You leave your pet at the veterinarian for an operation. How does that feel?
Even if your pet is going in for routine surgery, “emotional” probably sums up your feelings because it’s the worst thing in the world to walk away from the clinic without your pet.
But — hopefully — it’s comforting to know your pet is in the best place to take care of their needs.
People with pets all have different ways of coping when entrusting their vet with their loved one’s care. Some people want to know every last little detail of the procedure, while others want to just sign the consent form and go (as they are too emotional to discuss things).
Here’s our complete guide to what you can expect when your pet is having surgery.
Below, we’ll cover:
- How to prepare your pet for surgery — including the most important rule
- And how you yourself can prepare in advance of the surgery
- What you can expect to see on the day of your pet’s surgery
- What happens behind the scenes when you’re in the waiting room or at home
- And once your pet’s surgery is over — then what?
- Quick tips for helping your pet recover
- Plus, how to protect the incision
- Why vets often recommend weight loss
- And much, much more…
Part 1: Preparing Your Pet for Surgery
First, help your veterinarian by preparing your pet properly for a surgical procedure.
You’d be amazed how many dogs are presented for an operation in a filthy state — yet surgery is a sterile procedure.
Yes, of course, the pet is prepped, clipped and scrubbed before going under the scalpel. But if their background level of hygiene is “muddy,” then that animal spends unnecessary time under anesthetic just to get them clean enough to scrub up.
This is where the responsible human comes in. Believe it or not, what you do (or don’t do) in the 24 hours leading up to an operation can make a difference in the safety of your pet’s procedure.
The Most Important Thing: An Empty Stomach
This is a matter of life and death … and it’s in your hands.
When your dog or cat is having surgery, never give food on the morning of the operation — unless, in extremely rare situations, you are instructed to do so by the vet. This rule applies to cats or dogs. (Rabbits or guinea pigs, for example, should never be starved for surgery.)
It is essential that dogs or cats have an empty stomach when having an anesthetic because under anesthesia they lose the ability to swallow.
If the stomach contracts and forces vomit up into the mouth, the dog or cat can’t swallow it back down into the stomach. If they don’t have a tube in their airway, there’s every chance of inhaling vomit down into the lungs.
Inhaled vomit causes 2 problems:
- It blocks the airway, causing the patient to suffocate.
- Stomach acid in the lungs can set up serious pneumonia.
Avoiding this is simple when you withhold food from your pet overnight. The standard guidance is:
- A last meal the night before, preferably before 10 p.m.
- Water is OK overnight, but remove the bowl around 7 a.m.
- No breakfast, snacks or treats on the morning of the operation.
If your pet has a special health condition in which withholding food is tricky (such as diabetes), then speak with your vet to receive clear instructions.
Starved animals can still get gastric reflux under anesthesia, but there’s less risk of serious complications when the stomach is empty.
Under an anesthetic, everything relaxes, including the valves that seal off the stomach. It’s not unusual that a little stomach acid leaks out into the gullet when the animal is asleep.
If the procedure is short, then the natural defenses of the esophagus keep the acid away from the delicate tissue.
However, for longer procedures, the pet can sometimes experience a condition akin to heartburn. The signs include a poor appetite post-surgery, drooling and retching after eating. This is usually easily treated with antacid medication.
So, bottom line: Take starving your pet ahead of surgery seriously.
Know that the vet has your back — we have protocols in place that anticipate problems such as gastric reflux, so there’s less chance of harm. However, let’s not make life more difficult or stressful than it has to be.
How else should you prepare your dog for an operation?
This starts the day before by doing … well, nothing. Stick with your regular routine so the dog feels settled. Take them for a walk as normal so they burn off energy, then feed them and settle them down at the regular time.
Other things that help include:
- Groom your dog: Having a knot-free coat means less risk of clipper rash (where the clipper blades dig in and irritate the skin).
- Bathe the dog: If they have not had a bath for a while, spruce them up a couple of days ahead of time. This decreases the amount of bacteria on the skin and reduces the risk of post-op infection.
Last but not least, on the morning of the operation, take the dog on a short walk so they get a chance to toilet. If your pet doesn’t go, tell the vet staff so they can offer the dog a toilet break soon after admission.
If you have a lone indoor cat, then things couldn’t be simpler: Take their food away at bedtime the night before, and remove the water at 7 a.m.
It helps if you’ve trained your cat in advance to be happy in the carrier so they’re not stressed.
In a multi-cat household or if the cat goes outdoors, things are a bit trickier. Either remove all the cats’ food or else keep the patient in a separate room with water and a litter tray.
Keep an outdoor cat inside the night before surgery — then you’ll know they haven’t dined elsewhere, and they don’t disappear when it’s time to leave.
If this is super difficult, speak with the clinic’s staff members. They are often happy to admit your pet the night before so they are safe in a bed, ready and waiting for the main event.
Rabbits are different from cats and dogs in that they should never be starved. They can’t vomit, so there’s little risk of inhaling food — plus their digestive system must keep ticking over in order to stay healthy.
How You Can Prepare for Your Pet’s Surgery
Give the clinic a contact phone number where you can be reached.
In addition, arrange your day so you are available to take a call at all times. Your availability could make the difference between getting everything done under one anesthetic or needing a return trip and going through this prep all over again.
Part 2: The Day of Your Pet’s Surgery
It’s a horrible feeling, leaving your pet for an operation.
It’s that lump-in-the-throat feeling you get when you walk in with your furbaby and then go home without them, even if it’s just for a few hours.
But please rest easy knowing your pet is in good hands. Let’s go over some of the unseen actions that make your pet’s stay as comfortable as possible on the day of surgery:
Your pet arrives at the clinic feeling slightly suspicious because you forgot to give them breakfast.
With you or after admission, the vet checks the patient over, paying particular attention to the heart, lungs and circulatory system. This way, we’re on top of any new health problems and can select the safest anesthetic protocol.
Painless Blood Draw
Pre-anesthetic blood tests are an important part of a workup, especially in older patients.
These tests tell us if there are any problems that need attention first, such as mild dehydration or tired kidneys, and alert us to problems with the potential to cause anesthetic complications.
However, not all patients understand it’s for their own good and are naturally less than enthusiastic about the needle.
Enter the trusty vet tech. She’s already sussed out the stressed cats and applied EMLA cream as they come out of the carrier so they don’t feel the needle. EMLA cream is a local anesthetic cream that numbs the skin.
This means that, with gentle handling and keeping things low key, the cats don’t even realize they’ve had blood drawn.
Most clinics run blood in-house, and it takes 20 minutes or so to get the results back. Meanwhile, your pet waits in a comfy bed, still feeling miffed about that overlooked meal.
Animals feel pain just as people do. Fortunately, we have the tools to help lessen it.
It is routine to give pain-relieving medication well in advance of a procedure so those nerve endings never get fired up to their full potential.
But the story doesn’t end there. Careful thought is given to the nature of the pain and how long it will last. This may mean:
- Combining different families of pain relief for a better overall effect
- Or adding a CRI (constant rate infusion), which is a drip containing analgesics (pain relievers)
What’s more important is that this is done on an individual level. Take 2 patients undergoing the same procedure, where one is in greater discomfort than the other. No problem — their pain score is assessed and managed accordingly.
Common Sense and Compassion
If your pet doesn’t like being in a bed in the kennel right before surgery, don’t be surprised if the practice manager lets them sleep on a special bed right by their feet.
Other examples of staff’s common sense and compassion go on all the time, such as taking dogs for regular toilet breaks.
And for fearful cats, this may mean providing a place to hide, such as a box or a heavy towel to snuggle under in bed.
Care isn’t always about the latest tech but about being aware of what you do and when, such as placing intravenous catheters well ahead of providing the anesthetic.
This means the patient gets to settle back down in between times of action, so when a nurse gently holds them for the anesthetic to be administered, all the dog is aware of is a nice cuddle.
Diligence About Details
Progressive vet practices follow the example of gold-standard human hospitals.
This means all patients have a checklist protocol attached to their bed so each staff member knows exactly what’s been given and when, and any concerns about the patient are flagged.
For example, the surgeon may know the exact time a dog had their pre-med, what drugs were given and who gave them. The surgeon may also know, for example, that the pre-op check was normal although the dog had been breathing heavily in bed — hence the dog’s move to the special bed in the practice manager’s office.
And the attention to detail doesn’t stop there. It continues with the anesthetic monitoring chart, which details drugs given, amounts and times, and records oxygen levels, heart rate and respiratory rate.
But above all, understand that truly caring people are watching over your pet at all times. From sitting with animals during recovery to taking them for toilet breaks, veterinary staff members give outstanding, dedicated care to pets like yours who need comfort during trying times.
Part 3: Prepping for Surgery
Of course there’s quite a bit more to be done by veterinary staff before your pet’s surgery:
If a problem shows up or the patient is elderly, they’ll need an intravenous fluid drip before having an anesthetic.
This promotes good blood circulation across the kidneys and protects against low blood pressure during anesthesia.
The vet or vet tech preps the patient for the drip. This means clipping a patch of fur over the vein on a foreleg to insert a flexible catheter. All your pet feels is a quick scratch, but if your dog or cat is sensitive, the skin is numbed first with local anesthetic cream.
The drip tubing is then attached to the catheter and secured in place with a dressing.
The blood test results help the vet decide on the drugs and dose for the pre-med injection, which prepares the patient for an anesthetic.
The pre-med is part sedative and part pain relief. It reduces the amount of anesthetic needed and makes for greater stability. If your pet’s surgery is very painful, extra pain relief is given now to stop the pain before it starts.
Depending on drugs, dose and delivery method, the pre-med takes a few minutes or up to half an hour to work. During this time, your pet rests quietly in their bed, still feeling hungry but increasingly sleepy.
Once the patient is sufficiently relaxed, they’re ready for the anesthetic. This is done in a prep room just outside the sterile operating room.
Squishy-faced breeds, such as Pugs, Bulldogs and Boxers, may be given oxygen via a face mask for several minutes immediately before their anesthetic, which ensures their blood is rich in oxygen before they go to sleep.
Your pet is given a short-acting anesthetic injection into the catheter, which gives enough time to slide a tube into their windpipe. Anesthetic gas is delivered via this tube, and the pet stays asleep.
A vet tech monitors the pet during the anesthetic. In addition, equipment measures blood pressure and heart rate plus oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which helps detect problems early and stabilize the patient.
Part 4: My Pet’s Surgery Is Over — Now What?
The surgery is over! The anesthetic gas is turned off, and your pet wakes up.
Your pet is kept warm on a heating pad or with blankets with someone by their side until they’re fully awake, sitting up and responsive.
When both vet and vet tech are happy your patient is doing well, the pet goes back to bed for further monitoring.
Ready to Go Home
Your pet is up on their paws after having relieved themselves in the clinic’s yard and eaten a little food (yay, breakfast at long last!).
One last check from the vet, and all being well, your furbaby gets to go home and back into your loving care for recuperation.
And the best thing is … you’re really, really sorry about the skipped food thing and make up for it with lots of pets and kisses. But, of course, that’s not all. Now the real work begins.
Check out these tips on post-surgery care for pets:
What to Know About Post-Surgery Care for Your Pet
Yes, the surgery itself was only the beginning. Just as important as the surgeon’s skill is the home care you give your pet afterward.
Discharge instructions after surgery usually include monitoring the incision, giving medications, switching to a special diet, confinement and recheck appointments. It’s important to pay attention when your family veterinarian or vet tech goes over this information.
The discharge instructions will be a list of things like “No licking the wound.”
Sounds simple enough — except things are rarely that straightforward, such as the energetic 6-month-old pup who, 2 days out from surgery, doesn’t understand why she can’t play ball and starts chewing the wallpaper.
Follow the Instructions
Take a copy home with you. Take notes. And never be embarrassed to ask questions!
It seems that the hardest but most critical things to be strict with are the E collar, diet and confinement.
Sure, nobody really loves the E collar — also known as the Elizabethan collar, plastic cone, lamp shade or cone of shame. But it is the only sure way to prevent your pet from licking or chewing the incision or bandage, thereby allowing proper healing. Sometimes E collars are used to prevent pawing at a wound or scratching it — for example, on the head.
Vets call the plastic cone a necessary evil. It’s really not as bad as most people think. The secret is to keep it on at all times so your pet gets used to it quicker.
Diet after your pet has surgery can vary greatly depending on what was done.
It might begin with a bland, home-cooked diet, such as lean chicken and rice. The amount of food, number of meals and changes to a special diet will be decided by your vet.
Now, why do vets often recommend weight loss?
Well, look at it this way: One recent study showed that overweight pets live an average of 1.8 years less than thin pets.
In addition, overweight animals are more at risk for arthritis, heart disease, cancer, torn ligaments, hormonal imbalances, skin conditions, etc.
In other words, excessive weight or obesity decrease quality and quantity of life (or life span).
Confinement may be another challenge — most dogs or cats are used to having free range of the house.
“Please keep your pet confined to a small space for 8 weeks after surgery. Leash-walk only for elimination purposes.” This instruction seems simple — but it’s one of the hardest things for owners to understand.
Confined means confined. Not “Oh, he stays near me in the house, anyway,” or “He doesn’t usually run around when he’s outside to go potty” or “His (doggy) brother will be sad that he can’t play. Maybe I’ll just let them be together for a few minutes.”
The good news is that confinement rarely has to be a tiny crate or carrier. The space should be proportionate to the size of your pet.
For example, a cat or small dog could be confined to a play pen (upside down so they don’t try to jump out) that can conveniently be moved so your pet is always near you. A medium to large dog may be kept in a small room or in a gated area.
If you have smaller animals, they also need special care after surgery.
Some temporary rearranging may be necessary so there is no furniture, no steps, no slippery floors. Your vet will let you know how long confinement is needed, based on your pet’s particular surgery and post-op needs. Recovery from a severe fracture will take longer than a spay or a neuter.
The big message is this: It’s important to keep your pet confined after surgery because we can’t convince them to take it easy — we must force them to be quiet for their own good.
Spend Time With Your Pet
Confinement does not have to be a life-shattering or depressing situation. Depending on your pet’s personality, you might want to overcompensate by showering the pet with TLC.
Find every opportunity to spend quality time with them. Make excuses. Be creative. Call in sick (just kidding!).
Think of anything you can do next to your pet, including making phone calls, texting, reading a book or a magazine, online shopping, crafting and taking a nap. You may give your dog a chew toy — as long as they don’t destroy it and swallow the pieces!
Quick Tips for Helping Your Pet After Surgery
So how do you survive this post-op period so you both come out of it unscathed? Here are some quick tips:
Prepare in Advance
- Crate Training: This gives dogs a safe place to rest (for short periods) if you just can’t calm the “zoomies.”
- Obedience Training: Basic “Sit,” “Stay,” “Look” and “Leave it” commands mean you can nip that game of chase (which could pop her stitches) in the bud.
- Pet-Safe Areas: If your pet is going to run upstairs, plan ahead with stair gates or a pet pen.
- Toilet on the Leash: Train your dog to be happy eliminating while on the leash. This is vital to stop your pup from chasing squirrels and especially important after orthopedic surgery.
- Sensible Party Planning: Don’t arrange surgery immediately before a major family celebration (it happens). Make sure the home is a quiet, peaceful place for the duration of your pet’s recuperation.
What the Vet Can Do
- Pain Relief: Have painkillers to take home. As the anesthetic wears off, your pet is liable to become sore and miserable.
- Intradermal Sutures: These sutures hold the skin together from beneath the surface. The advantage is there are no sutures for the dog or cat to chew on and remove.
- Elizabethan Collar: Too much licking damages tissue and introduces infection. Call it what you want: E collar, Buster collar, lampshade or “cone of shame” — put the collar on and leave it on so your pet gets used to it.
- Neck Braces: If you don’t fancy your giant dog blundering around the house in a satellite dish-sized collar, use an inflatable neck brace. These help prevent a dog from bending their neck so they physically can’t get around to lick.
- T-shirts or Boxer Shorts: Get creative with clothing to cover the sutures. Kids’ T-shirts work well, with holes cut in the hem for a dog’s back legs. But avoid using safety pins, which are a swallow hazard.
Taking Things Easy
- Mental Stimulation: For a couple of days after surgery, your pet will feel groggy and sore, so rest is easy. However, as the pet begins to feel better, things can get tricky for the next few days until the sutures come out. Reduce boredom by using puzzle feeders or a stuffed, frozen Kong.
- More Training: Another boredom buster for dogs is regular, gentle training. If yours is too sore to sit, then how about teaching them “Leave it” or “Look,” or perhaps how to shake paws? Regular sessions spaced over the day will alleviate the dog’s frustration at the lack of exercise.
- On the Leash in the Yard: Unless you trust your dog 100% not to take off after a squirrel or stray cat, keep the dog on the leash in the yard.
- Gentle Lead Walks: As the days pass, check with your vet if a gentle lead walk is OK to burn off excess energy.
In addition to the tips above, it is important to strictly follow instructions regarding medication dosage and schedule. Your vet may recommend physical therapy or wound care. A comfortable, clean and dry bed is also recommended.
Never hesitate to call your veterinarian if you have a question about post-op care.
Part 5: How to Protect Your Pet’s Incision After Surgery
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 do follow instructions.
You would think that when people spend several thousand dollars to have surgery for their pet, they would follow post-op instructions conscientiously. Sadly, not all of them do.
Sometimes they get away with it — and sometimes they don’t. When things don’t go well, the one who pays the price is the poor dog or cat.
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.
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 their 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.
We have no way of communicating to your pet that licking an incision can cause irritation, infection and tissue damage. The only reasonable way we can help is to create an actual physical barrier between them and what they cannot disturb.
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.
Do the Right Thing: Use the E Collar
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.
Keep the Dressing Dry
Picture this: The patient’s dressing is gray with road dirt. The bandage feels damp.
Removing the first layer of bandage, we find that the padding underneath is sodden, like cotton wool soaked in water (which is precisely what it is), only gray. The padding tears away to reveal swollen skin, thanks to the constant contact with water.
When you soak in the bath, your fingertips become wrinkled and prune-like. For a dog or cat’s paw, this exact process weakens the skin and leads to infection.
The key message here: When it’s wet out, cover the dressing to keep it dry.
Let the Bandage Breathe
Now let’s talk about if you were to go too far the other way and keep a waterproof cover on all the time. With the natural moisture trapped inside, the pet’s skin gets cheesy real quick — like wearing the same pair of socks for days! Not good.
Take any waterproof cover off when it’s not needed. This exposes the bandage materials to the air and keeps things hygienic.
Stay Alert for Signs of Wound Trouble
A too-tight bandage is like a tourniquet and can do lots of damage.
If you see the following signs, contact the vet immediately:
- Frantic gnawing at the dressing: Be especially vigilant for this if the dog was previously comfortable but has suddenly developed an obsessive gnawing. This is focused, frantic chewing where the dog seems compelled to gnaw and won’t leave the dressing alone.
- Swollen toes: Sometimes the vet deliberately leaves a couple of toes out of the dressing. If these seem swollen, it’s a sign the dressing is too tight. Compare both feet if you’re in doubt.
- A bad smell or seepage: If the bandage covers a traumatic wound, some seepage may be expected. The vet should warn you if this is the case. But if the bandage covers a surgical site, generally, the dressing should stay clean and dry. Beware of bad smells; if they occur, contact the vet.
If in doubt or you can’t get ahold of the vet, it may be safest (depending on the purpose of the bandage) to remove the bandage altogether.
A couple times a day, look the bandage over.
Check at the top and bottom, where the bandage meets fur, for any signs of it rubbing the skin, chaffing or soreness.
- Feel the bandage: Is it at all damp?
- Smell the dressing: Is it dairy-fresh or “yuck”?
Also, make sure the bandage is still up to the job.
If it’s loosened, slipped or become an odd shape, then it may not be doing the job properly. Have the vet check it.
Most vets send home instructions to leash walk your dog for 7–10 days and restrict running and jumping.
As for our felines, vets 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 pets with incisions are young and recovering from a spay or neuter. Most leave the hospital as if nothing happened. The 6-month-old Golden Retriever or Lab will pull vet staff 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.
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. We are afraid of the pain and follow the doctor’s orders.
Not the same with our energetic furry friends.
The active pet is inclined to get bored during a restful recuperation. Anticipate this and provide some mental stimulation. Ideas include:
- Puzzle feeder: Instead of putting their chow in a bowl, use a puzzle feeder. This makes them solve problems to get their dinner and adds interest to the day. In its simplest form, scatter kibble on the ground so they have to sniff it out.
- Obedience training: Now could be the perfect opportunity to practice “sit,” “stay,” “down” and “look” if you have a dog. They will love the one-on-one attention, and it also gives the mind a workout.
- Teach tricks: Now could be the time to teach a trick, such as the dog putting their toys away in the toy chest.
It’s amazing that most pets actually have problem-free incisions following surgery. 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.
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This expert guide to pet surgery was written by veterinarians Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, and Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, as well as board-certified veterinary surgeon Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ. Kelly Serfas and Katie Kegerise, both certified veterinary technicians, also contributed. This article was reviewed by Dr. Elliott and was last updated Nov. 13, 2018.