us, or you can reach out on Facebook. But please do reach out, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can.

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