Caring for Your Pet After Surgery

So, your pet has had an operation and the vet has given them the all-clear to go home and start their recovery. But, how do you care for your pet at home and ensure they recover well?

No matter what the surgery, whether it’s a routine operation or something more serious, your pet will need to spend some time recovering and recuperating at home and, frustrating as it is, we can’t explain to them how to do this! With a human, doctors can prescribe a few days’ bed rest or some light exercises, depending on what the patient needs – and the patient will do as they’re told. Vets can do the same, but the animal won’t comprehend a word of it, so it’s up to the owner to ensure they follow this recovery programme (you know, the one they don’t understand and don’t want to do!). Yep. I never said this was going to be easy…!

There are four main areas to focus on if you’ve got a pet who needs to recover from an operation. These are: preventing self-trauma, pain relief, exercise control and maintaining food intake.

Preventing self-trauma

I’m not for a moment suggesting this will be intentional but, when an animal has had an operation, they will be sore at the site of the surgery (and internally, too). Animals deal with pain or injury by licking or chewing at their wound. There’s even a saying about it: ‘licking your wounds’ means taking yourself off to recover from something unpleasant. This is an instinctive response which does actually have a sound basis because, as well as feeling soothing, it can help wild animals to clean dirt or debris from the wound. Saliva contains enzymes that can help to accelerate blood clotting and it also has some antibacterial properties. However, what works in the wild isn’t necessarily the best for pets. In the wild, licking is probably their best option but, for pets, we have different medicines and care procedures that are far more effective. Licking, which animals can often do excessively (they just don’t seem to know when to stop!), can cause a healing wound to reopen or turn what was a small wound into something much larger. It can pull stiches out and it can also transfer infection to the wound (while saliva does have some antibacterial properties, it’s certainly not a kill-all solution!).

So, that’s where the famous ‘cone of shame’ comes in (that’s an affectionate term, there’s really nothing shameful about recovering from an operation!). It’s not a fashion accessory for pets, but rather serves a purpose, albeit in a rather cumbersome way, of preventing the animal from being able to lick themselves … anywhere at all! Your pet may hate it and try to get the cone off, but at least while they’re focused on that they’re not licking their wound and preventing healing. There are alternatives available like padded or pillow collars, which do the same job but may be more comfortable for your pet. In short, even if your pet is giving you puppy-eyes and looking very sad about wearing their new head-gear, don’t be tempted to take it off for them! You’ve got to be (slightly) cruel to be kind sometimes, and it’s honestly really not that cruel at all.

Oh, and don’t be alarmed by your pet’s new ‘haircut’! The shaving isn’t a style statement, it’s necessary for surgery, but the fur will grow back quickly and, before long, it’ll be completely unnoticeable.

Pain relief

After an operation, your pet is bound to be in some pain, both at the site of the visible wound and also internally – the extent of this will depend on the operation they’ve had. Your vet will advise on pain relief and will prescribe what they need. It’s important that you give this regularly to keep the

pain under control and ensure your pet is as comfortable as possible. Pain relief and anti-inflammatory medication is an important part of the recovery process. As well as medication, you might also be advised to administer ice packs, to help reduce swelling.

It’s not always easy to get pets to take tablets, but there are ways to ‘trick’ them into eating them, such as hiding the medication in food or treats. You can also get a device known as a ‘pill-pusher’ (yeah, not a great name, I know – it sounds like someone dodgy who hangs around in dark alleyways at the back of nightclubs, but I digress!). It’s a small implement that helps you to get the pill right to the back of your pet’s throat so they can’t help but swallow it. You can also do this by getting your fingers in their mouth and placing the tablet right at the back, then gently closing their jaws and massaging their throat. Your vet will be able to show you the technique for doing this to try and make ‘tablet time’ a little easier, or you can watch this video from the PDSA. However difficult it may be, it’s in your pet’s best interest that you persevere. Again, you’re being (a tiny bit) cruel to be kind.

Don’t be tempted to give your pet alternative medication other than that which has been prescribed. Giving medication prescribed for other animals, or even human medicines, can be very dangerous and cause serious side effects.

Exercise control

Rest is another vital part of your pet’s recovery process but, after the initial drowsiness from the anaesthetic has worn off and the medication is keeping their pain under control, they will probably not feel the need to take it easy! Especially if you have a particularly young or lively pet, keeping them calm and rested can be quite a challenge.

The best thing to do is to remove the temptation, or the option, for them to do any running around or jumping about. You may think “Well, if they feel up to it, why not?”. Well, the problem is, running and jumping can put strain on the wound and stitches, internally and externally, and may delay the healing process. In some cases, such as after orthopaedic surgery, it’s vital that the limb or area is fully rested to enable healing to take place. So, try to stop them from going up stairs, jumping on furniture or beds, and for dogs – if you’ve been told they can go on gentle walks – keep these short, steady paced, and on the lead. Your vet might recommend crate rest, again depending on the surgery they’ve had, to ensure they are fully rested. If this is the case, put their crate somewhere where they’re not isolated so they’ll have company, add blankets to make it comfortable and appealing, and maybe add a puzzle ball with some treats in to keep their mind occupied. Give them plenty of fuss and attention to keep them entertained.

With cats, it can be even more difficult to make sure they rest fully but again removing temptation is the best option. Keep them indoors, and perhaps limit their movement to one room so they can’t go leaping around and exploring. Again, a small dog sized crate can be a good option for cases where it’s really vital that they don’t overdo it.

Your vet will advise you on a controlled recovery programme and how much (or little) to allow your pet to do. Yet again, it feels a bit mean, but you know it’s in their best interest. Stay strong, no matter how much they whine at the door!

Maintaining food intake

After surgery, always make sure your pet has access to fresh water to them keep hydrated. In terms of their food, again depending on the operation, you may be advised to give them an alternative diet for a day or two immediately after surgery. After that, they should be fine to return to their normal food (unless they’ve had gastro-intestinal surgery, in which case your vet will discuss this with you)

but offering smaller meals more often can be better whilst they’re still in the recovery phase. It’s really important to maintain their food intake though, even if they’re not exercising, as they will need the energy to help them heal. If they seem to have lost their appetite then you could try tempting them with something a little different such as plain cooked chicken, but keep it simple. If your pet is vomiting after surgery, or if they are refusing to eat more than 24 hours after their operation, contact your vet as this may be a sign that something’s amiss.

Above all, offer your pet plenty of extra TLC as they recover and remember, even if they want to do something different, you must stick to the prescribed recuperation programme and guidelines that you’ve been given by the vet – it’s for their own good! If they do as they’re told, they’ll have a much faster and more successful recovery from their surgery.