Sedating your pet after surgery: What's your take?

Patty Khuly, DVM
Published: October 20, 2009
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Ever wonder what it takes to keep a pet safe after surgery? In some cases it’s simple, as when a calm animal can be easily left in a comfy crate for long stretches at a time. No, it’s not ideal but it’s fair. After all, pets need a chance to heal and most won’t comply without physical restrictions on their often injurious behavior. 

Other times it’s much tougher. Crazy bouncy Labs, loudmouth crate barkers, separation anxiety cases, silly little kittens and pets who require long recoveries after orthopedic surgery, for example. They’re all especially tough to manage post-op. But it’s doable. Always. All you need is serious commitment to what’s best for your pet.

Too bad it’s so tough to impress upon owners the need to properly care for their post-surgical pet. Here’s one story that highlights how things can go terribly wrong when owners don’t comply:

After a puppy with a nasty open fracture was unceremoniously “dumped” at our hospital a few years back, I took it upon myself to beg free services off my vet surgeon boyfriend and foster her at home during her recovery. After a judicious time period had expired (about a month), I found Miss Brown a home.

It was a bad choice. Though they swore she’d live indoors and that they’d continue the crating regimen for at least the next month (she was excellent in a crate), the first bout of diarrhea saw her living out of doors. By the time I saw her again a month had passed. In the interim she’d gained about 15 pounds. (Seriously. And she's supposed to weigh about 40 pounds.) And what’s worse: Her fracture was newly unstable. All that outdoor activity had done it.

“You’re not getting her back. Sorry. That was the deal.”

Turns out they didn’t want to pay for the necessary surgical re-do, anyway. Good thing we did. And she lives with my parents now. Trim as can be and nary a limp.

What’s so hard about that?

But not every patient is so easily managed. Miss Brown was an easy keeper. Some of my patients...not so much.

Some rip and chew at everything. The e-collar ends up in shreds and the bandages in ruins. Or the crate gets destroyed. Teeth get fractured. Claws bleed. Perhaps a “she-never-did-that-before” bounce off the bed means back to the OR for her TPLO.

Sure, sometimes it’s the owner pulling a stupid (like the bed trick), over which they feel terribly guilty. (Because truly, most owners are not as irresponsible as Miss Brown’s interim caretakers.) Other times, it’s all about the pets’ behavior. And here’s where concessions must be made. Uncomfortable ones, usually.

Consider the patient who must be hospitalized (or boarded) for post-op care that would normally take place at home. Or another that requires constant sedation.

Stop right there...I know what you’re going to say:

No animal needs sedatives just because owners can’t manage some simple instructions. Pets don’t deserve to be treated to a potentially dysphoric, debilitating round of drugs when so many other options exist.

And, ordinarily, I’d agree. After all, I’ve never had a pet that required any more than simple crating. Proof enough is the fact that hospitalization alone (i.e., effective crating) generally does the trick. (99.9% of the time, anyway.)

Then along comes Slumdog...and all my normal recommendations are thrown out the window. After his angular/rotational limb correcting surgery almost two weeks ago, he’s proven time and time again that he cannot be trusted...not even when he’s in his crate.

In the crate, he paws at the door (with his bad limb, too!). In the hospital he’s even worse, reacting to everyone that walks into the room. Though he settles quickly, the potential for damage is high. Though most dogs would be far better off without a splint at this point, Slumdog is untrustworthy without one. But he’s so mobile and stupid while he’s wearing one, he requires frequent changes and equally frequent baths.

He urinates on his splint, steps on his own stool immediately post-poo (he’s so jumpy and excited during walks it’s hard to control this mess even while he’s on leash) and generally makes a nuisance of himself with respect to everything related to the splint.

Moreover, the yeasty nature of his underlying skin disease makes the delicate are between his toes a bright red mess of infected yuckiness. And while he has not yet received any bandage sores, they’re doubtless on the way. It’s only a matter of time.

The sum total of his “unreasonable” canine behavior, coupled with my fear of impending doom, is why yesterday’s event was especially stressful:

After he’d soiled his splint (yet again), we bathed him thoroughly and placed him in a teeny-tiny cage to dry and let his toes “air out” before replacing the splint (remember, the splint should be unnecessary at this point). But only one hour later he already sported an ugly swelling atop his limb.

X-rays revealed the likelihood of a simple seroma (a fluidy swelling, not the breakdown I had feared). Whew! But I’d had it. Time for some Xanax (alprazolam), I decided. I need some relief from all this stress. This dog needs to chill out and rest this limb. If I can’t even expect to leave him in a cat sized crate for an hour without any damage, it’s time for sedation. Sorry, but this delicate repair is just too important to him.

Perhaps I’m just being paranoid. Maybe it’s all in MY head. But there’s something about ruining an incredibly specialized bit of work that gets to me––not to mention the pain of it all. So do you blame me?? (Be honest.)