Your dog made it through surgery. You’re relieved, you’re exhausted… but now what? How do you take care of your dog after surgery?
Most of us are so worried about the surgery itself that we don’t think about the recovery period afterward.
But don’t worry – with some patience and persistence, your dog will be back to normal in a matter of weeks.
And here’s a spoiler: the two most important things you can do to help your dog heal quickly are to keep a cone on her and prevent her from running or jumping.
The First Night After Dog Surgery
Expect your dog to be groggy and tired – after all, she just had surgery!
It can take a while (even a couple days) for dogs to work all of the anesthesia out of their system, especially for sick or senior dogs.
Hanging out at the vet hospital is also not the most peaceful experience, so your dog is in need of a good nap.
Some medications can also cause grogginess. Opioids are the best-known for this, but the drug gabapentin can also cause sedation.
Some dogs who take gabapentin have no trouble at all and are bright and active. Others are totally wiped out.
The good news is that even if your dog is one who experiences sedation from gabapentin, most dogs adjust to it within a few days and stop having that effect.
Why Hasn’t My Dog Pooped After Surgery?
Your dog should urinate the first night after she has surgery, but not pooping is nothing to worry about.
It’s normal for a dog to not poop for four or five days after a surgery! There are a few reasons for this.
Anesthesia can cause some dogs to become constipated.
Also, remember that your dog skipped a meal, so there is less food in her system anyway. Many vet clinics also recommend giving just a small meal the night after surgery.
It can also be tricky for your dog to figure out how to position herself to defecate, especially if the surgery was on her leg.
Give your dog a couple days to poop, but if she hasn’t gone within the first four or five days after surgery, give your vet a call.
All About Dog Surgery Incisions
Your dog’s incision(s) will go through a couple different stages as it heals.
What Is Normal:
- Clear, thin discharge the first few days after surgery
- A small amount of bloody discharge the first few days after surgery
- Bruising around the incision (especially on light-colored dogs)
- Slight redness in the skin around the incision
- Mild crusting
What Is Not Normal:
- Thick discharge that looks like pus
- Persistent discharge
- Heavy bleeding
- Persistent bleeding
- Red skin that feels warm to the touch
- Lump under or near the incision
- Open incision
- Heavy crusting
- Dark, dead-looking skin or sloughing
The surgeon or veterinary technician will tell you how long your dog will need to wear her cone before her stitches come out.
The typical healing time for most incisions is 10-14 days.
However, in areas with a lot of motion, such as your dog’s back or over a joint, or if the skin is really fragile, it can take up to 21 days to heal.
Don’t worry if your dog has a long incision – incisions heal from side to side, not end to end, so a five-inch incision will heal in the same amount of time as a one-inch incision.
For routine surgeries, the suture removal is usually free or a nominal fee, and is quick.
A veterinary technician or assistant will take your dog, look at the incision to make sure everything looks ok, and remove the sutures. Your dog will not need sedation or anesthesia.
If the tech has any concerns, he or she can get a veterinarian to look at the incision.
For cancer patients, the suture removal may be combined with a recheck exam with the veterinarian. This is so that your vet can see your dog directly, and talk to you about how the healing process has gone.
Use the Cone!
Whether you choose a standard plastic Elizabethan collar, a soft cone, or a bodysuit, protecting your dog’s incision is absolutely imperative.
It only takes a second for your dog to lick or chew her incision and open it up.
Plus, dog mouths aren’t exactly the cleanest place on earth. Licking the incision could cause an infection.
The cone should be on at all times unless your dog is under direct supervision (being in the same room while you watch TV doesn’t count). This means overnight too!
Even if your dog doesn’t seem to show any interest in her incision, stick with it. It will often get itchy when her hair starts to grow in after a couple days.
We know the cone is annoying, and we know your dog doesn’t like it. But if your dog damages her incision, healing will take even longer.
If your dog damages her incision, healing will take even longer.
One of my dogs had a small cyst removed from her toe. Literally one stitch. While her cone was off, I stepped around the corner to turn off a light. Remember when I said it only takes a second? That’s all it took for her to remove that stitch.
That was on a Saturday night, and I didn’t really want to do the emergency vet thing. So I bandaged her foot up, and it had to heal on its own.
What should have taken 10 days took a full month, with bandage changes every day.
This is the other hard one for many owners after their dog has surgery.
Restricted activity means:
- Leash walks only (not on a retractable leash)
- No going outside off-leash, even briefly
- No running
- Avoid stairs as much as possible (and always on a leash and controlled)
- No rough play
- No getting on and off furniture
- Confined to a crate or small room in the house
Your veterinarian will tell you how long your dog needs to be kept quiet, along with any special restrictions for your dog’s case.
Surgeries that involve a leg, especially if the incision is over a joint, will require the strictest lockdown.
If your dog is really high-energy, your veterinarian can prescribe a sedative to help keep her calm during the healing period.
A Healing Incision is Like Gluing Something Together
A healing incision is like when you glue something together.
If you apply the glue, line up the pieces, and then immediately start wiggling them, the glue will never bond. Your item will remain broken.
Your dog’s body is trying to glue the incision back together. If she is constantly running around, jumping, and being a nut, the incision will not be able to heal.
Even worse, she could tear her stitches through her skin, causing the incision to open up.
Leash walks only means leash walks only – if your dog is outside, even in a fenced yard, she should be on a leash.
This is why your dog has to be on a leash at all times when outside, even in your yard.
We believe that your dog is normally very good, we really do.
But all it takes is one squirrel.
And as your dog tears off across the yard or down the street, she could be ripping open her incision.
And you know what’s less fun than keeping your dog quiet after surgery?
Paying to re-do the surgery a second time, and starting back at day one.
No one wants that to happen, including your vet!
Keeping Your Dog Confined in the House
Restricting activity is just as important inside the house as it is outside the house.
Here are some options:
- Play pen or exercise pen. These pens are portable and flexible, making them a nice item to have even when your dog is healthy. For little dogs, you can get a fabric pen, but for large dogs we recommend a tall metal pen for extra stability.
- Small room. Use baby gates to keep your dog in one room. This is a good option for large dogs. Just don’t forget to remove or block off furniture so she can’t jump on and off!
- Leash. If you don’t have a lot of space or if your dog gets stressed out by confinement, a leash is an easy fix. Your dog can go with you from room to room and lounge while you work or hang out. A six-foot leash is perfect – retractable leashes give too much freedom.
- Crate. When in doubt, go with the good ol’ crate. Ideally choose a large crate so your dog has room to maneuver a little, and keep in mind that your dog may need some help turning around with her cone on.
If your dog normally sleeps in bed with you, you will need to make sure she can’t jump off the bed in the middle of the night. Solutions for this include having her sleep in a crate next to your bed, or using an exercise pen to barricade your bed and turn it into a giant crate.
You can also teach your dog to use a ramp to get on and off the bed. If she isn’t already 100% reliable with the ramp, you will still need to barricade other access points so that the only way she can get on or off the bed is by using the ramp.
Things That Can Go Wrong
A seroma is a fluid-filled pocket under or near the incision. They usually feel a little soft, and the skin will look normal. Sometimes there might be clear discharge from the incision. Seromas are not infected, and usually just happen because the dog has been too active.
To resolve the seroma, your veterinarian will likely recommend being stricter with activity restriction as well as alternating warm and cold compresses to encourage the fluid to disperse.
An open incision is concerning because that gap can allow tissues and organs to slip out of your dog’s body, or allow bacteria to get in.
Neither of these are good.
If your dog’s incision opens up, your vet may need to resuture it. Small gaps may be allowed to heal on their own.
Expect a course of antibiotics to prevent or resolve infection.
While rare, even a properly closed incision can sometimes become infected. Signs of infection include red, irritated skin, skin warm to the touch, and possibly lethargy.
Your veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection.
For surgeries involving bone, being too active too soon can lead to fractures.
Healing bones aren’t as strong as healthy bones, and they can break if too much stress is put on them.
A fracture would likely mean additional surgery to repair the fracture.
In rare cases, a dog could have uncontrolled bleeding after surgery.
This might be due to a clotting disorder, the dog being too active and tearing sutures, or a blood vessel inside the body not being properly closed during the procedure.
Depending on the location and severity of the bleeding, your dog might need emergency care and/or surgery to stop it.
When to Be Concerned
Call your vet if you notice:
- Open incision
- Heavy bleeding
- Thick discharge
- Persistent discharge
- Angry, red skin that is warm to the touch
- Lump under or near the incision
- Lethargy that either persists or returns after a couple days
If you have any questions about your dog’s incision, you can also often take a picture and send it to your vet through their email or to a hospital cell phone.
If you opted to send out your dog’s tumor for a histopathology report, it will be a couple days before you get those results.
The turnaround is typically 5-10 business days, but may vary depending on your location.
Why the wait? The sample first needs to get to the lab, then they have to process it. This usually involves cutting very thin slices that can be looked at under a microscope and staining them to make different cell structures stand out.
Then the results have to make their way back to your veterinary hospital and on to you.
Takeaways on Caring for Your Dog After Surgery
- Expect that your dog won’t feel her best right after surgery, but will improve over the next couple of days.
- Use a cone or other protective device to prevent your dog from licking or chewing at the incision.
- Follow instructions for activity restriction to the letter. Be strong – it is worth the hassle to get your dog healed up quickly!
- If you are unsure, send a picture of the incision to your vet.
- Schedule a suture removal appointment if needed.
Two weeks might feel like forever, but before you know it, your dog will be back to normal activity!
You can watch the video recording of my conversation about post-operative care with Jim on Dog Cancer Answers here:
You can also read the full transcript on the episode page of 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.