General anesthesia in combination with surgery is known to result in negative nitrogen balance. To determine whether general anesthesia without concomitant surgery decreases whole body protein synthesis and/or increases whole body protein breakdown, two groups of dogs were studied: Group 1 (n = 6) in the conscious state and Group 2 (n = 8) during general anesthesia employing halothane (1.5 MAC) in 50% nitrous oxide and oxygen. Changes in protein metabolism were estimated by isotope dilution techniques employing simultaneous infusions of [4,53H]leucine and alpha-[1-14C]-ketoisocaproate (KIC). Total leucine carbon flux was unchanged or slightly increased in the anesthetized animals when compared to the conscious controls, indicating only a slight increase in the rate of proteolysis. However, leucine oxidation was increased (P less than 0.001) by more than 80% in the anesthetized animals when compared with their conscious controls, whereas whole body nonoxidative leucine disappearance, an indicator of whole body protein synthesis, was decreased. The ratio of leucine oxidation to the nonoxidative rate of leucine disappearance, which provides an index of the catabolism of at least one essential amino acid in the postabsorptive state, was more than twofold increased (P less than 0.001) in the anesthetized animals regardless of the tracer employed. These studies suggest that the administration of anesthesia alone, without concomitant surgery, is associated with a decreased rate of whole body protein synthesis and increased leucine oxidation, resulting in increased leucine and protein catabolism, which may be underlying or initiating some of the protein wasting known to occur in patients undergoing surgery.