Surgery can seem like a scary process for many pet owners, especially if you are worried about caring for your cat after surgery. To help alleviate any stress or anxiety, talk to your veterinarian before and after the procedure to ensure that all your concerns and questions are addressed.
Read all surgical discharge instructions and discuss them with the vet when you pick up your cat. Take your time to ask questions and bring up any concerns you may have about the recovery process. Ask for a list of normal conditions and expectations after surgery.
If you see any concerning signs while your cat is in recovery, please contact your veterinarian to determine the next steps in your cat’s care.
This guide will help you manage post-surgery care by answering the most frequently asked questions from cat parents. Keep in mind that this article does not replace any individual information or instructions from your primary care veterinarian.
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Constipation after a surgical procedure is common for cats. It can be a very painful and uncomfortable experience for any cat, and it can lead to other issues such as decreased eating, drinking, and activity.
Signs of cat constipation include:
Straining to pass feces
Passing small amounts of dry, hard stool
Constant, frequent attempts to defecate
Medications used before, during, and after surgery can increase the chances of constipation in cats. Dehydration in cats occurs after surgery if their fluid intake decreases, which can lead to constipation.
On average, cats will have a bowel movement between the first 24 to 48 hours after a procedure. If you notice signs of constipation in your cat, avoid using over-the-counter supplements such as enemas, as these can be toxic and even fatal for cats.
If you notice signs of constipation more than 48 hours after your cat’s surgery, or constant pain and vocalizing, or blood, speak with your primary care veterinarian, pet emergency center, or surgery facility to determine the next steps in your cat’s care.
This will help avoid potential secondary complications that can occur due to dehydration and other underlying medical conditions. Your veterinarian may recommend:
Dietary changes (increasing the fiber content, juice from canned tuna, or offering moist and semi-moist diets)
Supplements (probiotics, Purina Pro Plan Hydra Care)
Intravenous fluid therapy
Prescription medications to help stimulate the bowel and soften the stool
Regardless of the procedure, your cat should urinate normally after surgery. Urinary incontinence is not a common issue after routine surgery unless special considerations have been discussed with you.
Immediately after surgery, your cat may be disoriented and unable to use their normal litter box. Certain medications such as opioids, sedatives, and some anxiety medications can cause disorientation and abnormal behaviors.
Pain and discomfort after surgery can cause your cat to not want to get up or get in the position to urinate. Cats are also known to hide during periods of pain and discomfort, so they are more likely to choose a location to pee that’s away from people and other pets (closets, bathrooms, under furniture).
During this period, because of stress, pain, and discomfort, many cats may also associate certain types of litter and litter boxes with their feelings of pain, which will cause inappropriate use of the litter box.
It is very important to speak with your veterinarian about a post-operative pain-management plan to avoid any complications after surgery.
Talk with your veterinarian about whether your cat’s post-surgery medications will cause sedation and disorientation so you know how long these side effects will last.
In some cases, a new type of litter may be recommended to help with healing (such as non-clumping or clay, pine, paper, or pellets). During this stressful time, many cats do not want to use a new substate or box, which may cause them to urinate or defecate outside of the litter box.
Speak with your veterinarian before the surgical procedure to determine if a litter change is needed. If a litter or box change is needed, consider placing a few boxes with the new litter around your home before your cat’s surgery so they can get used to the change before surgery. Use a litter box that is easy to enter with a low entrance.
The litter box should be easily accessible and moved to where your cat spends the most time. If you continue to notice that your cat is unable or unwilling to use the new litter or box, talk to your veterinarian to discuss alternatives.
Depending on the type of procedure, medications used during the procedure, post-operative medications, and/or fluid therapy, it may be normal for your cat to urinate frequently the first 24-48 hours after leaving the hospital.
Many factors can influence the volume of urine and fluid that is produced in a cat’s body. If your cat received intravenous fluids during their hospital stay, they are more likely to urinate a larger volume the first 24-48 hours at home.
The urine may appear slightly clearer than usual, but your cat should not strain, vocalize (yowling or painful-sounding meows), have blood, or be in pain when urinating. These signs are considered medical emergencies and should be addressed immediate by a veterinarian.
Talk to your veterinarian to determine why your cat is peeing a lot. Less commonly, an increase in urination can be due to low blood pressure or blood loss. Signs of these conditions may include:
A decrease or increase in urination
If you notice increased urination for longer than the expected 24-48 hour period, or if you see signs of distress, like straining or howling, speak with your veterinarian immediately.
The inability to urinate is considered a medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention–especially in male cats. Call your veterinarian or emergency pet clinic immediately.
The inability to urinate can cause a cat’s bladder to expand and toxins from the kidneys to build up. After 24 hours, these toxins can start to affect other body systems, which can be fatal.
Straining or vocalizing during urination may be a sign of pain, discomfort, or even a urinary blockage. It’s very common for cats to have stress-related complications (stress cystitis) and pain responses that can cause a blockage of the urinary tract. Urinary blockages in cats can occur after stressful situations such as surgery.
Call an emergency vet clinic to confirm blockage and get treatment if you notice that your cat:
Has not urinated in 12 hours
Is straining to urinate
Has blood in their urine or litter box
Appears to be in pain
Pain and discomfort in cats is hard to detect since many cats will hide it so well that they can act normal even after a major surgical procedure. Even if your cat appears normal after surgery and is acting like they usually do, cats very much feel pain just like we do, so it is very important that you continue to give them the pain-relief medications that were prescribed.
Your cat should get a complete pain-management plan regardless of the procedure to ensure that they are comfortable and pain-free after surgery.
Because cats display pain in a different way than dogs and humans, many cat owners only notice changes in behaviors, such as hiding, eating less, not enjoying typical activities, or sleeping more. You might also notice very sudden changes to your cat’s behavior, like not finishing their dinner, not enjoying their favorite treat, having no interest in their favorite toys, or even just not acting like themselves.
Be sure to look for these signs and let your veterinarian know if you see these behaviors.
Determining your cat’s pain-management plan before surgery will help decrease stress for you and your cat.
Before and during the procedure, your primary care veterinarian will be giving your cat different combinations of medications to ensure they are pain-free and safe through surgery.
Typically, cats receive two types of pain medications at the time of surgery. The first is an opioid to help control acute pain from the procedure. The second medication is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory.
After surgery, your veterinarian will go over the multimodal approach to pain management for your cat, whether you’ve already discussed it before the surgery or not. Pain management is an essential part of surgery aftercare. Managing your cats’ pain will not only help them feel better, but it can positively influence their recovery. Cats that are pain-free are more likely to start feeling like themselves.
The opioid pain medication used during surgery may be prescribed for a few days after surgery depending on each individual procedure and patient. Some veterinarians may also recommend a slow-release opioid which can last up to three days.
The non-steroidal anti-inflammatory that was given on the day of surgery will also be prescribed two to seven days after depending on the expected inflammation, location, procedure type, age of the patient, and medical status. If you continue to notice signs of pain and discomfort in your cat, speak with your primary care veterinarian to determine the next steps for your cat’s surgery aftercare.
In addition to prescription medication to manage pain and inflammation, the plan will include other therapies such as cool packing of the surgical sites, exercises to encourage mobility and passive range of motion, and instructions for general activity restriction. You will also need to set up a comfortable, safe space for your cat to rest that is free from stress and other pets.
In some cases, anti-anxiety medications may also be dispensed to keep your cat calm during the recovery period. It’s important to realize that sedatives are not a substitute for pain medication, and using a sedative alone will not be adequate to control pain.
Speak with your veterinarian about these aftercare therapies to determine which ones will be beneficial for your cat’s recovery. Most importantly, read the surgery discharge instructions your veterinarian sends home with you. These will have important aftercare instructions on how to best take care of your cat.
Avoid over-the-counter medications. Many human and animal products are not only toxic to cats, but in some cases, can be fatal. Do not use medications that your cat’s veterinarian did not specifically prescribe for them.
It is normal for your cat to not have an immediate interest in food after coming home from the hospital, and they may have no interest in dinner that night. This can be due to certain medications that were used before, during, and after surgery.
Ask your veterinarian what side effects are most common during your cat’s recovery. Your cat’s decrease in appetite can be caused by pain, discomfort, certain oral medications, infection, and stress. In rare cases, inappetence may be due to a complication from the surgical procedure itself.
It is important to ask for feeding instructions for your cat after surgery. Ask if their current diet is acceptable, and if not, which type of food is recommended, how the first meal should be given, whether their food needs to be softened or warmed, how much they should be fed, how often, and anything else you should do for the next few days.
Discussing therapeutic diets before the procedure. Offer fresh, clean water and semi-moist or moist diets at room temperature or heated slightly to help encourage eating and promote hydration.
It is important to speak with your veterinarian about pain medications (NSAIDs, Gabapentin), anti-anxiety medications (Trazadone), hydration supplements (Purina Pro Plan Hydra Care), and high-calorie diets (Hill’s Prescription Diet Urgent Care a/d, Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets Critical Nutrition CN, Royal Canin Veterinary Diet Recovery) to help keep your pet eating and hydrated the first few days after surgery.
If you continue to notice that your cat is eating less or not eating at all in the days after surgery, follow up with your veterinarian immediately to rule out any serious complications.
Dehydration commonly occurs in cats. Hydration is very important in cats, and special considerations need to be addressed after a surgical procedure. To help with hydration, a moist or semi-moist diet containing up to 80% water may be recommended.
Speak with your primary care veterinarian about this type of diet and veterinary-specific hydration supplements to help maintain your cat's hydration. It is very important that your cat continues to eat after surgery.
It is important to also offer fresh, clean water at all times. Consider using a water fountain to help encourage drinking. Monitor the volume of water that your cat drinks. If you notice diarrhea and vomiting, your cat can become dehydrated at a faster rate.
If your cat is not consuming water either through drinking or their diet, reach out to your primary care veterinarian or an emergency veterinarian as soon as possible to rule out any more serious conditions. They may also recommend hospitalization to help with hydration.
Do not give over-the-counter hydration or human electrolyte solutions to cats. Many of these products are formulated for humans or other animal species and contain ingredients that can be toxic and even fatal to cats.
It is not normal for your cat to be vomiting after their surgical procedure.
Vomiting in cats after surgery can be caused by a variety of things, including:
Post-operative effects of anesthesia
If your cat is vomiting after surgery, call your veterinarian for the next steps in your cat’s care. They may recommend a prescription-based diet that is formulated and balanced for gastrointestinal issues and can be fed on a short-term basis.
Seek immediate veterinary care if you notice the following signs of a more serious and potentially life-threatening issue:
Vomiting at least once a day
Constantly vomiting after eating, drinking, and /or standing
Consistency of the vomit has large amounts of fluid, discoloration, or food
These signs may also occur with weakness, lethargy, and a lack of interest in eating or drinking. You must see your vet to rule out any serious underlying conditions.
There are many different types and forms of sutures. This can include a string-like material, glue, and staples.
The string-like material may be absorbable or non-absorbable. The first step is to determine if the sutures are on the outside of your cat’s body or on the inside.
For skin sutures and staples that are on the outside of the body, it is very common with normal daily movement and activity that they may become loose or even break. It is very important during the first 10-14 days that you restrict your cat’s movements and activities to ensure proper wound healing.
Your veterinarian may also discuss with you the use of an e-collar or a surgical body suit that prevents grooming of the surgery area. Licking the area can increase the risk of infection and inflammation, which can loosen the sutures. The physical motion of grooming can also displace and remove many sutures.
Internal sutures should not be visible, and if you notice openings in the skin or visible sutures, it is important to reach out to your veterinarian for wound management and care. This is to rule out any infections or inflammation that may cause further damage to wound healing and the surrounding tissues.
It should be a part of your daily routine to check your cat’s incision at least four times a day for:
Openings in the skin
Missing or loosened sutures
If you notice any of these signs, it is important that you reach out to your veterinarian as soon as possible to prevent further issues in wound healing.
Removal will depend on the type and location of the sutures.
Sutures located inside of the body will not need to be removed. These sutures are absorbable, and over the course of a few months, will dissolve in the body. Some cats will have a mild suture reaction that may cause a small, hard, firm bump at the location of the suture knot. This is normal. If you notice large amounts of swelling or drainage, this may be caused by a suture reaction, and it will need to be addressed by your veterinarian immediately. These swellings can rupture and delay wound healing.
Sutures and staples on the outside of the body will need to be removed by a veterinary professional. Ask your veterinarian or technical staff at the time of discharge about suture removal. Discuss any questions about recovery and wound healing that you have. Have the staff show you the incision and what “normal” looks like. Looking at the incision with a trained professional can help you determine when something appears abnormal.
These external sutures can be absorbable or non-absorbable depending on the location and procedure. On average, external sutures and staples are removed 10-14 days after the procedure. This can change depending on the type of procedure and your cat’s healing process. Schedule a recheck examination to have the stapes/sutures removed and to have a professional check the area for any secondary issues or complications.
Bandages in particular will need to be addressed by your veterinarian. Bandages can cause constriction to some patients, and it is very important that you follow your veterinarian’s recommendation for bandage removal and recheck.
Keeping your cat in a bandage too long can create secondary issues like pressure wounds, necrotic tissue, and even infections.
Grooming and licking the surgical site can cause secondary complications such as infections, irritation, and damage to the sutures, making them fall out before they should.
In order to ensure proper healing of the area, your cat should not lick the surgery area, as their paws and mouth harbor bacteria that can lead to infection. Secondary infections of the skin are common from licking and grooming the surgery site.
Protecting the surgery area is very important, and for many incisions, bandages are not recommended since many wounds need air to help with healing. Also, bandages can create pressure that can cause other secondary issues.
Body Suits and Elizabethan Collars
Cats should wear a post-operative body suit or an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) to prevent infection and self-inflicted trauma. If your veterinarian has suggested that your cat wear an e-collar or a body suit, be sure to use it as directed. Removing it because it appears uncomfortable or you think that your cat is sad can lead to premature stitch removal and surgical site infection.
Check the suit or e-collar daily to ensure they it is properly fitted and is not causing any pressure sores or discomfort to your cat. The e-collar or body cover, when fitted properly, will still allow your cat to eat, drink, and use the bathroom.
These should be kept on your cat at all times, whether they are awake or sleeping. It is not advised to give your cat a “break” from their e-collar unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
Speak with your veterinarian if your cat is not comfortable or is stressed from using an e-collar, body suit, or bandage before removing it yourself.
Before, during, and after the procedure, veterinarians take many precautions to minimize the risk of a surgical site infection. Even with the best standards of care, infections can still occur after a procedure.
Infections occur when bacteria from the skin or surrounding environment invade an open wound. This can cause irritation and inflammation of the skin. Inflammation can start the process of fighting off infections by activating the immune system. White blood cells can start to accumulate at the site of the infection, creating a discolored (white, green, or yellow) discharge.
Monitor your cat for signs of infection:
- Discolored discharge from the incision
- Redness and swelling around the incision
- Signs of pain caused by inflammation: eating less, vomiting, lethargy, weakness, hiding, and other changes to normal behavior
- Wounds not healing
- Not drinking or drinking less
If you suspect that your cat has an infection, it is critical that you have your veterinarian assess the area as soon as possible. Topical ointments and over-the-counter medications will not be able to help the underlying issue. Do not use any previous antibiotics or medications from other pets or people.
Depending on the extent of the infection, your cat may require hospitalization for intravenous fluids (to help with dehydration and dialysis), antibiotics (specific to the type of infection), and other supportive therapies.
Persistent panting, heavy breathing, and increased respiration are abnormal in cats following surgery.
These can be caused by many factors depending on the procedure that was performed. Some causes are more serious than others. Contact your primary veterinarian as soon as possible to determine the next steps in your cat’s care.
Pain is the most common reason why your cat may pant or breathe heavily after surgery and during the recovery process. Pain medications only last a set amount of time and may begin to wear off, causing your cat to have an increase in respiration (fast, short breaths). Post-operative pain management can be hard in cats, and it requires a multimodal approach. Discussing your cat’s pain-management plan at discharge can help alleviate this concern.
Some medications (for example, opioids) can cause increased respiration and even increases in body temperature (fever). Medications used to manage pain, anxiety, and inflammation can have several different effects on the body and your cat’s behavior. Drugs used during anesthesia can also affect the way your cat behaves and affect breathing in some cases.
Medical Conditions and Issues
Other causes for changes in breathing include overhydration, heart conditions, lung conditions, complications of chest (thoracic) surgery, trauma, infection, and diseases affecting other organ systems (such as the liver or kidneys).
Anxiety and stress can also affect your cat’s breathing, but medical conditions should always be ruled out first by your veterinarian. Then stress and anxiety should be considered.
Consider using a pheromone diffuser (such as Feliway Classic) to help relieve stress and anxiety during the recovery period. Creating a safe space that is covered and dark can also help decrease stress in your cat. Set up a space for your cat that other cats and pets cannot enter to ensure a good resting place during recovery.
Ask your vet if you should be concerned about changes in breathing during discharge. This will help you know what to expect as you continue to monitor your cat at home.
Purring is a natural response to certain stimuli in cats. For many cat owners, this is a sign of comfort and pleasure. But you may not know that scientific research has shown that cats not only purr during times of contentment and happiness, but also during times of discomfort, pain, fear, and distress.
Purring can be a defense mechanism to help cats stay calm in stressful situations such as trips to the veterinarian office or even during recovery. Purring is a method of nonverbal communication but also a way to self-sooth and manage pain.
If your cat’s behavior has changed and you notice purring with other signs of discomfort, such as hiding, not eating, or not playing, speak with your veterinarian to discuss a multimodal pain-management plan and to rule out any other serious underlying conditions.
If you are able to rule out all medical issues, it is possible that stress or anxiety may be causing this response. Decreasing stress during the recovery period can help. Set up a quiet, dimly lit room as a safe space for your cat during recovery. Make sure this is a low-traffic area, and if possible, keep out other pets or distractions.
Give your cat exclusive access to her own clean, fresh water bowl, food dish, and a litter box with low sides to help decrease stress (so there is no need to compete for resources during the healing process).
Pheromone therapies (Feliway Classic) can help decrease stress and anxiety by diffusing calming pheromones that cats recognize as relaxing. You can also use a white noise machine or play soft classical music to help decrease the stress of the environment.
Any abnormal behavior changes in your cat after surgery are cause for concern. Pain and discomfort are two main reasons that cats hide in their litter box after surgery.
Call your veterinarian to discuss the pain medications and any changes needed to the pain-management plan to ensure that your cat is not in pain. Make sure you are following all instructions to restrict your cat’s activity. This may include no jumping, running, rough playing with other pets, or engaging in high-impact activities.
Many cats are often stressed after travel and even suffer from motion sickness during and/or after car rides, which can cause them to sleep in their litter boxes. These patients may require prescription anti-anxiety medications (such as Trazadone or Gabapentin) and anti-nausea medications (such as Cerenia). If you have noticed anxiety or stress before or after vet visits, speak with your veterinarian about travel anxiety and nausea to help decrease the side effects that your pet may experience once home.
Try these tips to reduce your cat’s anxiety and limit their activity:
Create a safe place that is free from other pets, distractions, or loud noises. Choose a space where your cat typically spends most of their time, as it will have familiar comforts and scents.
Set up a low-entry litter box in the same location
Give your cat a box or a covered space to rest in
Use pheromone therapies (such as Feliway Classic) to help decrease stress and anxiety – either use as a diffuser or a spray into the covered space.
Play white noise or classical music to help decrease the sounds of the outside
Give your cat their own food and water that other pets can’t access
Some sneezing may occur three to seven days after your cat undergoes a surgical procedure.
Speak with your veterinarian about certain medical conditions that can cause upper respiratory conditions in cats. The most common reason for this sneezing is Feline Upper Respiratory Complex. This condition occurs during times of physical or mental stress due to a series of underlying viruses—herpesvirus, among others.
Around 95% of cats carry herpesvirus, and it is subclinical (not noticeable) until a stressful event occurs. You might see clear nose and eye discharge along with sneezing. These symptoms will resolve in five to seven days. The symptoms are very mild and should not progress to other issues like open-mouth breathing, discolored eye and nasal discharge, or decreased eating.
In some cases, a secondary bacterial infection may occur. For these cases, take your cat for a recheck exam with your primary care veterinarian to determine the next steps in your cat’s care. If you notice yellow, green, or blood-tinged nasal discharge, this is not normal and should warrant a recheck as soon as possible.
Dental disease, upper and lower respiratory tract infections, heart disease, and other conditions can cause secondary respiratory complications. If your cat has had a procedure involving their teeth, chest, head, or lungs, ask your veterinarian if nasal discharge is expected after surgery.
Featured image: iStock.com/DenGuy