Almost all of our pets will have surgery at some point in their lives - hopefully it will be a minor procedure such as a spay or neuter, but no matter the reason, there are some ways we can make them more comfortable in the healing process! You will also find a list of useful items to have and signs to watch for that could mean an emergency.
Get the details of the specific procedure
Is your pet having a simple dental cleaning or something more complex such as a TPLO or knee replacement? Knowing the details of what the surgery will be for will help you best prepare to ensure your pet has a smooth recovery. Here are some questions to ask ahead of the procedure:
Will your pet need assistance getting around if they can't put weight on a limb? Will they be required to wear a cone or anti-lick device? Will they have a drain or wound that you'll need to know how to care for? Will they be required to rest in a kennel when not attended? How soon after surgery can they be left alone if you need to run errands? How long until they can return to normal activity?
Your vet will likely send you home with care instructions after the surgery with all of this information on it, but it can be useful to know some ahead of time so you can purchase any items you need or arrange care. It can also be useful to know what the cost of the surgery will be so you can be financially prepared or contact your pets insurance ahead of time.
2. Closely follow the pre-procedure instructions
Carefully read over the preparation instructions for your pets surgery. Make note of when they should stop eating and/or drinking before they go in. If you pet eats too close to their surgery time there is a chance they might have to reschedule.
When you drop off you pet ask an additional questions you might have and get an estimate on when your pet should be picked up.
3. What to expect when picking up your pet
When your pet first sees you when you pick them up after surgery, they will likely be very excited, but try to keep them calm and don't let them jump or run around. It is also possible that they will still be woozy from the sedation and may need a little help steadying themselves. Be sure you have someone help you get them into the car if needed and that you get all of their medications, e-collar, bandage supplies and after care instructions. It is also a good idea to know who to contact after hours if your pet has complications and your main vet is closed.
You pet will likely have a small bandage on one of their legs where they had an IV. Most vets recommend removing this when you arrive home or within an hour or so. If this area starts to bleed again, simply replace the bandage for 30 minutes or so.
4. First 24-48 hours
If your pet had a minor procedure such as a simple dental cleaning, spay or neuter, they should return to their normal self within 24-48 hours. Be sure you still follow any instructions your vet gave you. For more major surgeries, the first couple days can be a little challenging.
Your pet may have significant changes in hunger, thirst and sleepiness. If your pet is taking pain medications, be sure you stick to the medication schedule and be aware of the side effects of the specific medication (like diarrhea, sleepiness, swelling). Give them a quiet, dark area to rest and monitor them closely for the first 12 hours.
SIGNS OF POST-SURGERY EMERGENCY: severe bleeding from wound site (or your pet has chewed out their stitches), difficulty breathing (an occasional cough is normal), bloody or excessive diarrhea or vomit, extreme lethargy (if they don't wake up when you touch them or speak to them), your pet doesn't urinate within 6 hours of arriving at home, signs of gastric torsion (bloat) or internal bleeding. Call your vet or visit an emergency clinic immediately with any of these signs.
It can be normal for your pet to pace, be restless or irritable (including whining or whimpering) for the first few hours on arriving at home, but if they are inconsolable and will not rest, give your vet a call. Be sure that you keep the cone on your pet at all times as instructed - you do not want your pet to chew or lick their incision until healed.
All walks should be done on leash for the first few weeks.
5. First two weeks
A good deal of recovery from a major surgery will occur in the first two weeks after surgery. This is also likely the length of time your pet will need to wear a cone and take pain medication (but always follow vet's advice). Continue to keep your pet resting and confined as needed. If your pet is starting to feel better and getting bored, utilize some puzzle toys or other interactive toys that don't involve strenuous activity.
Don't allow your pet to play with housemates, rough house, run or jump per vet recommendations. Even if their incision looks good on the outside, there could be internal sutures or staples that are more fragile.
It is normal for your pet to continue to have some changes in appetite, thirst or bowel habits through this period but if they show any emergency signs listed above, call your vet immediately. If your pet is having diarrhea, consider a bland diet (boiled, unseasoned chicken and rice), some plain yogurt (check for xylitol), and/or pumpkin puree for fiber.
Check their incision daily - slightly red and swollen is normal. If there is excessive swelling, dark red color, a foul smell, discharge or drainage, give your vet a call. Your vet may recommend ice or heat on the incision but follow their instructions on how to do this.
6. Week three and beyond
After your follow up visit with your vet, your pet should be free to return to normal activities and behavior. It is still a good idea to keep an eye on them for an additional week or two, just in case!
Cone alternatives: inflatable neck pillows, homemade t-shirt wraps (useful for abdomen surgeries including spays), commercially made post-surgical clothing (there is a large variety available for all different kids of surgeries)
If your pet is licking bandages: commercially made anti-lick sprays or gels, add an additional layer of bandage, wrap loosely with a poop bag, make a spray bottle with 50/50 mix vinegar and water and lightly spritz on (do not soak bandage!).
If your pet is having difficulty with mobility: there is a variety of lift assist products including belly lift, hip lift and frontal chest lift harnesses. Check your local classifieds for ramps or steps to help your pet with elevation. If your pet will have an extended recovery, you may consult with your vet on a wheeled assist device.
Keep your pet busy after the first 48 hours. Look into commercially made or homemade toys that will engage their mind like Kong, frozen treats, interactive toys, puzzles or snuffle mats. Some pets enjoy watching or listening to nature or animal shows. Take them for a car ride (as long as they are safe to get in and out of the car). You can also teach them some new tricks or play hide and seek with treats or toys under a blanket or sheet.
Ask your vet about recovery options like laser treatment, physical therapy, swim therapy or massage/acupuncture therapy.
As always, if you have any concerns, your best resource is to call up your vet!