Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

by Susan E. Davis, PT

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function! Many hours of my work week are spent caring for pets after surgery and guiding their owners through the recovery process. I am often amazed by the lack of adherence to post-op instructions, including some owners neglecting to read them at all. Even worse, some veterinarians don’t provide written documentation about post-op care.

The first few days and weeks after surgery are so critical to insuring a good outcome for your pet that it bears a review of best practices for pet owners to follow:

1. Expect written post op instructions from your veterinarian. If instructions are not provided then insist that they are given to you even if they are hand written.

2. Adhere to the instructions fully. Have a conference with all of the family (or with yourself), and adopt a boot camp mentality for the next 2 to 3 weeks. If anything is unclear, obtain an explanation from the doctor as soon as possible.

3. Examine the scar once the bandages are removed. If you feel squeamish about this then ask a family member or friend to help. The scar should be dry and clean. Initially there may be dried blood or dark scabbing. Check the skin temperature near the scar using the smooth side of your forearm. You should not touch the scar directly for the first week or two. The skin should feel cool or slightly warm. The skin color at the scar should be light to pink. Signs to be wary of include oozing, swelling, redness, bleeding, white pus, significant warmth or a feeling of heat in the area. These are signs of possible infection and may require immediate care from your vet. The suture line should be flat and smooth, but there may be some initial puckering during the first 1 to 3 weeks. Contact your vet if it stays lumpy, puckered, or has sections that remain open and do not appear to be closing.

4. As the incision heals it will close, with the edges meeting each other, and then eventually fully closing tightly becoming sealed. It should be kept dry until it is sealed. There should be no bathing or swimming. When the incision is closed then it can be checked for underlying mobility. This will be done by a vet or therapist. Scar tissue is needed to secure and protect the area, but over-adherence to the underlying skin and soft tissues should be avoided. Some incisions heal too well, and excess scar tissue can cause hardness and tightening, restricting normal range of motion. In this case, you may be advised to apply Vitamin E gel or another topical agent to rub on the scar. A physical therapist could also perform some release and massage techniques.

5. Activity restriction is necessary. It cannot be stressed enough to strictly follow your vet’s instructions in this area. You may need to use a crate or isolate your dog in a small area using gates. You may also need to roll towels or place pillows under the leg or operated area to elevate it. You may even need to physically carry your dog or use a sling under the belly and ribcage to assist them up and outdoors. Restricted activity usually means no off-leash movement. It’s important to use a leash at all times, whether indoors or outside. This includes keeping your dog off stairs, furniture, and separated from other pets.

Final words of advice

Sometimes the hardest aspect of pet ownership is figuring out what is normal or okay and when it is time to call the vet.

Here are some helpful ways of assessing your dog’s status at home:
- Learn how to take your dog’s temperature using a rectal digital thermometer. Your vet can guide you what is normal for your dog, but in general over 102.5 F indicates abnormality. - Check the appearance of your dog’s gums by lifting the lip and looking for color and texture. Pink and moist is good, but red, gray, excessive dryness or lots of thick saliva and drooling are bad signs. - Be on the lookout for signs or pain such as panting, trembling, refusal to make eye contact, and rounding or roaching of the spine.

The post-op recovery period is no fun, especially the first few days, but you will get through it! Try to keep a light hearted mood around your pet, as they read us like a book and watch our reactions closely. If you stay positive and low-key then your dog will be more relaxed and tolerant of the situation. Commit to getting through the initial period, knowing that your strict efforts to follow all instructions will be well worth it for the benefit of your beloved dog.