How to Protect Your Pet’s Incision After Surgery

Veterinary surgeries are expensive. Follow this advice to help avoid having to take your pet back to get an incision re-sutured or cleaned up.

E collars (a.k.a. “cones of shame”) help dogs avoid further injury after surgery. By: springfieldhomer

One of the most frustrating parts of a veterinary surgeon’s job is to protect the patients’ incisions so they heal quickly and uneventfully.

This is not an easy job because, well, we’re dealing with animals. Sometimes, would you believe they just don’t listen to us?

With any luck, your pet is sent home with a problem-free incision. If the incision is too tight, was not sutured properly or gets infected, though, problems will occur, even if you don’t follow instructions.

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Start With a Healthy Incision

Certain areas of the body are more problematic than others in terms of healing. Your veterinarian should go over the possible complications with you before surgery to prepare you for the aftermath.

The patient should be in as healthy a state as possible before surgery. Try to keep your pet hydrated, on a balanced diet and at a healthy weight.

After surgery, check with your vet immediately if you think an incision doesn’t look good. Send a picture or schedule a brief appointment. This is truly a case where early intervention will ward off a much bigger problem.

Leave the vet’s office with clear and concise instructions about how to monitor your pet and the incision.

Elizabethan Collars

Protecting the incision and restricting exercise are the cornerstones of a speedy recovery.

Everyone hates E collars, better known as the “cones of shame.” Of course, you feel so bad that your pet had to go through a surgery, but now — to add insult to injury — you stick his head in a bucket.

It breaks your heart. But we can all remember that annoying phrase from childhood: “It’s for your own good.” The E collar is one of those “for your own good” experiences.

One of the softer collars may prevent your dog or cat from licking the incision, but these collars have limitations. Have your vet check that the collar gives your pet the right protection from self-trauma.

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Do the Right Thing

People who refuse to use E collars on their pets may be the biggest reason pets have to come back to have incisions re-sutured or cleaned up.

Veterinary surgeries are expensive. If an incision has to be re-sutured or more medications and antibiotics are dispensed, people get frustrated, with the added cost becoming a sore point. Additional surgery is not in your pet’s best interest, either.

A short, miserable time in an E collar can save money and additional anesthesia.

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E collars protect post-surgery incisions, but they aren’t a magical fix-all for every danger. By: andersknudsen

Exercise Restriction

Most vets send home instructions to leash walk your dog for 7 to 10 days and restrict running and jumping. As for our felines, I ask people to keep their cats inside and sometimes restrict them to a bedroom if the cats, say, love to fling themselves on top of refrigerators.

No matter how closely a client tries to follow restricted activity instructions, the pet may still be full of energy and impossible to keep quiet.

Many of our pets with incisions are young and recovering from a spay or neuter. Most of these characters leave the hospital as if nothing happened. The 6-month-old retriever or Lab will pull me out of the kennel 6 hours after major surgery into the waiting room, leaping to lick someone’s face.

Exercise restriction? This will take some work.

Watch this sad Golden Retriever deal with his E collar through the almighty power of music: 

But I Did Everything Right!

When people come back to me with a problem incision, swearing they followed all instructions, I have great empathy for them. But I saw the dog jumping out of the SUV and pulling his caretaker around the parking lot like a wild pony. There is no question that there has been stress on this incision.

This is also not the person’s fault. It’s just a fact of pets recovering from surgery.

I ask my clients to look at it this way: When humans leave the hospital with a new incision — particularly something major, like an abdominal surgery — we are barely walking around for several days. We guard our bellies, take baby steps and crawl into bed like dying salamanders. We are afraid of the pain and follow the doctor’s orders. Not the same with our energetic furry friends.

It’s amazing to me that most of our pets actually have problem-free incisions. What a miracle. The natural power of our animals to heal and thrive is amazing.

If something seems not right after your pet’s surgery, call your vet right away and get extra tips for a good recovery.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Oct. 7, 2015.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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