There are several aspects of immediate postoperative recovery that can make the difference between a quick, easy return to health or delays, complications, and an unhappy pet and family. In addition to caring for the surgical incision, there are many things you can do to promote a more rapid recovery for your pet after surgery. These include careful techniques for lifting the pet, providing a comfortable place for the pet to recover from surgery, and exercise restriction.

Getting Started

For some surgeries, veterinarians will prescribe pain medication for your pet’s postoperative recovery. Be aware that careful handling (when picking up or assisting your pet to stand) is still necessary to avoid causing pain. Some stronger pain medications can cause drowsiness, and you should be vigilant with regard to stairs, vehicles in traffic, and other hazards if your dog or cat is receiving pain medication that may decrease alertness (and risk a fall, being struck by car, or other causes of injuries that a sedated, recovering animal simply is not aware of). Additionally, your pet will need to rest after surgery. Even if your pet seems to be recovering quickly and wants to run soon after, a period of restricted exercise is recommended after virtually all surgical procedures. The type of surgery (simple versus extensive) will dictate the level of care and length of care necessary. In general, most straightforward surgeries of the skin (e.g., removal of a growth on the skin) heal in 10-14 days, as do elective surgeries like spaying and neutering. Surgeries inside the chest and orthopedic (bone/joint) surgeries may take several weeks of recuperation.

Troubleshooting Beforehand

In general, if your pet normally spends time indoors, it is best to continue this for the duration of recovery, allowing brief on-leash walks outside for urination and defecation. Usually, staying indoors is the easiest way to control the cleanliness and temperature of a recovering dog or cat’s environment, as well as limiting the level of exercise. If your pet is normally strictly outdoors, consider relocation inside or into a clean, protected outdoor area for the duration of recovery. If you are using a garage for this purpose, it is important to be sure that your pet is not exposed to ethylene glycol (antifreeze), rodenticides (mouse bait/rat poison), or other dangerous chemicals that may normally be stored there.

Procedure for Postoperative Home Care

When lifting a pet that has had surgery, it is best to start by assessing the pet’s pain level. Some overt signs to watch for include refusal to move on his/her own, flattening or pointing the ears backward, groaning, baring the teeth, or growling when you approach. More subtle signs indicating possible internal pain include hiding (cats), refusing food or water, avoiding eye contact, or having a hunched posture when standing. If your pet appears to be in severe pain or if your pet is known to nip or bite, use an appropriately sized muzzle (restraining device placed over the snout) if it becomes necessary to lift your pet. Further detail is available in a separate information sheet (see below).

To lift a large dog, one good option is to use a towel or bedsheet as a sling running across the underside of the abdomen (belly). Ideally, two people are involved, one to lift each end of the sling and elevate the hindquarters; the dog should have a surface with good traction and should attempt to stand. With this assistance, standing and walking are possible.

To lift a small to medium-sized dog, place one arm under his/her hind end or pelvis (as if your pet could sit down in the crook of your elbow), and wrap the other arm in front of the chest and shoulders. This can be described as a gentle “bear hug.” If your pet is slightly too heavy for this approach, slipping the second arm under the chest can provide additional support, provided it is not strenuous or risky for your own back/health.

To lift a very small pet such as a small dog or a cat, place one hand under the pelvis (hips, hind end below the tail), cupping the hind end with your hand, and place one hand in front of the shoulders or under the chest.

These approaches to lifting are ideal for patients with abdominal incisions, leg injuries, head and neck injuries, and most other wounds on their trunk (abdomen and back). For a dog that has had back surgery, the techniques described above may or may not be appropriate depending on the nature of the surgery. You should ask your veterinarian to review and demonstrate a correct approach (providing maximal support to the spine) with you prior to discharging your pet from the hospital.

Keeping your pet in a warm, clean, comfortable, and protected area (from weather extremes and from other animals) allows your pet a quiet opportunity to rest without the need to move excessively. A soft bed on the floor in an area of the house that can be gated off may suffice (to keep the patient in and other pets out). For pets that have had more serious injury or surgery, when strict exercise restriction is imperative, keeping your pet in an airline kennel or other approved pet cage may be required to avoid wrong movements or self-harm. Under any of these circumstances, a minimum of two sessions of standing (with assistance) and walking should be planned every day. See Other Related Information Sheets, below. Cats are often much smaller than dogs, so it may be necessary for your cat to have more space, such as a room of his/her own. Cats often need a quiet area without any competition with other pets for food, water, or the litter box during their recovery. Many cats appreciate having a hiding place, like an empty cardboard box, to hide in, and you should cut a hole in the side of the box so the cat can enter and leave easily.

In general, exercise restriction for dogs includes short on-leash walks for the purpose of urination and defecation. This means restriction from using the stairs, running, jumping (in and out of cars/trucks, on and off your bed and couch/other chairs) and playing, even if your pet appears to be recovering very quickly.

The appetite can return quickly or only gradually after surgery. In most cases, the first meal should be 12 hours or so after surgery. It is wise to offer a small portion (1/4 the usual amount), because having had food withheld prior to surgery means eating a full meal could be excessive and cause nausea. Passage of food from the stomach into the intestines can be expected to be done in 3-6 hours, at which time another quarter-meal can be given. This can be repeated for a total of four quarter-meals to finish the day’s feedings. Then the regular feeding schedule resumes the next day.


Depending on the type of surgery, recommendations for exercise restriction will vary widely from 1 week to several months. Contact your veterinarian for recommendations specific to your pet’s surgery.

Several types of surgical interventions, such as eye surgery, heart surgery, and others, require special monitoring. Please ask your veterinarian if any special monitoring is recommended.

Frequently Asked Questions

My pet hasn’t had a bowel movement for 24 hours since surgery. Is there a problem?

No, this is essentially always normal. During recovery, a pet usually has a decreased appetite. When he/she eats less, there will be less of a need to defecate. Furthermore, most surgeries are preceded by a period of fasting (withholding food), which further reduces the need to defecate. However, it is important to monitor for a progressive return to his/her normal appetite and passing normal urine and stools over 24-48 hours postoperatively. If your pet continues to have a poor appetite, this may be due to a problem such as inadequate pain management. Contact your veterinarian to discuss these concerns.

Are there any vitamins or supplements I should give my dog or cat to help with recovery?

This is a highly controversial area, with many companies selling products that make promises of accelerated recovery based on testimonials, hearsay evidence, and information that is simply unsupported. With a balanced diet and ongoing treatment of any concurrent medical concerns or illnesses, no specific supplementation should be necessary.

Source: From Cohn and Côté: Clinical Veterinary Advisor, 4th edition. Copyright © 2020 by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


The normal healing process of any wound involves mild inflammation of the skin: a rosy pink color is expected along the edges of a surgical incision while it heals. However, excessive inflammation, swelling, and drainage of fluid from the incision are cardinal signs of infection, which can be a potentially serious (and common) complication after surgery. Identifying excessive inflammation early can prevent complications. Therefore, it is important to be able to identify excessive inflammation and signs of infection, and the goal of the summary here is to explain how to do this as well as how to minimize the risks of infection before a problem occurs.

The term suture is the same as “stitches.” Some sutures are made of a material that is absorbable. These are under the skin or in the body and are not visible. They do not have to be removed because they dissolve over time. More commonly, sutures are nonabsorbable and are visible on the surface of the skin. Alternatives to nonabsorbable sutures are “liquid sutures” (tissue glue), which bond the skin together when the incision is small (and need not be removed), and steel surgical staples, which must be removed like nonabsorbable sutures but using a special staple remover clamp. Any of these kinds of suture is acceptable, alone or in combination, for surgery in dogs and cats. Any nonabsorbable sutures or staples will have to be removed by your veterinarian or veterinary technician once he or she has determined that the incision has healed.

Getting Started

The process of monitoring an incision is simple: no equipment or materials are needed, only a well-lit area to see the incision and a repetitive routine for consistent monitoring.

Checking your pet’s incision morning and night, every day for the first 7-14 days after an operation, will allow you to see the healing process. This will also provide you with the opportunity for early detection of infection or irritation. Ideally, you should ask your veterinarian or a veterinary technician to look the incision over with you before leaving the veterinary hospital. If this makes you uncomfortable, it is a good idea to ask a family member or friend to be there and to help with the monitoring.

Looking at your pet’s incision when you first get home from the veterinary hospital will provide you with a baseline mental point of reference. Continue to inspect the incision each morning and night, and more often if your pet is showing an interest in licking or scratching it or if you detect any abnormalities in the incision or your pet’s behavior.

Some types of incisions/wounds require placement of drains. A drain is usually a thin, flat, latex tube that is secured with sutures under the skin and soft tissue. It allows fluid to drain around it (not just through it) so tissues can heal appropriately.

Although your pet’s incision may look very securely repaired immediately after surgery, pets can take out external and internal sutures as well as drains quickly through licking or scratching. There are various options to help you protect your pet’s incision from licking and scratching, including Elizabethan collars (lampshade-type collar), T-shirts, bandages, or covering the paws with soft fabric (socks). Sometimes one or more of these protective measures is needed, depending on a pet’s personality and energy level. It is just as important to protect an incision from other pets in the house that might lick it. An easy way to avoid extra visits to your veterinary hospital is to be committed to monitoring and protecting the incision as it heals, which is typically a 2-week period of time.

It is common to receive prescriptions of antibiotics and pain medication to give to your pet during his/her recovery. While they are not required in every situation, when these medications are prescribed, it is important to give them as instructed by your veterinarian (and on the label) until they are finished. Antibiotic therapy when an infection is suspected or confirmed, pain medication, and incision monitoring are all important means to support a healthful recovery.

Troubleshooting Beforehand

Frequently the activity level that is normal for your pet would be enough to cause extra oozing or swelling at a surgical site within the first several days after surgery. To avoid these complications that delay healing, it is best to restrict exercise to a few on-leash walks daily during recovery. If your pet is very active inside the home, then restriction to a kennel or crate may be necessary.

If you notice that an incision is turning darker red, is oozing more than when you first came home from the veterinary hospital, the margins of the incision appear to be coming apart, or your pet refuses to eat, is restless, is trembling or becomes obsessed with trying to lick the incision, there may be a problem. It is possible that the incision has become infected, is painful, or both. Your pet may need additional treatment, and if you observe any of these symptoms, you should contact your veterinarian promptly to determine if an immediate recheck is necessary.


Look at your pet’s incision in a well-lit room. If the incision is on the abdomen (belly), for example, carefully roll him/her over onto his or her side, keeping the four legs bunched together to avoid stretching the belly wall, and then slowly release the legs and examine the belly so you can inspect the incision clearly and completely.

When looking at the incision, be sure to note the color of the skin at the incision line, the amount of swelling in the area and surrounding areas, and whether or not there is any discharge (oozing of fluid). One helpful tip is to take a photo of the incision on the first day home so you can compare objectively in the future by looking back at the original photo for comparison.


At the incision edges, the skin may be pink to light red initially. Monitor for fading of these light colors back to the normal color of the skin, which is normal for healthy healing. If the color of the incision appears to intensify over time (from light red to dark red), an infection may be developing. Bring these changes to the attention of your veterinarian immediately. It is possible to have some bruising in this area as well. These findings should lighten and resolve over the next several days of recovery. It is normal for a bruise to change from light red to purple as it heals. However, if you notice that new bruising develops that your veterinarian was not aware of, it is important to alert your veterinary staff immediately.


Mild swelling can be expected at an incision site immediately postoperatively. The amount of swelling depends on the type of surgery and the reason for the surgery. A routine surgery may have minimal swelling, whereas a traumatic injury repair may have more. If swelling progresses rather than resolves after surgery, tell your veterinarian.


The amount of fluid that oozes from an incision depends not only on the reason for the surgery but the location of the incision. Your veterinarian can discuss the amount of discharge you can expect to see with your pet’s specific incision. The discharge is normally light red in color. A change in color of this discharge from light red to dark red (like blood), together with an increase in amount of fluid discharge and a reddening of the incision edges, may indicate an infection is developing. If the color of the discharge becomes yellow, white, or green (like pus), an infection is almost certainly present, and a recheck examination of this surgical site is necessary to identify the best treatment.

If your pet’s wound repair required a drain, routine cleaning will likely be necessary. It is preferable to use sterile gauze moistened with povidone-iodine (Betadine) solution, diluted with tap water to a light tea color, or chlorhexidine solution (light blue or pink, may be provided by your veterinary hospital) for lightly wiping or dabbing the incision or drain for cleaning. It is good to carefully remove dried discharge from an incision and around a drain, because caked discharge may seal a drain closed and stop the draining process. It may be easier to clean and more comfortable for your pet to first hold a very clean, warm washcloth to the area for several minutes to moisten and soften any dried discharge.


When drains are placed as part of a surgical operation, they generally should be removed 3-5 days later. When they are removed is based on when the wound is done draining. This will be determined by your veterinarian or veterinary technician prior to removal, but you should keep track of whether the amount of fluid discharge from a drain is increasing, decreasing, or staying the same over time. This will help with the decision to remove a drain or leave it in place for a few more days.

Sutures and staples are usually removed in 10-14 days. Sometimes an incision may look healthy on the outside when in fact it has not actually finished healing. It is important to return to your veterinary hospital for the suture removal so your veterinarian or veterinary technician can examine the incision and ensure it has properly healed prior to suture removal. If an incision has not completely healed, the veterinary staff will be able to respond quickly and provide you with a new time line for continued care.

Frequently Asked Questions

When does the pain from an incision go away?

Generally, pain from a skin incision is almost completely gone in 24-48 hours. If your pet appears painful longer than this, please contact your veterinarian. A recheck examination may be necessary. However, the itchiness of an incision healing starts a few days after surgery as well. It is common for a pet to start showing interest in licking an incision after being home.

There are no stitches on the outside (my doctor said they are internal and will dissolve). Is the same monitoring required?

Yes. It is just as important to protect these incisions from licking, scratching, and infection while they heal. Occasionally, especially if the dog or cat licks the incision, internal stitches can protrude through the skin. This is a direct portal for infection (wicking effect), not to mention a risk for the stability of the whole incision. Therefore, prevent any licking or chewing of the incision, and if you believe there is suture material visible when it was not visible previously, contact your veterinarian for a prompt recheck.

A few stitches are missing from my pet’s incision, but I didn’t see him/her lick it. What do I do?

It is often best to call your veterinary hospital, alert them to the issue, and discuss your pet’s specific type of incision. Some situations will be solved by simply using more protective measures (see “Getting Started” above), while others will require veterinary attention.

I thought a dog’s mouth was clean. Isn’t licking the incision just a natural way to clean it?

This is one of the most hard-held folk tales in veterinary medicine. Actually, both dogs’ and cats’ mouths are loaded with bacteria, which require a copious amount of immunoglobulin (antibodies) to be produced in the mouth. The folk tale only considers this last part, the antibodies. The action of licking transfers both bacteria and antibodies onto the incision; the bacteria multiply but the antibodies do not, and this is how an infection begins. Licking also causes itchiness that stimulates more licking. For both these reasons, all pets need to be prevented from licking their skin incisions for at least 10-14 days after surgery.

Source: From Cohn and Côté: Clinical Veterinary Advisor, 4th edition. Copyright © 2020 by Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About CVC

Chappelle Veterinary Clinic is a full service Veterinary Clinic which offers a wide range of veterinary care for cats and dogs, including routine exams, vaccinations, preventative care, diagnostics, surgery, spay and neuter, wellness services, dental cleaning, emergency and more.

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Monday 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM
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Wednesday 8:00 AM – 9:00 PM
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Friday 8:00 AM – 6:00 PM
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Sunday Closed

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