Recent drug shortages mean veterinarians need new tools to control pain for their surgical patients. This new research study focused on how many medical complications occurred when veterinarians used a local anesthetic in new ways—and the results suggest good news for vets and pets.

It’s a big job to keep up with changes in veterinary medicine. Every day, new research suggests ways to improve care for pets. The opportunity to share knowledge between hospitals—and see outcomes from many cases—is one of the advantages of a hometown animal hospital being part of the VCA Animal Hospitals network. 

Today, veterinary hospitals are facing a shortage of opioids, pain killing drugs that veterinarians and their teams have traditionally relied on to manage pain during and after surgeries. To help with that, the VCA Clinical Studies team recently conducted research to learn whether it’s safe to use a new local anesthetic that was approved specifically for surgeries on pets’ knee joints for other kinds of surgeries. The results were recently published in Veterinary Surgery, a journal that features important studies about cutting-edge veterinary surgical developments. 

The VCA Animal Hospitals research team reviewed the medical records of more than 200 dogs that underwent surgeries and received this relatively new injectable pain medication. The drug is FDA approved for use during veterinary knee surgeries, and veterinarians are interested in using the drug during other surgeries to help control pain. 

The drug is injected into the tissues around the surgical incision, blocking pain receptors. This local numbing agent is similar to the pain control your dentist uses, but longer lasting, which means that veterinary teams don’t need to administer as many powerful opioids. 

Because the drug is labeled specifically for knee surgeries, veterinarians may hesitate to use the anesthetic for other surgeries, because they’re not sure how much risk that might introduce for their patients. The study specifically looked at complications that arose in a range of surgeries, including inflammation, infection, or swelling, compared with knee surgeries. This drug is injected locally and does not get absorbed beyond the immediate tissues, so it does not cause any broader complications. 
“It’s exciting when we can identify new and effective anesthetic protocols,” says McKee. “Pain control for our patients is so critical and having more tools to work with is always better than having fewer.”

The records showed complications in about 20 percent of cases, and 12 percent of those improved on their own or with a topical treatment, making the overall frequency of complications low. “It's important that veterinarians know how the drug will perform,” says Talon S. McKee, Clinical Studies Coordinator for VCA Animal Hospitals. “And these outcomes will give them confidence.”

When researchers compared the rate of complication between knee surgeries and other orthopedic surgeries, which involve bones, joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles, there was no difference, which is great news for veterinarians who are interested in using the drug more broadly. 

There were more complications with soft tissue surgeries, which are procedures that don’t involve bones, joints, muscles, or the neurologic system. “We don’t know what that means yet, because we don’t have a clear comparison,” says McKee. “For example, it’s possible that all soft tissue surgeries have higher rates of complication compared with joint surgeries, regardless of the anesthetic that’s used. The good news here is we have the research foundation to take the next step and learn more.” 

“It’s exciting when we can identify new and effective anesthetic protocols,” says McKee. “Pain control for our patients is so critical and having more tools to work with is always better than having fewer.”

Interested in knowing more about studies VCA conducts to invest in the future of veterinary medicine? Check out these other research projects: 

New Research Gives Insight Into Ideal Treatments for Snake Bites 
Research Collaboration Offers New Benchmarks for Antibiotic Use
Chronic GI Issues: Futuristic Diagnostics for Dogs Arriving Now

Clinical Studies Coordinator Talon S. McKee joined VCA in 2014 as an Anesthesia and Surgical Veterinary Assistant at VCA West Los Angeles Specialty Animal Hospital where his anesthesiology and surgical skills meant he got the opportunity to work with many unusual animals. He says tigers may be the most interesting animal he ever anesthetized. “They’re just so dauntingly big. It’s amazing to work closely with them,” he says. Talon joined the Clinical Studies Department in 2018. “Pursuing research gives us a chance to answer meaningful medical questions and improve the care all veterinary teams offer their patients,” he says. When he’s not researching medical advancements, McKee likes to spend time outdoors and stay active. “The silver lining of my pandemic time was that I focused more on the things that are most important to me, and I found new interests in my work, in my research and in my life. One example: I took up yoga. That’s an exciting new hobby for me!”