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Ten Tips for Successful Dog Surgery

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Valerie has been an online writer for over eight years. Her articles often focus on surgery and pet care.

Read on to learn how you can help make sure that your furry friend's surgery goes as well as possible.

Read on to learn how you can help make sure that your furry friend's surgery goes as well as possible.

We have two Cockapoo dogs, Simon and Alvin. In seven years, they have had six surgeries. Simon's surgeries are as follows: neutering (six months old), luxating patella repair (one year), and teeth cleaning (five years). Yes, teeth cleaning is a surgery—he had anesthesia, and the vet removed two teeth.

Alvin's surgeries are as follows: neutering (seven months), anal gland removal (four years), ACL repair (six years), and tumor removal (eight years).

Each of these seven surgeries was necessary to maintain our dogs' health and welfare (although some people debate the health benefits of neutering).

Are we experts? No, we're not vets or techs, but we can figure out if surgery is required and ensure the surgery is successful. And that's the point—these tips are the result of experience.

Tips for Successful Dog Surgery

  1. Pick the right vet.
  2. Understand the diagnosis, surgery, and prognosis.
  3. Follow the vet's pre-surgery instructions.
  4. Keep your vet appointments.
  5. Prepare for post surgery.
  6. Follow the vet's post-surgery instructions.
  7. Check the meds.
  8. Know how to administer meds.
  9. Be patient with the patient.
  10. Be careful if you have more than one pet.
Alvin and Simon

Alvin and Simon

1. Pick the Right Vet

Suppose your dog has a persistent issue that's not usual for him—he's throwing up, limping, running with a hitch, climbing stairs slowly, or hopping on three feet. Maybe he's not eating, or he's scooting (dragging his butt on the ground). Of course you take him to the vet.

Sometimes the diagnosis is simple. Sometimes more tests are required. Sometimes the word "surgery" is mentioned. By the time we got to Alvin's ACL repair—the word "surgery" did not receive the best reaction. We knew that hopping on three legs wasn't a good thing, but surgery? Really?

Questions Regarding Dog Surgery

  • What are the alternatives?
  • Do I need a second opinion?
  • Who's the right vet to do the surgery?

Here's how these questions were answered in Alvin's case...

  • What are the alternatives? Alvin's vet is Mr. Conservative. Because the tear was partial, his suggestion was water therapy either at the local pet hospital or in a pool.
  • Do I need a second opinion? Usually, you bring a dog to a second vet because the first vet recommended surgery. In this case, make sure the vets don't know each other, and you bring records of the tests that were performed. When we brought Alvin to the vet hospital the week after the original diagnosis, the hospital vet recommended surgery instead of water therapy. Why did this happen? Alvin the Terrible tore his ACL completely in the timeframe between the two visits. Now the only alternative was surgery.
  • Who's the right vet to do the surgery? We had two choices for Alvin—a surgical specialist or our own vet. The proposed ACL surgery was not complicated, so we opted for our own vet, who has done hundreds of simple ACL repairs.

In Simon's case, the best choice for luxating patella surgery was the specialist. Tricky surgery is best performed by a specialist.

Simon after luxating patella surgery

Simon after luxating patella surgery

2. Understand the Diagnosis, Surgery, and Prognosis

As your dog's caretaker, you need to understand the reason your dog has an issue, what will be done to correct the problem, and what the dog's life will be like post surgery. Sometimes the prognosis is not what you hoped. The dog's age may be a factor in understanding all three of these issues.

Here Are Two Examples

1. Simon's luxating patella repair (at 1 year old)

Simon inherited a condition that caused his knee cap (patella) to move out of its groove. His patellar ligament was attached to the lower leg bone a few millimeters toward the inside of his knee.

The correction was to surgically re-attach the ligament to the correct place on the lower leg bone. Without this correction, he would continue to displace his knee cap and eventually would develop arthritis. The prognosis was a complete recovery as long as he healed correctly. In fact, this is exactly what happened.

2. Alvin's anal gland removal (at 4 years old)

The first indication of a problem was scooting. Over a period of 3 months, Alvin's suffered through several infections in these glands. Finally, the vet recommended removal because the glands would not drain properly (an anatomical issue). The surgery involved surgically removing the infected glands.

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The prognosis was a definite consideration. There was a slight chance he would be incontinent post surgery. Because the vet performing the surgery had never caused a dog's incontinence in more than 50 surgeries, we opted for the surgery. Otherwise, Alvin would be fighting infections for the rest of his life.

3. Follow the Vet's Pre-Surgery Instructions

This is actually a no-brainer, but it's critical to the success of the surgery. The tip is to follow the instructions. Exactly. No deviations. If the dog cannot have food for 12 hours before surgery, there's a good reason. It's not a good thing if the dog regurgitates food during surgery.

Read the instructions when they are given to you so you can ask questions. Sometimes the instructions are not clear.

Alvin in his ecollar

Alvin in his ecollar

4. Keep Your Vet Appointments

Important appointments are for blood work prior to surgery and for stitch removal and follow-up after surgery. Understand that some vets will not perform surgery unless the blood work is done. This is a precautionary measure—the health professional is looking for conditions that might interfere with surgery.

Depending on the nature of the surgery, you may or may not have a post-surgery appointment. For example, our dogs had post-surgical appointments for stitch removal and to check incisions and ability to walk (for ACL and patella surgeries). There was no follow-up for teeth cleaning and removal.

Occasionally, you may need to take the dog in after surgery if he does get to his stitches or the incision looks infected. Alvin is notorious for self-stitch removal even though he wears an ecollar.


5. Prepare for Post Surgery

Once you have an appointment for your dog's surgery, the vet will tell you how to care for the dog post surgery. For some surgeries, a few days' rest is sufficient but for others, there may be specific instructions concerning activity levels and length of time for reduced activity levels. In some cases, meds for pain and to prevent infection must be administered.

Items You'll Need to Have on Hand After Your Dog's Surgery

  • A dog thermometer to check the dog's temperature. A rise in temperature may indicate an infection.
  • An ecollar so the dog will not lick an incision or pull out stitches. This is required if your dog can reach his incision.
  • A way to enclose the dog to restrict activity. This may be a gated-off room or an xpen. We bought an xpen for Alvin because he had to be restricted for several weeks and we wanted to be able to watch him.
  • Doggie diapers in case the animal cannot be moved or has bowel or urinary issues.
  • Pill pockets in case the dog refuses to take pills by mouth.

6. Follow the Vet's Post-Surgery Instructions

This is another no-brainer but it's also one step that owners tend to slack off on. If the vet says your dog should be inactive for four weeks post surgery, then that's what you should do. Figure out a way to confine your dog for four weeks. No excuses.

Why keep to the vet's guidelines? It may be an inconvenience, but failure to follow instructions can result in setbacks in recovery, especially if your dog has surgically repaired limbs. What if you failed to follow instructions and your dog ended up back in surgery?

Simon and Alvin

At a year old, Simon had luxating patella surgery. He had to be inactive for eight weeks. Carrying a 30-pound dog up and down stairs for that length of time was tedious. But he recovered perfectly.

Here are the details of Simon's story: Luxating Patella In Dogs. Six-year-old Alvin had ACL surgery recently. Two months of inactivity was insufficient to heal his knee. He went into water therapy post surgery because he refused to walk on his new knee. Five months after surgery he still has days when he limps a little.

Here are the details of Alvin's recovery with water therapy: How ACL Surgery Improved Alvin's Overall Health. FYI—it includes a video of the pup in the water tank.

The point here—every dog is different. Every surgery is different. Age is definitely a factor in healing.

7. Check the Meds

Post surgery may require medications. Either the hospital or the vet prescribes the meds. In either case, verify the dose (amount of the meds) and the frequency with the vet's office.

We have had incidences where the frequency of dosage was incorrectly prescribed.

8. Know How to Administer Meds

If you are a newbie who has had little experience dispensing meds, look out. Alvin's antibiotics tasted bitter. He refused to take them even with pill pockets. Ever see a dog spit out a pill?

On the other hand, Simon the foodie ate anything we gave him. Go figure. If you don't know how to give your dog his meds, ask the tech in your vet's office to show you.

9. Be Patient With the Patient

If patience is not your strong point, good luck with a dog post surgery.

Like humans, some dogs are not great patients. Also, dogs don't understand why they can't run around or jump on furniture or run up stairs. Smartypants Alvin did figure out that he should wait to be carried before running up the stairs.

On the other hand, Simon ran up the stairs the moment he got in the house after surgery. The cast did not phase him one little bit.


10. Be Careful If You Have More Than One Pet

Do you have more than one pet besides the patient?

If you do, you have a more complex recovery process. How do you prevent the patient from playing with the other animals?

You should have the patient confined, but he can't be confined every single moment of the day.

Here's a scenario:

You carry the patient outdoors to do his duty. Dog number 2 is curious and checks out the patient's incision. Or they start running around the yard. Now what?

Our recommendation is to leash the patient and stay with him if you remove him from his confined area. How long do you do this? As long as the recovery period lasts. Again, the patient doesn't know he can't play (unless it's Alvin).

The Ten Tips


This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

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