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Caring for a Dog Post-Surgery


After a dog has surgery – whether for a routine procedure or an emergency – there is a level of care that must be taken to ensure your dog does not have complications.  Here, everything a pet owner should know about caring for a dog after surgery will be discussed.

Types of Surgery

Dogs require surgery for a variety of reasons.  Surgeries range from minimally to highly invasive.  Types of surgery include:

  • Spay / Neuter
  • Orthopedic
  • Cardiovascular
  • Tumor Removal
  • Gastric
  • Wound Repair

The more invasive the surgery, the greater the risk of infection.  For instance, a neuter has fewer complications than a spay.  Additionally, a dog bite carries the greatest risk of infection because of bacteria introduced from the other animal’s mouth.

Wound-Closing Methods

There are many different types of wound-closing methods, each of which has advantages, disadvantages, and care requirements.  The most common wound-closing methods are:

Absorbable Stitches

Absorbable stitches are absorbed by the body after approximately 60 days.  These stitches are made from polyester or collagen and are non-toxic.  Generally, absorbable stitches are used on internal organs, muscles, and subcutaneous layers.  These stitches cannot be used to repair tendons or ligaments, so they are not used for orthopedic surgeries.

The advantage of absorbable stitches is that they do not have to be removed.  However, the dog’s immune system may recognize these stitches as a foreign body and could potentially reject them, which is called a suture reaction.  If this occurs, medical attention is necessary.

Non-Absorbable Stitches

Non-absorbable stitches are perhaps the most common types of sutures used for closing a wound.  These stitches are made from nylon, cotton, or silk.  They are generally used for closing skin, ligaments, or tendons but are not recommended for gastric or bladder surgeries.

The advantages of non-absorbable stitches are they are strong and durable.  The disadvantage is that they must be removed by a veterinarian 10 – 14 days following the initial procedure.


Surgical staples are made from steel and are used when accuracy and speed are required.  This procedure is performed with a specially designed staple gun and is useful when a strong closure method is required.  In addition to closing skin incisions, staples are used for clamping internal vessels and closing the sternum after open chest surgery.

One advantage of surgical staples is that they are difficult for dogs to remove.  Like other non-absorbable stitches, they must be removed 10 – 14 days after the initial procedure.


A fourth type of wound-closing method is glue.  This technique is useful if the wound is not dangerously deep and if a scar is likely to form.  The main advantage of glue is that it provides a wound barrier while also allowing the incision to heal in a more aesthetically pleasing manner.  The cyanoacrylate glue generally falls off on its own within 7 – 10 days and must be kept dry in the meantime.

Common Post-Surgical Complications

After surgery has been performed, dog owners should be vigilant for the following complications:


Infection is the number one complication that dogs experience following surgery.  An infection can be caused by many factors, most of which are controllable.  The signs of infection include:

  • Severe swelling: some swelling is normal following a surgery, particularly 1 – 3 days following the procedure.  However, if the wound is severely swollen, hot to the touch, or appears to have red streaks near the sutures then you should consult a veterinarian.
  • Discharge: clear or red-tinged discharge is part of the normal healing process.  However, yellow, green, thick, or clotted discharge is a sign of infection.
  • Malodor: If your dog’s wound has a foul odor, consult your veterinarian.
  • Pain: some pain is to be expected following a surgery.  However, if your dog’s wound is painful to the touch more than 3 days after the procedure, schedule a visit with the veterinarian.
  • Refusal to eat: if your dog’s infection is severe, he or she will refuse food and water.

Drug Intolerance

After surgery dogs may be prescribed a mixture of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain medications.  Although these medications are generally safe for dogs, some pets may experience side effects.  Warning signs that your dog is not tolerating medication include:

  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Extreme lethargy
  • Rash
  • Hives
  • Excessive scratching
  • Anaphylactic shock
  • Bloody stool
  • Seizures
  • Loss of appetite

If your dog is experiencing any of these symptoms following surgery, you should talk to your veterinarian.  Pet owners should always follow instructions on a medication label, as double dosing or inconsistent dosing can be dangerous.

Lethargy is common following surgery, particularly if powerful pain medications (such as Gabapentin) are prescribed.  If your dog is extremely lethargic 3 – 4 days post-surgery, consult your veterinarian.

Excessive Licking/Chewing

The biggest source of complications following surgery is licking or chewing.  Dogs instinctively lick or chew their wounds, sometimes obsessively.  One myth is that dog saliva contains an enzyme that supports healing.  However, a dog’s mouth is filled with bacteria that create a dangerous environment in the dog’s wound.  Keep your dog from licking the area as much as possible to reduce the risk of infection.  Creative ways to prevent this complication will be discussed later in this article.

Protruding Sutures

Sometimes a dog’s body simply rejects the sutures that are in place, regardless of their material.  This phenomenon may occur because the dog’s immune system is especially strong, or because the animal was too active.  Dog owners should take note of any missing or protruding sutures and schedule an appointment with a veterinarian.

Discharge / Bleeding

Another common complication from surgery is bleeding or discharge.  Excessive bleeding could indicate that the dog’s sutures are not healing properly, or that the dog has re-opened the wound.  Additionally, bleeding could indicate that the dog’s immune system is rejecting the stitches, as mentioned in the previous section.  A small amount of bleeding may be normal, depending on the wound.  For instance, if a drain has been inserted to aid in healing, a red-tinged, watery liquid is expected.

Purulent discharge (i.e. discharge that is thick, green, yellow, or with the appearance of blood clots) is not a healthy sign of healing.  Discharge can indicate infection.  If your dog’s wound is oozing anything other than clear or red-tinged liquid, seek advice from your veterinarian.

Blackening of Skin Edges

When examining your dog’s wound daily, pay close attention to the skin edges.  Healthy wounds will have skin edges touching and be light pink in color.  Depending on the severity of the wound, as well as the presence of infection, skin edges may blacken.  If blackening of the skin edges occurs, seek medical attention for your dog as this is a sign of gangrenous tissue.

The treatment for blackened skin edges is debridement, which means the dead areas will be removed and the wound will be re-sutured.  In severe cases, the wound may have to be debrided on a regular basis to promote healing.

Factors that Affect Healing

Dogs experience more complications than humans after surgery.  A main reason is that dogs are less sanitary than humans.  Additional factors that affect healing include:


Senior (or the Ouch Years) and geriatric dogs recover more slowly from invasive procedures than young or middle-aged animals.  The reason for this phenomenon is weakening of the immune system.  As a dog grows older, his or her immune system begins to deteriorate.  Therefore, the risk of infection is more likely, as the dog’s body will not be able to adequately fight off bacteria.

On the other hand, older dogs are less likely to be active during recovery, which can speed the healing process significantly.

Activity Level

A dog’s activity level will determine how quickly his or her wounds heal.  Following a surgery, dogs are recommended to be on “crate rest” – meaning little to no exercise.  The more active a dog, the more likely he or she will introduce bacteria into the wound, as well as stretch the sutured area.  During recovery dogs should not climb stairs, jump onto furniture, play, run, or exert themselves.

Preexisting Condition

Dogs with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, thyroid disorders, and cancer may heal at a slower rate due to a weakened immune system.


Keeping a dog’s wound clean is another important factor that will affect recovery time.  While your dog should avoid licking his or her wounds to reduce the spread of bacteria, you should also be mindful of your dog’s environment.  Keep areas your dog frequents clean and free of debris.  Wash or replace all bedding daily, particularly anything that directly touches your dog’s sutures.

Tips for Minimal Recovery Time

To reduce your dog’s recovery time following surgery, keep the following tips in mind:

Understand Activity Restrictions

Make sure you fully understand the activity restrictions put forth by your dog’s veterinarian.  Some dogs should not climb up or down stairs while they are recovering from surgery.  This is especially true for dogs with wounds near joints or limbs.  However, for other dogs this task is perfectly admissible.  Talk to your veterinarian about ways to minimize your dog’s activity before you take your pet home.  Block stair cases, use child safety gates, and utilize your dog’s crate as much as possible.

Utilize the Cone

For most surgical procedures, an Elizabethan collar (also known as the e-collar or “cone”) will keep your dog from licking his or her wounds.  However, use of the cone is frustrating – for both dog and human.  When used properly, though, the cone keeps dogs from licking, biting, scratching, or otherwise irritating its stitches.

Help your dog adapt to the cone by widening aisle ways between furniture, temporarily relocating ottomans, and serving as your dog’s guide.  Remember that your dog’s vision will be impaired while wearing the e-collar, and he or she may react differently to other animals or small children.

Take Inventory of Routine

Many dog owners assume their pets will do just fine on crate rest, only to realize their dogs are more active than anticipated.  If your dog’s surgery is planned, take a thorough inventory of your dog’s routine and identify times of day where your dog will be excited.

For instance, if your dog jumps on and off the bed in the morning, train your pet to use dog stairs before the surgery (if stair climbing is allowed).  When you take your dog outside for a potty break, keep your pet leashed to avoid any unnecessary running or jumping.  If you have multiple dogs, consider keeping them separated if playing with one another is too tempting.  Other considerations include keeping your dog calm when you come home from work and distracting your pet from play time with a chew toy.

Be Creative

No two dogs will heal from the same surgery in the exact same way.  While the cone may keep one dog from bothering his or her stitches, it may be no match for another individual animal.  Additionally, the cone may not be useful in situations such as when the dog has stitches on its back that can be accessed with a hind leg.

Creativity in these situations is important.  For instance, dress a dog that can scratch his or her stitches in an old t-shirt.  Use a rubber band to cinch the shirt at your dog’s waist.  Use a safety pin to adjust the size of the neck opening to fit your dog.  If the sutures are on the lower half of your dog’s body the t-shirt can be placed backwards on your pet, with hind legs through the arm holes.

Socks can be placed over your dog’s hind feet to discourage scratching, especially at night.  Rubber booties are available in pet stores which give your dog traction when walking on hard wood floors.  If scratching is a possibility, your veterinarian may also trim your dog’s nails short to prevent ripped sutures.

Keep Other Pets Away

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of controlling your dog’s recovery is the struggle of living in a multi-dog household.  Other dogs may instinctively try to lick the recovering dog’s wounds, which leaves them at high risk for infection.  Additionally, the temptation to play with a housemate may be too great for a recuperating animal to resist.

The crate and rotate method is useful for keeping dogs separated.  For instance, one dog is crated (or placed in another room) for a period of 2 – 4 hours, then the dogs are switched.  While this method can feel inconvenient (especially for animals not used to being separated), the inconvenience outweighs the risk of delayed recovery.

Provide Distractions

For many dogs, pain medications have a sedative effect which keeps dogs calm during crate rest.  However, if your dog begins to go stir-crazy during recovery you can provide him or her with distractions.

Peanut butter-filled KONGs are a great option, as are mentally stimulating puzzle games.  If your dog is allowed light activity, set up a game of hide-and-go-treat for your pet by hiding treats around your house.  If your dog is not familiar with this game, help your pet find the treats.  Mentally stimulating games such as these can keep your dog from having too much pent-up energy and potentially disturbing the wound.

Stay Home

If possible, plan your dog’s surgery for a time when you can be home.  Dogs are known for their ability to get into trouble, and even the best management techniques such as a crate, cone, and wound coverings can fail.  Ultimately, a few days of inconvenience are far better than the seemingly endless cycle of infection and surgery.


Finally, certain dogs simply need to be boarded at the veterinarian’s office to keep them from disturbing their stitches.  This option – while pricey – allows a dog to be watched 24 hours.  Although uncommon, some dogs do best when sedated for the duration of their healing.

What Not to Do When your Dog’s Wound is Healing

There are many actions that pet owner should avoid while their dog’s wound is healing.  For instance:

Do Not Give Your Dog a Bath

Until your dog’s scar has fully formed, you should not give your dog a bath or allow the wound to be submerged in water.  The main reason not to allow stitches to get wet is to prevent the spread of germs and bacteria into the wound.  Most dogs should not be bathed for 14 – 21 days following surgery.  To spot-clean your dog, use baby wipes but avoid the area around the wound.

Do Not Apply Ointments or Creams that Were Not Prescribed by Your Veterinarian

Never apply ointments, creams, or oils to your dog’s wound without consent from your veterinarian.  These include coconut oil, Neosporin, and peppermint essential oil.  Ointments and barrier creams can disrupt the normal healing process and potentially trap bacteria in the wound.

Do Not Quit Your Dog’s Medication Early

Many dogs are prescribed antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and pain medications following surgery.  Follow your veterinarian’s instructions as closely as possible, and make sure to give your dog the entire dosage for the prescribed length of time.  Not doing so can leave your dog exposed to risk of antibiotic-resistant infection.

Ultimately, the 10 – 14 days following surgery can be stressful for both dog and owner.  During this time, it is crucial to minimize the risk of infection as much as possible.  By following the steps described here, dogs

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Anna Weber

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