Dog Surgery Aftercare FAQs

Published: April 28, 2021
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After your dog’s surgery, you’ll likely be asked to administer medications for pain, monitor the surgery area, and perform special tasks at home to help your dog on the road to recovery.

While these may be simple tasks for a veterinary professional, they can be a bit overwhelming to a dog owner. Knowing what to expect and what to watch for can be helpful. Specific aftercare instructions will vary depending on the nature of your dog’s surgery, their condition before the procedure, and whether there were any complications.

This guide for dog surgery aftercare will answer the most frequently asked questions, explain what you can expect, and tell you what to look for as your dog recovers at home.

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Should my dog be constipated after surgery?

It’s not unusual for there to be a delay between the time your pet comes home and when they have their first bowel movement.

Your dog can become constipated during times of illness, and on occasion, after anesthesia and surgery. Signs of constipation include straining to pass feces; passing minimal amounts of small, dry, hard stool; vocalizing while attempting to pass stool; and making frequent attempts.

Drugs used during anesthesia can slow down gut movement in general. Surgical manipulation of the digestive tract can also lead to this. In addition, you were likely asked to fast your dog prior to surgery, which means their gut may initially be empty (having nothing to pass).

Most times, your dog should have a bowel movement within 48 hours of being discharged from the hospital. If you don’t see one after that time, or you see signs of straining or discomfort, check in with your dogs’ veterinarian on the next best steps.  

Your vet may advise dietary changes or supplements with monitoring at home, or they may recommend seeing your dog for an exam. Treatment prescribed may include medications to stimulate or soften a bowel movement, a diet change, a fiber supplement, hydration support, or enemas, depending on your dog’s status.

Is it normal for my dog to leak urine after surgery?

Your dog should urinate normally after surgery. However, if your dog is in pain, they may be reluctant to move around and posture to urinate. This can lead to accidents in the house.

You can help by ensuring your dog’s pain is adequately controlled. Talk with your vet before you take your dog home to ensure that a pain-management plan is in place.

Other factors can affect your dog’s willingness or even their ability to urinate post-surgery, some of which you may not be able to influence. This includes things like:

  • The type of procedure performed

  • The location of the surgery site

  • The stability and hydration level before, during, and after surgery

  • The type of anesthesia drugs used (or special pain-management techniques used, such as an epidural)

  • The volume of fluids your pet received

Ask your vet if there were any complication or things you need to be aware of that may influence your dog’s ability to urinate post-surgery. In some cases, your dog may need assistance to walk outside to urinate. Ask your vet for a demonstration on how to safely carry or support your dog, if need be. Towels or blankets can be used as slings, but it’s important that your vet show you where to place them (to avoid injuring the surgical site).

What if my dog is howling or straining to urinate after surgery?

Inability to urinate is a medical emergency and warrants a trip to the vet right away.

Straining or vocalizing during urination may be a sign of a pain, discomfort, or even a urinary blockage.

Is it normal for my dog to pee a lot after surgery?

If your dog received IV fluids during their hospital stay, they may urinate more than usual during the first 24-48 hours at home. Their urine may look more clear or normal in color and should occur without difficulty.

Some drugs given during anesthesia and surgery can cause a temporary increase in urination. Your vet can tell you whether this is to be expected and for how long.

Less commonly, you may notice an increase (or even decrease) in urination if your dog experienced a complication during the anesthetic procedure. Examples would be persistent low blood pressure or losing a large volume of blood or fluid.

A decrease in blood pressure or fluid and blood volume means less blood flow to the kidneys. If this persists for long enough, the kidneys can sustain a bit of damage and lose some ability to function.

If kidney function has been affected, your pet may produce more or less urine. Most times this will also be accompanied by signs of illness, such as reduced appetite, vomiting, nausea, or lethargy (due to toxins building up in your dog’s system).

Your veterinarian will tell you if they have any concerns and if special monitoring is required. If your dog is peeing more or peeing less after 24 hours at home, or has other signs of illness, speak with your vet as soon as possible.

What can I give my dog for pain after surgery?

Pain management is an essential part of dog surgery aftercare. Managing your dog’s pain will not only help them feel better but can positively influence their recovery.

Dogs that are pain-free are more likely to want to get up, move around, and eat after surgery. If their pain is not managed, they may be reluctant to do so.

Talk with your dog’s veterinarian before you take them home. Ask what the pain-management plan is going to be. This will likely involve a multimodal approach to keep your dog comfortable, including medications to manage pain and inflammation, exercises to encourage mobility, and instructions for general activity restriction.

In some cases, sedatives may also be dispensed to keep your dog calm. 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.

Only use veterinary prescribed pain medications for your dog. Many over-the-counter human pain medications can be toxic, and in some cases lethal, to dogs. Do not use medications that your vet did not specifically prescribe for them. Each dog is also different, so it’s not safe to use another dog’s medication, either, unless directly instructed to do so by your vet.

Be sure you are on the same page with your veterinarian in terms of what your dog needs. In addition to giving veterinary-prescribed pain medication, there are other things you may be able to do to help (depending what type of surgery your dog had).

This can include things like cool-packing surgical sites, encouraging passive exercise and passive range of motion, and providing a comfy safe space for your dog to rest. Ask your vet if any of those would be beneficial for your dog’s recovery.

Most importantly, read the surgical discharge instructions your vet sends home. These will have important aftercare instructions on how to best take care of your dog.

What do I do if my dog is not eating after surgery?

There are many reasons why your dog could have a reduced appetite post-surgery. Some are more serious than others. Pain, medication, fever, infection, inflammation, and stress can play a role. In some cases, inappetence may be due to a complication of the surgical procedure itself.

If your dog is not willing to eat or is only eating small amounts, call your vet for the next best steps. They may suggest adjusting medications or trying a different diet or bringing your dog in for a recheck. In most cases, inappetence lasting more than 12-24 hours requires a visit to the vet for further care.

When you first pick your dog up from the vet, ask if there’s any reason for your dog to have a reduced appetite. In some cases, your vet may send home a special diet. This could be for long-term or short-term use depending on the nature of their procedure.

Also ask for feeding instructions, including:

  • When a first meal should be given

  • How often to feed your dog and how much

  • Whether their food needs to be softened or even warmed

  • Whether your dog’s regular diet is okay to feed

Is it normal for my dog to be vomiting after surgery?

It is not normal for your dog to vomit after surgery, and it could be due to pain, medication or effects from anesthesia, fever, infection, inflammation, or complications of the surgery itself.

In fact, vomiting is never really a normal thing for dogs.

If your dog starts to vomit after surgery, call your veterinarian right away for advice. If it’s after hours and your vet is closed, consider having your dog seen at an emergency clinic, especially if they have vomited more than once.

In some cases, your vet may recommend things like a bland diet and monitoring at home. If your dog has had abdominal surgery, your vet may want to see them right away, as further vomiting could interfere with healing of the surgical site.

What do I do if my dog's stitches are coming out? When should my dog's stitches be removed?

Your dog may come home with stitches after surgery. Here’s a guide to the different types of stitches (or “sutures”) for dogs and the aftercare for each.

Stitch material can be absorbable or nonabsorbable. Absorbable stitches do not usually require removal, whereas nonabsorbable stitches almost always do. There are occasional exceptions to this.

Stitches can also be used in different ways to close surgical sites. For example, some stitches are “buried” under the skin. With buried stitches, you are not likely to see them at all, and they usually do not require removal.

Other times, stitches are used to close a surgical site by going through the top layers of the skin. These are usually visible on the skin’s surface and would typically require removal by a veterinary professional.

At discharge, be sure to ask your vet if and when your dog’s stitches need to come out. It’s also important to ask your vet, or the technician, to show you your dog’s surgical site. This will help you to know what things should look like as they heal.

Most times, stitches are removed 14 days after surgery, if there are no complications. Some surgical procedures and surgical sites require stitches to stay in longer.

If your dog prematurely removes stitches (or they come undone on their own), this can lead to complications with wound healing and possibly infection. If you see stitch material popping out of your dog’s incision, or notice the stitches have become loose, untied, or chewed, check in with a veterinarian right away for the next best steps.

Is it bad for my dog to lick the incision site? Does my dog have to wear a cone?

Dogs are often sent home with cones after surgery. The “cone” or “e-collar” (short for Elizabethan collar) can be a very useful tool when used properly and can help protect your dog’s incision.

If your vet has sent home an e-collar, use it as directed. This usually means keeping it on your dog at all times, even when they eat and sleep. Taking it off because you feel bad for your dog can lead to premature stitch removal and surgical site infection. This can create more problems for your pet. If you are worried about the fit, call your vet.

Your veterinarian or the veterinary technician can show you how to properly place the e-collar on your dog. When worn appropriately, the e-collar should prevent your dog from licking their incision, chewing at their wound, or removing their stitches.

If your dog has access to the surgery site, it can result in the incision opening up and becoming infected, and can cause damage to tissues.

Most times, your vet will suggest the cone be worn until stitches are removed or wounds are healed. Follow your veterinarian’s instructions even if you don’t think your dog will lick their wounds.

If you are unsure how long your dog should wear their e-collar, check in with the vet. The e-collar (when fitted appropriately) will still allow your dog to eat, drink, and use the bathroom. Do not give your dog a “break” from their e-collar unless instructed by your vet.

What are the signs of infection?

Veterinarians take several precautions to minimize the risk of a surgical site infection. Even so, it’s important to know what signs to watch for at home.

The signs of infection are not always easy to recognize and can be vague. Infection can be present on the surface of the skin (at the incision site) or deeper in the tissue.

If there’s infection inside the body or deeper tissue, your dog may:

  • Be lethargic

  • Run a fever

  • Refuse food

If the incision site itself is infected, you may see these signs:

  • The area may be warm, red, and painful to the touch.

  • There may be swelling and/or discharge at the surgical site.

  • Your dog may be reluctant to stand up and move around.

  • Your dog may even vomit or have diarrhea.

If you suspect your dog may have an infection, let their veterinarian know right away. They will likely recommend an examination to check the surgical site and maybe run some diagnostic tests (lab work, imaging such as x-ray or ultrasound).

If an infection is found, antibiotics and other therapies may be prescribed. Depending on your dog’s signs, they may require hospitalization for administration of IV fluids, antibiotics, and other supportive therapies.

Why is my dog shaking after surgery?

There are a variety of reasons why your dog might shake after surgery.

For some dogs, shaking may have been part of their “normal” behavior before surgery, or you may already be aware of a condition that causes shaking in your dog.

If it’s not normal for your dog to shake, check in with their veterinarian. Shaking after surgery can be due to:

  • Pain

  • Changes in body temperature, such as hypothermia

  • Effects of medications or anesthesia drugs

  • An underlying medical condition just starting to show

Depending on your dog’s status, your veterinarian may suggest a recheck exam and/or make changes or adjustments to their medications.

My dog had a seizure after surgery. Is this normal?

Seizures in dogs are never normal and are not expected after surgery.

Seizure activity lasting more than 3 minutes can have harmful effects. If this occurs, take your dog to a veterinarian right away for an exam.

If your dog has already been diagnosed with a seizure disorder and is taking anti-seizure medication, ask your veterinarian if any adjustments will be needed post-surgery.

If your dog has never had a seizure before and experiences a seizure at home, stay calm. Try to:

  • Prevent your dog from injuring themselves.

  • Keep track of how long it’s lasted (video can be helpful for your vet but is not always top of mind during a stressful event).

  • Take care not to get bitten.

  • Call your veterinarian and or seek emergency veterinary care right away.

Watching your dog have a seizure can be very scary. Most times, seizure activity will look like an uncontrolled episode of collapse combined with involuntary movement of the body. This can involve a dog’s entire body or just parts of their body. Usually, dogs lose consciousness and are dazed afterward, and they may experience an elevation in body temperature.

Seizures can occur as a result of:

  • Something going on inside the brain itself, such as:

    • Infection

    • Inflammation

    • Tumors

  • Something going on elsewhere in the body that affects the brain, such as:

    • Toxins

    • Medications

    • Organ dysfunction

    • Changes in blood sugar levels

    • Inflammation

    • Infection

My dog is panting/breathing heavily after surgery.

Persistent panting and heavy breathing are not normal findings after surgery. They can occur for a few reasons, with some being more serious than others.

If you are seeing changes in your dog’s breathing, check in with your veterinarian right away. If your dog’s breathing appears labored or difficult, or their energy is low, or their gums look pale, gray, or bluish, please go to a vet immediately. 

Here are some reasons for heavy breathing after surgery.

Medications

One reason may be drugs or medications. Medications used to manage pain, anxiety, and inflammation can have several different effects on your dog’s body and behavior. Drugs used during anesthesia can also affect the way your dog behaves and breathes in some cases.

Ask your vet if there’s reason to be concerned about your dog’s breathing when you pick your dog up. This will help you know what to expect as you continue to monitor them at home.

Pain

Pain is another reason your dog may pant or breathe heavily after surgery. If the drugs used to manage pain during anesthesia are wearing off, you may start to see changes in your dog's behavior. Discussing your dog’s pain-management plan at the surgical discharge appointment can help you avoid this.

Stress

Anxiety and stress can also affect your dog’s breathing behavior. Medical conditions should always be considered first. Once medical causes are ruled out by your veterinarian, stress and anxiety can be considered.

Other causes for changes in breathing include over-hydration, heart conditions, lung conditions, complications of chest (thoracic) surgery, trauma, infection, and diseases affecting other organ systems (such as the liver or kidneys).

Why is my dog coughing after surgery?

There are many reasons why a dog may cough after surgery. Because many causes can be serious, contact your vet right away if your dog is coughing. They can give you the best recommendation, which may include a recheck exam.

In some cases, a cough can be confused with something else, such as a retch, gag, or attempts to vomit. If that’s the case, have a vet examine your pet immediately. Retching and gagging can be signs of a serious and life-threatening medical emergency, such as a condition called bloat (where the stomach fills with gas and can twist). If you are unsure which is going on, it's best to see a vet right away to be sure of the cause. 

Intubation

If your dog had general anesthesia, it usually means a tube was placed in their airway (trachea) to help them breathe the anesthesia gas. This is called intubation. Intubation can, in some cases, lead to a slight irritation of the trachea and may cause a dog to cough after anesthesia and surgery.

Infection

Coughing can also be due to infection (such as pneumonia), which could occur if your dog vomited while they were under anesthesia and inhaled (aspirated) stomach fluid.

Other Causes

Other causes of cough (not necessarily related to surgery) include:

  • Kennel cough

  • Inflammatory or allergic airway disease (asthma or bronchitis)

  • Parasites (lungworm, heartworm disease)

  • Specific conditions (collapsing trachea, tumors)

  • Disease in other systems, such as the heart

If your dog’s cough becomes worse, their breathing appears labored or difficult, their energy is low, or their gums look pale, gray, or bluish, please go to a vet immediately. 

My dog is depressed after surgery. What can I do?

Your dog could seem a bit down after surgery. They just went through a big ordeal, and depending on their age, health status before the procedure, type of procedure, and length of procedure, it can take a while to recover.

In the immediate post-surgery period, your dog may want to sleep. This is usually because they are still feeling the effects of anesthesia. During this time, you should still be able to rouse your dog to get their attention. They should be able to pick their head up and stand to move around if needed. They should seem aware of their surroundings.

That said, pain and sedative medication (both may be used during anesthesia) may take a bit of time to completely wear off, making it hard to know if your dog’s lack of energy is normal or not.

Your dog's energy should start to return to normal over their first 12-24 hours at home. However, if you are worried, or they seem more lethargic than expected, or they are not perking up with time, or you cannot rouse them, check in with your vet right away.

These can be signs of a more serious issue or surgical complication. Your vet may suggest bringing your dog in for reassessment to be sure. Your dog should want to get up to go to the bathroom, eat a small meal, and drink water over the first few hours at home. If this is not happening, it’s time to check in with their vet.

My dog has a runny nose after surgery. Why?

Your dog's nose may run after surgery for several different reasons. Some may be related to anesthesia and surgery, while others may not. Some causes are more serious than others.

If your dog has had a procedure involving the teeth, chest, head, or lungs, ask your vet if nasal discharge is expected after surgery. Ask for a list of signs to expect and information on when to be concerned. When in doubt, call your vet for the next best steps.

A dog’s nose can run if they have an infection, irritation, or allergies. It can also run if they’ve had surgery involving the nose or sinuses, or even a dental procedure. Overhydration or respiratory and heart conditions can also lead to a runny nose in some cases, usually also accompanied by difficult or labored breathing and/or coughing.

The nature of the discharge (meaning the color and whether it’s coming from one nostril or both) can be very helpful:

  • Clear nasal discharge in a dog that is otherwise happy and recovering well may not be a big deal.

  • Yellow, green, or blood-tinged nasal discharge is usually not considered normal and should warrant a check-in with the vet right away. This is especially important if you are noticing other abnormal signs in your dog, like sneezing, coughing, having trouble breathing, fever, lethargy, or refusal to eat.

 

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