For many pet owners, surgery can feel like such a heavy word. Surgery usually requires the use of general anesthesia, and you or a family member may have heard horror stories about a beloved dog or cat who never recovered due to intra-operative or post-operative complications.
The fact is this: veterinary hospitals the world over will perform multiple surgical procedures on a daily basis. This is especially true for boarded surgical specialists and high volume spay/neuter clinics.
Veterinary medicine has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades, and we are running right alongside our human medical colleagues when it comes to the standard of care for our surgical patients. This means that surgery and general anesthesia are very safe, and complication rates are often low.
What are some of the most common surgeries performed for dogs? What are some of the non-routine procedures that veterinarians can perform? And what can you expect when it comes to surgery for your own beloved canine companion?
Most Common Elective Dog Surgeries?
Spaying and neutering are probably the two most common surgeries that your veterinarian can perform. This is a type of surgical sterilization that involves the removal of the ovaries and uterus for female dogs (spaying orovariohysterectomy) and the removal of the testes for male dogs (neutering ororchiectomy).
These surgeries will prevent unwanted litters, can decrease the risk for certain cancers in dogs, and can even help mitigate certain behavioral disorders. There is no general consensus for the perfect time to spay or neuter your dog, so be sure to ask your vet to discuss this with you.
By the time your pup is two or three years old, he may need his first dental prophylaxis. This involves the scaling and polishing of his teeth, and it is performed under general anesthesia so that scaling can be performed below the surface of the gums. “Awake” dental is not recommended because dogs can get hurt by the equipment, or they may aspirate the bacteria from the mouth that becomes aerosolized during the procedure.
Anesthesia is essential for dogs who require dental extractions due to disease. A routine dental is recommended because anesthesia is reduced for dogs who don’t need extensive cleaning!
As dog’s age, they can develop various lumps and bumps on their skin. Some of these bumps can be benign or they can be malignant, as is the case with various cancers. Surgical removal is often necessary for cancer treatment when a tumor is involved, but for benign growths, surgery may be optional.
For example, a lipoma is a benign tumor comprised of fatty tissue. Leaving the growth alone is a fair option, but if it is causing discomfort or problems walking, you may consider having it removed.
Most Common Urgent Dog Surgeries
Accidents happen. Sometimes, exciting pups might get cut by sharp objects which cause the skin to become lacerated. Small, superficial lesions of this nature may need topical therapy and time to heal. Deeper or larger lacerations require primary surgical closure to prevent infection, bleeding, etc. Certain lacerations may require general anesthesia while others may only need mild sedation and local numbing agents to facilitate surgical closure.
Gastrointestinal problems such as obstruction due to a foreign body will require surgery under general anesthesia. When left untreated, dogs with obstructions will suffer from vomiting and abdominal pain. Obstructions can also cut off blood supply to certain parts of the intestines, effectively killing the tissue in this area. Other intestinal issues like intussusception and gastric dilatation-volvulus (GDV) require immediate surgical intervention to prevent permanent damage to the intestinal tract.
Some bone fractures can be fixed with splinting and frequent bandage changes. However, complete or complicated fractures often need surgical correction in order to stabilize the affected area. This is usually done with equipment such as intramedullary pins, Kirschner wires, or plates and screws.
In cases where limb fracture repair is contraindicated due to cost or other complications, limb amputation may be necessary. This is usually the most cost-effective option as well as the choice that will get your pup on the fast-track to being free from pain.
As mentioned above, most malignant tumors require surgical removal as part of their treatment protocol. Mast cell tumors are one of the most common and very aggressive tumors. Very large surgical margins are necessary to remove all of the cancer.
However, if they appear in areas that are difficult wide margins (e.g. over the head or neck or the lower limb), then additional treatments are required such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy.
Prep for surgery (pre-op)
In situations where surgery is by appointment, your dog will need to have fasted the night before. Water is typically okay, but all food and treats should be avoided after midnight and into the following morning. This means that your pup won’t eat for about 8-12 hours prior to his surgery. Very young and small breed dogs may get a little bit of Karo syrup on their gums to keep their blood sugar up. Diabetic dogs shouldnever skip a meal, so check with your vet for their recommendations. Most vets recommend feeding half the usual amount of breakfast so that they can still receive their insulin that morning.
Certain procedures will require that your dog be clipped. For example, spay patients will be clipped over their belly, and if an intravenous catheter is utilized, then one of their lower limbs will also be clipped.
Make sure that the surgical area does not appear inflamed, infected, or dirty before surgery. If it is, bring this to your vet’s attention. Certain situations may result in surgery being postponed until the skin in that area has healed.
Unless otherwise directed by your veterinarian, you can try walking your dog before they get to the clinic so that they will have empty bladders. This is very helpful for abdominal surgeries so that there isn’t a large, distended bladder in the way of the surgical site!
Before surgery, your pup will have his temperature, heart rate, and respiratory rate checked. In many cases, blood work is checked beforehand to make sure your furry friend is healthy. If there is anything suspicious, like anything that would put your dog at risk for an anesthetic complication, the procedure might be delayed or even re-scheduled for another day.
Many veterinarians place intravenous catheters in one of your dog’s lower limbs. This can help facilitate the administration of sedative agents and even intravenous fluid support during surgery. Emergency drugs can also be administered via this route if the situation calls for it.
Dogs with prior conditions may need extra fluids or oxygen before surgery starts. Pre-medicants are utilized so that less gas anesthesia is necessary during a procedure. These “pre-meds” will vary, meaning that an older dog with mild heart disease won’t get the same drug protocol as a happy-go-lucky Labrador puppy.
After pre-meds, dogs are induced with agents like propofol or alfaxalone so that they are unconscious. Then, an endotracheal tube is placed so that anesthetic gas and oxygen can flow through, thus maintaining your pup’s unconscious state.
Routine procedures like spays and neuters are short procedures, and it is easy to maintain sterility. For “dirty” procedures like intestinal surgery orpyometra surgery (where the uterus is filled with pus due to infection), antibiotics are given during the procedure. Temperature, oxygen saturation, heart rate, and blood pressure are just some of the parameters that are continuously monitored during surgery. If anything out of the ordinary happens, adjustments can be made to help keep these numbers within normal limits.
After surgery (post-op)
Your pup will be monitored closely after surgery and after his endotracheal tube has been removed. He will be kept warm and his breathing will be observed. With shorter anesthesia times and safe anesthetic gases, most patients recover quickly and are able to walk within the first hour or two.
Many surgical procedures are outpatient, meaning that your pup can go home the same day. For certain procedures like intestinal surgery or spleen removal, additional days kept in the hospital are necessary.
When going home, make sure to follow all instructions from your veterinarian. On the first night, dogs should have half the usual amount of food and water in order to avoid GI upset. You will need to monitor for lethargy, vomiting, and diarrhea or lack of appetite the following day.
Incision sites should also be checked once a day to make sure they aren’t swollen or bleeding. Be sure to avoid running and playing after surgery. If your dog needs an e-collar, he will need to keep this on at all times! Also, your dog shouldn’t get his incision site wet for at least 10 to 14 days after surgery. If there are visible skin staples or sutures, they will need to be removed after a period of time specified by your vet.
Surgery can seem like a scary word, but thanks to advances in modern medicine, complications are extremely rare. If you have concerns, be sure to express them to your vet. They can provide you with more information about your dog’s upcoming surgery. The more you know about it, the less you have to fear!
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Meet The Author
Dr. Erica Irish
Erica has worked in the veterinary field since 2006, starting out as a veterinary technician before graduating from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. As a general practitioner in an animal hospital, she has many interests and is especially interested in dermatology, cardiology, internal and integrative medicine