The day of dog surgery is always a bit stressful, whether it is just a routine procedure or involved tumor removal. Let’s go over the general timeline that most veterinary practices follow, what you can do to help your dog, and what you can expect.
What Happens the Day of Dog Surgery
The exact schedule for the day will vary from hospital to hospital. Some facilities have a dedicated day just for surgeries, while others either alternate appointments and surgeries or lump surgeries together during part of the day. You can ask about this ahead of time.
Here is a general outline of what your dog’s day will look like.
Regardless of what time your dog’s surgery will actually take place, most hospitals will want your dog dropped off first thing in the morning.
Don’t be late!
Dropping your dog off on time is really important for the veterinary staff to start preparing for and planning out the day’s surgeries and appointments.
Plan a little time to go over admission paperwork (more on that later).
Dropping off for surgery will take longer than dropping off for a checkup exam or vaccinations, but this process helps to make sure that everyone is on the same page and that no details are missed.
2. Prepping for Surgery
Once your dog heads to “the back” with a veterinary technician, preparation for his surgery begins.
All patients get a physical exam from the veterinarian before going under anesthesia. This is to make sure that nothing has changed since your dog was last seen, and that your dog is healthy enough for surgery.
If you approved pre-anesthetic bloodwork, the technician will draw blood and get it running. If anything comes back abnormal, the veterinarian will give you a call to discuss the plan for going forward.
Sometimes this will just mean some changes to the drug protocol to give your dog an easier recovery.
Other times it might mean that your dog’s surgery will be postponed for another day when he is healthier.
Cancer patients usually get X-rays before surgery to check for new spread. If it’s found, especially if it’s in the lungs, your vet will call you immediately – and it might not be worth putting your dog through the surgery.
For cancer patients, veterinarians often recommend doing an x-ray or two on the morning of surgery to check for metastasis (spread of the cancer). If your dog already has “mets” in his lungs or elsewhere, it may not be worth putting him through the procedure. The veterinarian will give you a call immediately if anything looks abnormal.
If your dog has a history of heart problems, the veterinarian may also recommend an electrocardiogram (ECG). This is to make sure that his heart is functioning normally before he goes under anesthesia.
The veterinarian may also start intravenous (IV) fluids before the surgery to help with hydration and support your dog’s kidneys.
3. The Surgery Itself
Some hospitals or surgeons might give you a call right before your dog goes into surgery, to let you know they are about to begin.
But in most cases, if the pre-surgery bloodwork and imaging is going well, they just head right into the operating room.
Your dog will be closely monitored during the procedure to make sure that he is doing well. Don’t worry, several people are working with your veterinarian to make sure everything is safe.
The length of the surgery will depend on where the tumor is and how difficult it is to remove. Sometimes what was assumed to be a short surgery turns out to be more involved. And other times, what was supposed to be a long surgery takes less time!
Once surgery begins, your veterinarian will not want to take time to call you, because getting your dog in and out of surgery efficiently is their top priority.
If you don’t hear from your veterinarian, the surgery is probably still going on.
4. After Surgery
Once your dog is off the anesthesia, he will be moved to his kennel to recover.
Most hospitals keep a staff member right with the dog until he is totally awake. They make sure he is breathing and comfortable, not twisted or positioned weirdly.
Feel free to ask about this if you want some extra reassurance!
At this point, you will usually get a call from either the surgeon or a vet tech. Don’t read too far into who makes the call – yes, if there is bad news, it will probably be the surgeon, but some surgeons just prefer to speak to owners directly.
Your dog will have a trained staff member with him until he wakes up.
This phone call is to let you know that the surgery is done (and you can breathe again!) and to schedule a pick-up time.
Note: some surgeons like to make all of their calls at once at the end of their surgery schedule. This could be late in the day.
Your dog will spend the next few hours resting and working the anesthesia drugs out of his system. He will be quite groggy during this time.
The staff will watch him for any signs of pain or other complications and adjust medications as needed. Some dogs may be kept on fluids for a while for extra hydration.
You might be wondering: Why can’t I pick up my dog immediately after surgery is over?!
This is because it takes time to clear the body of most of the anesthesia, and while that is going on, your dog will be disoriented. He will be much safer recovering in the hospital, where the veterinary team can keep an eye on him and provide extra medical care immediately if needed.
Try to be patient for those next few hours (or sometimes overnight), and know that your dog is in good hands.
When you do arrive to pick your dog up, remember that he probably won’t be feeling his best. After all, he just had surgery!
Some things to keep in mind are:
- Your dog may be groggy. This is normal and pretty common. Young, healthy dogs may bounce out of the hospital like nothing happened, but most dogs are tired after surgery, especially older dogs.
- Your dog may stumble. This is also nothing to worry about in the short term. Your dog still has some of the anesthesia drugs in his system and is also figuring out how to navigate with his new cone or bodysuit.
- Some hair will be shaved. This is so that the areas around the incision and where the catheter is placed (usually a front leg) can be made as sterile as possible to prevent infection.
6. The Discharge
When the hospital releases your dog back to your care, that’s called a “discharge.” There are always instructions given at this point on how to care for your dog after surgery.
Either the surgeon or a veterinary technician will go over your dog’s discharge instructions in detail.
Ask for a copy of the discharge in writing. I guarantee that you are not really able to pay full attention while reuniting with your dog after surgery, and you will forget something.
And that’s ok! You have had a stressful day. You’re relieved that your dog made it through surgery, and you’re worried about the recovery period.
Getting the discharge in writing gives you something to refer back to when you have a question about your dog’s care.
Most veterinary hospitals automatically give you a written discharge, but if not, ask for one.
The discharge should include:
- When your dog can eat
- What meds he needs and when to give them
- Activity restrictions
- When the sutures can come out
- Notes about the procedure itself
Special Note: No Breakfast Means No Breakfast!
Your vet has probably told you this a hundred times already, but do not feed breakfast on the day of your dog’s surgery.
There are several very good reasons for this, and I cannot express how important it is that your dog does NOT have breakfast before surgery.
First, it’s because dogs lose their swallow reflex while under anesthesia.
If your dog vomits up food or water while asleep, there is nothing to stop those substances from aspirating into his lungs.
Food and water don’t belong in the lungs, and can cause coughing and even pneumonia.
Second, eating a meal can also affect some of your dog’s bloodwork results, and may make interpreting them difficult.
So what happens if someone in your house (not you, of course!) feeds your dog the morning of the surgery?
It’s important to let the veterinary team know. The surgeon may choose to delay your dog’s surgery for a couple hours until the food can move past the stomach and into the intestines, or you may have to reschedule the surgery for another day.
These setbacks are as frustrating for your vet as they are for you, so leave yourself and all of your family members lots of reminders not to feed your dog breakfast.
Things to Bring the Day of Dog Surgery
Here are some things to bring with you when you drop your dog off for surgery:
- Cone or bodysuit that fits your dog
- Medications (in case he needs to stay overnight and so that the surgeon knows everything he is taking)
- Copies of records and bloodwork (if your dog has been seeing multiple vets)
Expect to fill out some paperwork the morning of the surgery, so plan some extra time (you may be able to pick this up ahead of time).
The exact details will vary from hospital to hospital, but here are some things that are frequently included:
- Signature to give permission for the surgery
- Phone number(s) where you can be reached in case of emergency
- Any add-on procedures, such as nail trim or ear cleaning
- Flea Policy (see below)
- “Lump chart” to mark the location of lumps being removed
- CPR/DNR form
Accurate phone numbers are extremely important! If something does go wrong, your veterinarian will need to be able to reach you quickly.
You should know that most hospitals have a policy in place that they automatically treat any dog found to have fleas. This is so that the hospital and other patients don’t get infested with these parasites. Usually the product of choice is Capstar (nitenpyram), which acts quickly to kill fleas on the body but doesn’t last long. It won’t mess up your regular flea/tick at-home treatments.
CPR vs. DNR
No one wants to think about the worst-case scenario, and there are lots of things vets do in their pre-surgery tests to avoid this situation… but it’s important to think about what you want your team to do if your dog dies during surgery.
Deciding ahead of time what you would like done in case of an emergency will allow your veterinary team to work quickly if they have to.
CPR = Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation
DNR = Do Not Resuscitate
If you opt for CPR, you are giving the veterinary team permission to initiate CPR immediately if your dog goes into cardiopulmonary arrest.
Ask what CPR entails at your veterinary hospital. All hospitals are capable of basic CPR, consisting of chest compressions, assisted breathing, and oxygen therapy.
Some specialty hospitals may offer open-chest CPR, where the surgeon will open your dog’s chest and work directly on the heart. Open-chest CPR can be beneficial for large or deep-chested dogs, but it is also more invasive and more expensive.
If you opt for DNR, you are declining lifesaving measures if your dog goes into cardiopulmonary arrest (heart and/or lungs stop working).
There is no wrong answer. You and your dog are unique, and the best choice for you might not be the best choice for someone else.
If your dog is young and doing well overall, you will likely opt for CPR. If your dog is elderly or has a lot of health problems, you might choose DNR. But this is a very personal choice, and there is no formula that tells you which choice you “have” to make.
Why Can’t I Stay With My Dog?
This is a common question that veterinarians get from owners. There are two primary reasons why you can’t stay with your dog up until he goes into the operating room:
This is a hospital, an inherently unsafe place for people who are not trained. There are needles, surgical instruments, and drugs (some of which can be dangerous if used inappropriately).
As a veterinary hospital, there are also a variety of animal patients – not all of them usually-friendly canines. Other dogs and other animals may not be friendly and may or may not be happy about being there. No one wants someone else’s pet to hurt you!
If there is an emergency, such as a hit-by-car cat or a dog having a seizure, the staff will need to move quickly to get that pet stabilized.
It is just not safe for people without proper training to be hanging out in the back of the hospital. You could get hurt, or if you are in the way you could cause someone else to get hurt.
If you think about it, you can’t hang out in surgery in a human hospital, either, for the same reasons.
Many owners are very sensitive about their pets.
They may not want strangers looking at their dogs when they aren’t feeling good or watching their dog undergo surgery. They may not want their pet’s illness to be public knowledge. Respect these wishes.
Also, no one wants an audience when they have to make the difficult decision to euthanize. Veterinary professionals strive to make the final goodbye as peaceful and private as possible.
Why Haven’t I Gotten a Phone Call Yet?
I get it – I have been the owner anxiously waiting next to my phone. It’s nerve-wracking!
The good news is that in most cases, no news really is good news.
No phone call means your dog’s bloodwork looked fine, his chest x-rays were clear, and he is ready for his surgery. Everything is going according to the plan that your vet mapped out for you.
If something does go wrong, your veterinarian won’t sit on it. He or she will call you as soon as possible to let you know the options and to ask you what you would like them to do.
In most surgeries, no news really is good news.
If you tend to be one of those people who panics the longer you wait by a silent phone (that would be me), ask when you drop your dog off what time his surgery is likely to be and when they usually call owners with updates.
This allows you to know when to expect a call, and when it is too early.
Many vets give an update when the surgery is over, but others might wait to call until all of the surgeries are done for that day. Your vet’s staff will know which is true in your case.
Calling in to ask for an update is an option, but try to limit these calls. Answering the phone pulls staff members away from their patients, and having someone interrupt a surgery is never a smart idea.
It really is best to wait until you get your call. I promise, they have not forgotten you… they are just intensely focused on the welfare of your dog!
Why Was So Much Hair Shaved?
Surgery haircuts are rarely fashionable, but they do serve an important purpose (and we promise the hair will grow back!).
Your dog’s hair will be shaved in two places: around the incision(s), and where the catheter is placed (usually a front leg).
This is to protect your dog. Hair can trap dirt, debris, and bacteria – all things that you do NOT want getting inside your dog’s body!
After the technician shaves the hair, he or she will scrub the skin with an antiseptic to remove as much bacteria as possible. This creates a sterile field around the incision site.
The shaved area around the incision may appear excessively large to you.
But you’re not the one performing surgery! Surgeons need adequate space to work, and sometimes have to make a wider cut than they could see on imaging.
By shaving a much larger area than they expect to need, they make it quick and easy to expand the field, if needed.
This also means that they don’t have to interrupt the surgery to shave more, sterilize, and re-wash/sterilize/glove up. No sense having sterile gloves if they touch dirty hair and get contaminated!
Your Dog’s Hair Will Grow Back
While your dog may look ridiculous after surgery, the hair will grow back.
Sometimes the hair grows in a slightly different color or texture, but usually after your dog’s next shed cycle it will come in normally.
Also, the bare skin may darken a little. This is nothing to worry about – it’s just skin pigment being generated to protect the newly exposed skin.
Your dog is in good hands. Surgery is often the best way to deal with dog cancer – get those bad cells out of there! And your veterinary team wants your dog to be happy and healthy just as badly as you do.
Drop your dog off on time, read through all of the paperwork, and keep your phone on in case the vet needs to reach you.
Before you know it, your pup will be back out through those doors, ready to greet you.
We have a video recording of my conversation on this topic with Jim from Dog Cancer Answers:
You can read the full transcript on the episode page on the Dog Cancer Answers website.
Paws and wags,
PS: Feel free to share this article or the podcast itself with your veterinarian and their staff.
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Kate Basedow grew up training and showing dogs, and her passion for canines has affected all parts of her life. She earned a BA in English from Cornell University and an AAS in Veterinary Science from SUNY Delhi, and is a licensed veterinary technician in the state of New York. Her writing on dog-related topics has earned numerous awards from the Dog Writers’ Association of America and the Alliance of Purebred Dog Writers. Kate currently serves and adores two Belgian Tervuren and a Pembroke Welsh Corgi.