- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Nursing your dog back to health after surgery is a major responsibility. Even a simple, routine operation requires following your vet’s post-op instructions. Luckily, once you’re armed with a little preparation and the right information, caring for your dog’s stitches should be smooth sailing.
Here’s what to expect after your dog’s surgery.
Caring for your dog’s stitches: The do’s and don’ts
Before your dog returns home from surgery, make sure everyone in the household is clear on their post-op restrictions. The entire family needs to be on board with keeping Fido’s stitches safe and clean.
The “do’s” of canine post-surgical care:
1. DO restrict your dog’s activity level. Your dog’s wound needs time to heal, and an overly active dog may stretch or rupture their stitches. Limit their activity for a minimum of 7-14 days. There are also the side effects of painkillers to consider, which can slow your dog’s reflexes and make ordinary activities (like climbing a few steps) dangerous.
Dr. Robin Downing, Hospital Director of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management, LLC in Colorado, confirms the importance of restricting activity. She tells us, “If their veterinarian has done a good job with pain management, they may try to be more active than they should be. It is OUR responsibility to be the adult in the room and to provide appropriate confinement and activity restriction. Dogs do not listen well when we tell them to ‘take it easy.'”
So how do you limit your dog’s activity?
- When you take your dog outside, use a short leash and keep the walk short.
- Supervise them around other dogs, and immediately break up any rough horseplay.
- Discourage jumping on furniture.
- Block access to staircases.
- Temporary confinement will likely be necessary. “This may mean using a crate or tethering him or her to your waist or to a chair or table leg near you. That way they can be close but not crazy,” Downing says. “I generally recommend crating when no one is home during the immediate post-operative healing period.” A small, quiet, confined room can also serve as a good place for your dog to rest and heal.
- Extra rambunctious dogs may require sedatives to help them rest.
What if your dog appears “back-to-normal” sooner than expected? They might be eager to resume their normal routine, but you should continue to limit their activity for the full length of time, as recommended by your vet.
2. DO inspect the incision twice a day. If the incision isn’t covered with a bandage, you should check the site regularly to make sure it’s healing properly.
3. DO clean surgical drains as instructed. If your dog had surgical drains placed during their operation, follow your veterinarian’s instructions for cleaning them.
4. DO follow medication instructions. It’s likely your dog will be sent home with antibiotics and/or painkillers. Stick to their schedule and administer the proper dosage to facilitate healing.
5. DO ask for veterinary advice when you’re unsure. Your vet or vet tech can instruct you on things like how to safely lift your pet, etc. If any after-care instructions are unclear to you, ask for clarification. Find out your vet’s protocol for after-hours, in case a problem arises.
6. DO make “crate rest” as comfortable as possible. This is especially important if your dog isn’t used to being confined to a crate. Make things cozy with a bed, food and water, and your dog’s favorite stuffed toy.
7. DO give your dog plenty of attention. This is an easy one. You probably already shower your dog with loads of love—but bump it up a notch after surgery.
The “don’ts” of canine post-surgical care:
1. DON’T bathe your dog. Keep their surgical incision and stitches dry. Don’t apply any Neosporin or lotions, unless your vet instructs you to. It’s especially important not to use hydrogen peroxide or alcohol to clean the stitches—this will hinder the healing process.
2. DON’T allow your dog to bite or scratch their incision. Aggravating the surgical site can introduce infection or remove the stitches. It only takes a few minutes of licking or biting to remove stitches, so be vigilant with this.
Your dog may come home with a new “fashion accessory:” the Elizabethan collar (aka the dreaded “cone of shame.”) As humiliating and uncomfortable as it looks, make your dog wear it! It will prevent them from fussing with their stitches. The longer they wear it, the quicker they’ll get used to it.
3. DON’T leave your dog unsupervised with other dogs. However friendly and well-meaning they are, your dog’s canine buddies might need to be off-limits for a while. Other dogs could interfere with your dog’s healing by licking the incision or playing too roughly.
What do I do if my dog is licking their stitches?
As the wound heals and the fur begins to grow back, your dog’s incision may become itchy. This could drive them to lick or chew the area. Excessive fussing with stitches could also indicate pain.
Dr. Downing explains, “Any time we see a self-directed behavior like licking or chewing at any body part—especially at an incision—we need to give the pet the benefit of the doubt and presume pain or discomfort. Animals have a limited number of options for expressing their discomfort, and focused self-trauma is an important one.”
Dr. Downing advises pet owners to address the self-trauma with their veterinarian, who may decide to implement additional pain management. Downing lays out several options for dealing with pain, including:
- Therapeutic laser treatments.
- Adding additional pain medication, like gabapentin.
- Providing cold therapy (cryotherapy) at home during the first four days post-op. Dr. Downing warns that cold therapy will only work if it’s applied appropriately. “Do not use bags of frozen vegetables! This is useless. You can use flexible, reusable gel packs (available at any drugstore).”
Downing provides the following tips for post-surgical cold therapy:
- Use a very thin cloth between the cold pack and the skin.
- Cold application should occur no more often than once every two hours for 10-15 minutes per session.
- Alternatively, you can DIY your own cold packs: in a double-bagged Ziploc, combine one part isopropyl alcohol with two parts water to form a cold slush.
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to communicate to your dog that licking their stitches will delay healing. So if the licking persists—even after their pain has been optimally managed—put a barrier in place.
Barrier options include:
- An Elizabethan collar, or an E collar. Downing recommends using the smallest size possible and opting for a clear collar rather than an opaque one.
- A neck brace. These inflatable devices keep your dog from bending their neck, making it physically impossible for them to lick their stitches.
- A form-fitting T-shirt or ThunderShirt can be used to cover sutures.
If your dog does manage to tear or remove any of their stitches, call your veterinarian ASAP.
How long will it take for my dog’s incision to heal?
The length of your dog’s recovery will depend on the type of surgery they had. Naturally, a less invasive operation, such as neutering or spaying, should heal within a couple of weeks. A more complicated surgery, such as a hip replacement, could take upwards of several months to heal completely.
The type of wound closure will also dictate whether or not your dog requires a return visit to the clinic to remove their stitches. Sometimes stitches will be placed underneath the skin’s surface, eliminating the need for removal. Your vet may also opt for dissolvable stitches or surgical adhesive, which won’t need to be removed.
If, however, the closure is achieved with non-dissolving stitches or staples, a vet will typically remove them at the 2-week mark for a sterilization operation.
What should healthy stitches look like?
So, you’re inspecting your dog’s stitches twice a day. But what’s normal here?
According to VCA Animal Hospitals, the following features indicate healthy stitches:
- Zero gaping around the incision site—the edges should be touching each other
- A slightly reddish-pink color to the skin
- Bruising is normal in pale-skinned dogs
- Some swelling is normal
- A small amount of blood from a new incision is okay
When to be concerned about your dog’s stitches
There are several unmistakable signs of an infected wound. Contact your vet immediately if you notice any of the following:
- Continuous blood or fluids dripping from the incision site
- Excessive pus or seepage of white or yellow fluid
- Excessive redness of the skin
- Unpleasant smells
Most canine surgeries will be straightforward and free of complications. As long as you give your dog plenty of time to rest and keep their sutures clean and dry, they should be back to normal in no time.
Feature image via Flickr/Doc Searls