Is Your Pet Having Surgery

Written by: Dr. Jean Hofve, Holistic Veterinarian, DVM

Is Your Pet Having Surgery?

Surgery - now there's a scary word! Beyond spaying or neutering, most of us don't really give much thought to surgical procedures that might be in our pets' futures. However, it may not be quite as unlikely as you think!

Common surgeries in adult dogs and cats include:

  • Dental procedures. Most pets will need dental cleaning under anesthesia at some point; many pets need it yearly. Sometimes tooth extractions - which can be quite traumatic - are also necessary.

  • Mass biopsy or removal. Older pets tend to get a variety of lumps, bumps, and tumors. For instance, lipomas (benign fatty tumors) are especially common in retrievers and a few other breeds, but any dog or cat may get them. Most of the time it's not necessary to remove them, but occasionally they interfere with function, and that's a different story. Suspicious or malignant (cancerous) masses may need to be surgically biopsied or removed.

  • Orthopedic surgery. Broken bones, ruptured tendons or ligaments, or other joint dysfunctions, may need surgery to regain or maintain mobility. Long-backed dogs are prone to slipped or damaged spinal discs that may require surgery to prevent or minimize paralysis.

  • Abscess. Both dogs and cats can be the victims of bite wounds and abscesses (subcutaneous pockets of infection). Depending on the size and severity, it may be necessary to perform surgery to open and drain the abscess, or clean and suture wounds.

  • Unexpected Trauma/Injuries. Life happens! Any pet may fall, get stepped on, catch a tail in a door, or any of a million other accidents that could require surgical intervention. (Tip: keep contact info for your veterinarian and/or local emergency clinic in your car, wallet, or other easy-to-access location.)

Veterinary Care

Many problems are caught early at an annual examination, so this is a necessity. Even if your pet is not receiving any vaccinations, a yearly head-to-tail exam is one of the most important preventive health programs you can provide for your pet. For older pets, an exam every 6 months is even better. Remember, dogs and cats age 5 to 7 times faster than we do, and they can't talk to tell you “my stomach feels funny” or “I have a headache” or “my back is sore.” It's one thing if you feel fine and skip your yearly physical; but for your pet, that's equivalent to you not seeing a doctor for 10-15 years! Cats are particularly good at hiding symptoms until they are far advanced. So schedule that check-up today!

If your vet finds a problem that requires surgery - or, of course, if you notice something that seems wrong and your vet determines the need for surgery - then it's time for action.

Ask your veterinarian what monitoring equipment is used for surgery, and if a technician or assistant will be there throughout the procedure. Having a second set of eyes and hands is the most valuable addition to any surgery. Most patients will benefit from intravenous fluids, and consistent monitoring of heart and respiratory rates as well as blood pressure.

Do ask your veterinarian if she is comfortable with the particular procedure being considered. If she hasn't done many; or it's a complex procedure; or one that requires specialized equipment; you may wish to get a referral to a board-certified surgeon.

How to Prepare your Pet for Surgery

In most cases, your veterinarian will recommend withholding food for 10-12 hours before you drop your pet off for surgery. It's usually okay to have water available. Why no food? Because many pre-anesthetic drugs cause nausea. If your pet vomits as it is falling asleep, the normal reflex that prevents food from going down the main airway may not work, and aspiration of food can cause serious pneumonia. However, you can give flower essences such as Rescue Remedy by rubbing a few drops on your pet's ears and paws (and a few drops for yourself!) to help with pre-surgery jitters. Start a day or two beforehand if possible, giving 3 or 4 doses per day.

Post-op Care

Your veterinarian or her assistant will give you follow-up care instructions. For minor procedures, little or no restriction may be needed. If you have Traumeel® drops or tablets, or homeopathic Arnica 30C (all available at most health food stores), one dose after surgery, one at bedtime, and one the next morning will help reduce pain and bruising.

Many (but not all) animals will be happy to see dinner that evening. However, it's best to feed only a small amount initially (about 1/4 to 1/3 of usual); if the food stays down, you can offer the rest of the meal in about half an hour. If appetite is a problem and your vet has okayed feeding, try turkey or chicken baby food (make sure it contains no onion or garlic powder), or a special treat food to get the GI system moving again. Use digestive enzymes and probiotics to help prevent tummy upset. A high protein food and extra antioxidants will promote faster, better healing.

It's best if you can be home with your pet at least through their first night home, in case any problems arise; although you probably don't have to stay up all night! Your vet can advise you whether you can make travel plans soon after surgery. If you will be out of town soon after a pet's significant surgery, it may be best to board your dog or cat with the vet while you're gone.

For major surgeries, especially orthopedic procedures, activity restriction may be necessary up to several weeks. Do not take these restrictions lightly! Too many dogs are allowed to resume normal activities far too soon; this can completely disrupt the surgery and necessitate a repeat performance. The second repair will be done on tissue that is already scarred, and results may not be as good. Cats may need to be confined in something like a large dog crate to prevent them jumping; dogs may need to be leash-walked only, possibly with support, and not allowed to run or play rough.  

Yes, surgery is scary, but it will help to ask all the questions you need to feel comfortable with it, and be properly prepared. It will make the whole ordeal much better for you and your pet!