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Pet Surgical Care FAQs

Apr 04 2022

After Your pet has undergone major surgery and is now being discharged for continued care at home. Your job during the recovery period at home is just as important as the surgical procedure just performed. 

What special instructions should I follow after my dog comes home?

Home care after surgery mainly involves the restriction of physical activity.  Unfortunately,  your dog does not understand the seriousness of surgery or the significance of the recovery period. Most dogs will naturally become very active in a short period of time after surgery and confinement and close supervision indoors is of the utmost importance! This means: 

  • No jumping or running 

  • No stair climbing 

  • No playing with other pets 

  • No "rough-housing" 

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When your dog goes outside to go to the bathroom, it must be on a short leash and returned indoors immediately. You may only take your dog for very short, slow leash walks for 2 weeks, or as instructed by your veterinarian. 

If your dog must be left alone, it must be confined to a cage or other small area that is warm and safe. This strict confinement and restriction of activity is necessary during the entire recuperative period. Excessive physical activity often leads to injury or serious complications. This means additional expense to you and added discomfort and risk for your dog. 

How should I care for the incision? 

Do not bathe your dog or allow the incision to get wet. This also means that you cannot allow your dog to lick the incision at all. 

Monitor the incision daily for signs of redness, swelling, discharge, or excessive licking. Mild redness and swelling are part of the healing process and should be expected for the first few days after surgery. After the first 2-3 days, the swelling and redness should subside and the incision should look better each day. Moderate swelling on or around the incision site is abnormal and may be an early sign of infection. For routine elective surgeries, any discharge from the incision site is abnormal. 

NEVER PUT ANYTHING ON THE INCISION UNLESS YOU ARE SPECIFICALLY TOLD TO DO SO BY YOUR VETERINARIAN. Never put hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol on the incision. These chemicals are toxic to healing tissues and will cause inflammation and delay surgical healing.  

Call us if you observe any abnormalities or if you have any questions or concerns about your dog's progress. 

My dog keeps licking the incision. What should I do? 

We have various sizes of protective collars or "E-collars" (for further information, see our handout "Elizabethan collars") to keep your dog from licking the incision site. Licking often leads to chewing or removal of sutures, which can happen in a few seconds.  Mild licking can result in an infection that requires antibiotic treatment. However, persistent licking can cause serious injury to the incision and may require costly surgery to repair the damage. 

"Persistent licking can cause serious injury to the incision and may require a costly surgery." 

In general, your dog should gradually improve each day. If your dog's condition changes or suddenly worsens, please call us at the veterinary clinic as soon as possible. Your goal in following these post-operative instructions is to help your dog return to normal and pain-free life as soon as possible. 

When should my pet be going to the bathroom after surgery/discharge?

Many pets will not have a bowel movement for the first several days after surgery.

Reasons that your pet will not have regular bowel movements after surgery include: 

  1. Fasting period prior to surgery 

  2. Decreased appetite after surgery and during the hospital stay 

  3. Decreased appetite frequently after returning home for the first few days 

  4. They are fed highly digestible food that produces little stool 

  5. Pain medication that contains narcotics which can be constipating 

If a pet does not have a bowel movement by the 4th day postoperative there are several at-home remedies to help soften the stool and allow them to have a bowel movement 

  • Metamucil 1 tsp per 25 Kg mixed in with each meal (canned dog food) 

  • Canned pumpkin to increase the fiber content 

  • If there has not been a bowel movement after several days of conservative therapy then please contact us for further advice. In many cases, a series of enemas can be given which will help remove dry feces. 

My pet had surgery and does not want to eat. What can I do?

For Dogs:

  • Most pets will not eat their regular dog food after surgery, especially if it is dry kibble. 

  • Offer a cooked diet having a 1:1 ratio of a protein source and carbohydrate source. The protein source can be any meat (example: chicken breast, turkey breast, lean hamburger) that is low fat and should be cooked, and any residual fat skimmed off. The carbohydrate can be pasta, potato, or white rice. 

  • Try canned dog food; to enhance the flavor sprinkle a very small amount of garlic powder or chicken or beef broth 

  • There is a recovery diet such as Hill's A/D diet that can be used. 

  • Hand feeding by placing a small portion of their food in the mouth so that they get the flavor 

  • Warming food slightly in a microwave will make the food more aromatic; remember to stir the food before feeding and test the temperature to ensure that it is not too warm. 

  • Remember that most pets will not eat well the first day or two after they get home from surgery 

For Cats: 

  • Offer aromatic foods that contain fish such as tuna or smelly cat foods 

  • Hand feeding; place a small amount of food in the mouth so that they get the flavor 

  • Warm the food slightly in a microwave as the food will be more aromatic; remember to stir the food before feeding and test the temperature with your finger; it should be only lukewarm. 

  • Some cats will only eat dry food, try kibble if your cat normally has been fed that food 

  • Petting your cat frequently will help to stimulate its appetite 

  • Remember that most pets will not eat the first day or two after they get home from surgery 

  • If your cat refuses to eat anything for 2-3 days please contact the veterinarian or the CAH staff so they can be evaluated and nutrition provided via alternative means to prevent the development of a serious liver problem (hepatic lipidosis). 

My pet is vomiting now that they are at home. What should I do?

Causes and treatment of vomiting after surgery 

  • When some pets return home after a stay in the hospital they may drink excessive amounts of water all at once and then vomit; if this appears to be happening the water should be limited to frequent smaller amounts. 

  • Medications such as antibiotics or pain medications (non-steroidal anti-inflammatories are common causes of vomiting after surgery. In order to see which medication is causing the problem, the administration of each drug should be separated 2 hours apart. Usually, the pet will vomit or appear nauseated (drooling and sick look) within 1 hour of administration of the medication that they are sensitive to. 

  • Stomach upset from the anesthesia procedure is a potential cause of the vomiting and will pass within a couple of days. 

  • If your pet had surgery on the intestines or stomach, vomiting is always a serious concern, as it may indicate that leakage of intestinal contents has occurred and there is an infection of the abdominal cavity, called peritonitis, present. 

  • Symptomatic treatment of mild vomiting involves holding food and water for 12 to 24 hours, then introducing small amounts of water initially, and then a bland food such as rice and lean cooked hamburger. You should always consult a veterinary healthcare professional if there is evidence of postoperative vomiting, especially before administering medication

Causes and treatment of regurgitation after surgery 

  • The most common cause of regurgitation is reflux of acid from the stomach into the esophagus while your pet is under anesthesia or in the perioperative time period. Acidic fluid from the stomach causes a chemical irritation of the esophagus, which is called esophagitis. This results in decreased motility of the esophagus so water and food will accumulate. In most cases with appropriate treatment, the mild esophagitis resolves within several days. 

  • If the esophagitis is severe the esophagus can develop strictures. A stricture is a narrowing of the esophagus due to scar tissue formation and does not allow passage of food down the esophagus, thus the pet has persistent regurgitation. This regurgitation can occur several weeks post-operative and is usually associated with postoperative vomiting or regurgitation but not always. Prompt medical attention to this condition can lead to a good outcome but may require medical therapy in addition to an endoscopic procedure where the esophagus is dilated at the stricture site with a small balloon catheter. 

  • Symptomatic treatment of regurgitation caused by esophagitis includes withholding food and water for short periods and then reintroduction of a bland diet (see above), use of acid-reducing medication, and administering a coating agent such as sucralfate. You should consult a veterinary health care professional if the regurgitation continues for more than a couple of days.

How do I know that my dog is in pain following surgery? 

Signs of pain include: 

  • crying 

  • biting if you get near the surgical site 

  • grimacing (lips are pulled back and the dog looks anxious) 

  • restlessness and not wanting to sleep; pacing 

  • The pet will not lie down on the incision, or will continually sit up in spite of appearing very tired 

  • The most severe pain is usually for the first 2 to 3 days after surgery and then it is usually more of dull pain depending on the type of surgical procedure performed.

 What can be done for pain at home for my dog? 

  • Pain medication such as sustained release morphine, Tramadol (Ultram), butorphanol, Duragesic (fentanyl patch), and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) such as Deramaxx, Rimadyl, or Metacam is used to keep your pet comfortable after a surgical procedure. In rare cases, a mild sedative such as valium or acepromazine can be used to augment the effect of pain medication and allow your pet to sleep 

  • If your pet allows, applying a cold compress to the surgical site may be helpful for the first 48-72 hours. 

  • See physical therapy instructions for cold compress directions 

  • Cooling the surgical site helps to numb the area and reduce inflammation which can extend the duration of the local pain sensation. 

 How do I know that my cat is in pain following surgery? 

  • Pain is more difficult to assess in cats versus dogs as signs can be more subtle and they usually do not vocalize 

  • Signs of pain in a cat include the following: 

  • biting if you get near the surgical site 

  • growling or deep cry 

  • not wanting to eat 

  • hiding and not wanting to be near the owner (remember that this behavior can also be caused by an upset in the cat's normal activity and surroundings) 

 What can be done for pain at home for my cat? 

  • Some of the pain medications were given. Pain medication such as butorphanol, or Duragesic (fentanyl) patch. 

  • Pain medications used commonly in humans, such as Tylenol can kill a cat with even a single large dose because the cat lacks the necessary enzymes in its liver to metabolize this drug. 

  • Anti-inflammatories can be used, but the dose is much less than for dogs and they should be given only for a few days. The only NSAID that is currently approved for cats in the US is Metacam. 

 Is it okay for my pet to lick the incision? 

  • Answer In a word……NO 

  • If a pet licks their incision it will actually delay the healing process because they usually lick too much and traumatize the area. In addition, licking the incision can lead to: 

  • Licking can remove stitches and cause the incision to open 

  • Licking can become a severe habit that is difficult to break 

  • Licking can cause infection as the mouth has many bacteria 

  • Dogs will frequently lick the incision when the owner is not watching, such as at night time; if the skin looks red or excoriated or there are sutures/staples missing the most common cause is from licking. 

  • To stop your pet from licking the incision site or catheter site the following can be tried: 

  • An Elizabethan collar can be placed on the neck; this will not help stop your pet from scratching at the region 

  • A cervical collar (bite not collar) is a less awkward device and can be effective at stopping a pet from licking the surgical site 

  • If the incision is over the chest a tee shirt can be put on your pet and the waist of the shirt fastened in place by tying the shirttail. 

  • If the incision is over the paw or lower limb a bandage or sock could be put on and kept up with tape. 

  • Bitter apple can be applied around the incision; many dogs will continue to lick after the application of this topical 

  • Bitter Apple and Liquid HeetTM (obtain this from a drugstore...it is used for sore muscles) mixed in a 2:1 ratio can be applied around the skin incision 

Antipsychotic medication in some cases is needed when the licking is causing significant skin damage.

What are at home physical therapy exercises that I can be doing for my dog/cat after orthopedic surgery?

For every case discharged from the MAAH the client receives detailed instructions regarding recommendations for at-home physical therapy, exercise restriction and time lines for increasing the amount of acceptable activity. These recommendations are based on the type of surgery performed and are individualized for each patient. 

The following is a set of standard recommendations for patients that have had a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO) and include the following topics: 

Restricted Activity: It is important that your pet's activities be severely restricted during his/her recovery. He/she should be housed in a crate during the first 8 weeks after surgery to allow the bone time to heal properly. The crate should be large enough to allow your dog the room to stand up comfortably and turn around. The only times that your dog may be out of the crate would be to go out for bathroom duties and to have rehabilitation exercises performed. During these trips outdoors your dog should be on a leash and the sling be in position under his/her abdomen. The sling should not be used to carry your dog around. He/she should be allowed to bear his/her own body weight and the sling be used to catch his/her weight should he/she trip or fall. Any other time that your dog is out of the crate is considered to be a risk for injury. 

Rehabilitation Exercises: For the first 7 days post-operatively, there is a considerable amount of swelling due to the surgery. For these first 7 days, we recommend either cooling (for the first 3 days) or heating (day 4 on) the surgery site. To accomplish this we recommend that your dog be relaxed and comfortable at the start of each session. Select an area which is quiet and free from distractions. Have your dog lay on his/her side with the injured knee up. Begin by wrapping the affected knee with either a cool or warm (based on what day post-op you are on) wrap on your dog's knee. Then gently begin a full body massage as demonstrated at discharge. Continuing the massage to include the muscles of the shoulders, lower back and surgery leg: continue this for approximately 5 to 10 minutes or until you perceive your dog to be relaxed. Following your first recheck appointment, you are now ready to begin a passive range of motion exercises with your dog. It is common for muscles to atrophy or weaken dramatically if they are not used in any way post operatively. Passive range of motion exercises allow you to take an active part in the recovery of your dog. You should follow the next 3 steps as outlined each time you begin your dog's exercises. 

Hot packing: You should begin as outlined previously by laying your dog on his/her side with the affected knee up. Apply moist heat to the knee for 15 minutes. This will serve to reduce tissue tightness, increase blood flow and warm the joint. This can be done by immersing a hand towel in very warm water and gently wrapping it around the surgical area. Pre-test the towel on you first to ensure it is not too hot. Keep immersing the towel into the hot water as it cools off. Your goal is to heat the joint for 15 minutes. You may also purchase microwavable packs. These are available at most pharmacies and they are inexpensive. The microwavable packs should be wrapped in a moist warm towel before being applied to the surgical site. Never use an electric heating pad for warming a joint. 

Passive range of motion: Once the joint has been warmed with the hot pack, you can begin gentle passive range of motion. This helps to maintain the joint's mobility and provides nutrition to the joint and cartilage. Start gently flexing (bending) and extending (straightening) the hip as shown to you at your first recheck. Hold the joint flexed (bent) for 10-15 seconds, and then slowly move through the range of motion until the hip is in the extended position (straight). Hold this position for 10-15 seconds. Repeat these motions for 10-15 repetitions. Your dog may not enjoy this, so be careful to bend or straighten the limb to your dog's own resistance. If he/she whimpers or vocalizes more than usual or quickly turns his/her head toward you, you may be bending or straightening the hip too much. If that is the case don't flex or extend the hip joint as much during the next repetition. 

Icing: Immediately following the passive range of motion exercises the joint needs to be cooled down. By cooling down the surgery site, you provide essential anti-inflammatory effects and as a result decrease pain associated with the surgery. If you are using a commercial ice pack, place a pillowcase over it to protect your dog's skin. You may also use direct ice in the form of ice massage. You can accomplish this by freezing small Dixie cups with Popsicle sticks in them to provide a handle. Gently rub the surgical area with the ice for approximately 10 minutes. Ice massage is the preferred method of icing because it is quicker and provides a better cooling effect. It may take two people to accomplish the icing as sometimes a dog can get squirmy. Be aware that your dog will experience the same sensations that we would with icing. At first they will feel cold, then a burning sensation, then an aching sensation, and then finally numbness. Once the icing has achieved the numbing stage they usually do not squirm any longer. 

Depending upon what your schedule allows, these sessions should take place 2-3 times daily. A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory will also be dispensed for your dog. You may notice swelling along the incision site, this is not uncommon, however, should this occur please call. Increasing the time spent hot packing and additional passive range of motion exercises should help.

What are acceptable activities after a tibial plateau leveling osteotomy (TPLO)? 

Restricted Activity: It is important that your pet's activities be severely restricted during his/her recovery. He/she should be housed in a crate during the first 8 weeks after surgery to allow the bone time to heal properly. The crate should be large enough to allow your dog the room to stand up comfortably and turn around. The only times that your dog may be out of the crate would be to go out for bathroom duties and to have rehabilitation exercises performed. During these trips outdoors your dog should be on a leash and the sling be in a position under his/her abdomen. The sling should not be used to carry your dog around. He/she should be allowed to bear his/her own body weight and the sling be used to catch his/her weight should he/she trip or fall. Any other time that your dog is out of the crate is considered to be a risk for injury. 

Week 1: Full body massage and hot packing of the surgical site 2-3 times daily. Controlled leash walks with the sling for bathroom duties, otherwise strict confinement in the crate.

Week 2 and 3: Begin passive range of motion exercises 2-3 times daily. Walk your dog outside on a leash with the sling for 5-15 minutes three times daily. This can be accomplished while your dog is outside on a bathroom break. Your dog should still be confined to his/her crate when you are not outside for these short walks or doing a passive range of motion exercises. 

Week 4: Should weather conditions and your dog's attitude about water permit, you may now allow your dog to swim, however, he/she should not be running in and out of the water. Start with your dog standing in the water with the water at about shoulder level. Allow your dog to either walk in the water at this depth or swim from that position. Start with limiting the time spent in the water to 5 minutes and progress slowly by 2 minutes every other session. Dover Veterinary Hospital has a hydro-treadmill for those owners who may want to provide water rehabilitation year round. If you are interested in hydro-therapy please contact our hospital for an appointment with Charlie Evans, the physical therapy coordinator. 

Week 5: Discontinue passive range of motion and add stretching after walks. Hold the stretch for 15-30 seconds for 4 repetitions. You may begin to increase the length of your controlled walks (using a short leash and the sling) up to 30 minutes a day as your dog tolerates it. To accomplish this safely, begin adding 3-5 minutes to your 15-minute walks every other day until you reach 30 minutes. 

Week 6-7: Begin to increase your controlled walks (on a short leash; you may leave your sling at home) to 45-60 minutes three times a week. 

Week 8-9: You may now add a trot to your short-leash walks. Strive for at least one hour walk three times weekly. Begin to work on proprioception at this point. This means trying to remove weight from the non-surgical leg, which allows your dog to bear all of his/her weight on the surgically corrected limb. We have a number of suggestions for accomplishing this, please call Charlie Evans for more information. 

Week 10-12: Gradually begin to move your dog to unrestricted activity. To accomplish this you may now use a flexi-lead that allows your dog to gently zigzag during your walks. You may also begin gentle incline walks. Slowly walk your dog up a small hill or incline. This will help strengthen the hindquarters. Your dog should still NOT be freely walking or bounding upstairs. 

Week 12: Your dog may begin walking stairs without the aid of the sling. With your dog on a short leash, slowly walk him/her up 8-10 stairs three times daily. This will strengthen the leg muscles and help your dog begin to improve his/her balance and sense of the position of proprioception of the hind limbs. 

Continue with the previously recommended exercises for strengthening. Do not allow crazed activity such as leaping off of retaining walls, decks, etc., or jumping after Frisbees or ball chasing until 5 months post-operatively.

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