These procedures are so common, but few know what to expect once they get their pets home.
The seconds tick painfully by. You look from the watch on your wrist to the clock on the wall and then to the clock on the computer. They each tell the same story. You’re anxiously awaiting a phone call from your veterinarian telling you that the surgery is finished and your puppy or kitten is going to be ready to go home soon.
When this call finally comes, you answer before the phone can finish its first ring.
“The surgery went well, and your pet did perfectly. There were no concerns on our end,” Your veterinarian happily informs you. “You can come pick up after five!”
The rest of the day crawls slowly by, but finally, the clock strikes 5. You shut off your computer, finish what you were doing around the house, or pause your Netflix show, and rush to the vet’s office. Once there, you’re given a list of instructions for post-op care, and discuss with the technician for a little while. However, you’re not really listening because you’re just so excited to see your furry friend.
You notice a separate technician rounding the corner with your pup on a leash or your kitty in their carrier, and you begin to tune out every word that the first technician was saying. Now, you’ve completely lost the minimal focus you had managed to maintain. Your pet seems so happy to see you!
So, you wrap your furball into your arms or grab your carrier from the technician and pet your kitty through the front grate. Everything is perfect. That is until you shut the door to your apartment, set down your keys, and have no clue what to do next. “What if they whimper, what if they don’t eat, what am I supposed to watch for again?”
Spays and neuters are relatively simple procedures; however, they are surgeries nonetheless and shouldn’t be taken too lightly. In the post-op period, your pet’s body needs to heal and there are a few important parameters to keep in mind. The first 24 hours are often the most stressful for owners.
Though spays are technically a little more invasive than most neuters, we will consider the first 24-hour period as the same for each procedure in this article. In the case of the spay, there will be a small incision in the middle of your pet’s abdomen; in the case of a standard neuter, it will be down near the scrotum. If you own a male cat, the incision will likely not be visible but is generally on the scrotum itself. A much more in-depth discussion of the surgeries themselves can be found here.
There are three broad categories that warrant the spotlight during the initial recovery period; that is, pain, the surgical incision, and energy (or attitude).
Nobody wants their pets to be in pain, and believe me your veterinary team wants your pet as comfortable as possible too. Postoperative pain is real, and while animals rarely show you any sign of discomfort some are more sensitive than others. It is also relatively difficult to assess pain in animals post-op because of a variety of their inability and unwillingness to tell us.
The drugs used for anesthesia frequently make your pet feel a little disoriented, or dysphoric, overnight. So, your dogs may be a little whiney or more vocal and restless than normal. Your cats may range anywhere from being more sleepy to actually being more hyper than normal, or more skittish. These behaviors can be difficult to distinguish from pain, but generally, they will continue to improve as the night progresses and the drugs continue to wear off.
Fortunately, for all spays and neuters nowadays pain medications should be sent home. Don’t worry if you didn’t listen to the technician or doctor who discharged your pet, the medications will be clearly labeled for how to administer them. In some cases, your pet may be due for another dose of medication with their evening meal. This can help calm them down and allow them to settle in for the night.
Pain is a tricky clinical sign to monitor in any pet as they are adept at hiding signs of pain. However, the most common signs of discomfort are lack of appetite, hiding or defensive behavior (growl/hiss), vomiting, panting, inability to settle, or extra (or obsessive) attention to the incision areas. If you see these signs, first check whether or not your pet is due for their next dose of pain medication. If not, then you may want to consider reaching out to a veterinarian or a veterinary consult line.
As I’ve mentioned, the incision will be in a different location depending on your pet and the type of procedure they had performed. Fortunately, you usually will not have much to do once you arrive at home regarding the incision. It is important to keep a loose eye on the area; however, and you should primarily be monitoring for excessive discomfort and/or discharge.
From all incisions a small amount of clear to mildly red-tinged discharge is normal. This is called serous or serosanguinous discharge and is part of the body’s normal response to an injury. Abnormalities would include, large volumes of frank blood (red) or discharge that is turning white, green, or yellow.
Additionally, it is normal for there to be some mild swelling and redness around the incision, but if it seems to be spreading apart then it is a concern.
Finally, it is important to monitor your own pet’s level of concern for their incision. If your pet is obsessing over the incision it may indicate a problem, or serve as a reminder that they are due for another dose of pain medication. They usually will be instructed to wear a cone to prevent them from directly reaching it, but that may not prevent them from trying if it is hurting or overly irritating them.
Energy or Attitude
This is another subjective monitoring parameter, as it can be difficult to gauge your pet’s energy levels or attitude when you’re trying to let them rest. However, give yourself some credit, you likely know them better than you think. Pay attention to how their behavior differs from a normal day you spend with them.
Your pet will be tired and worn down from the procedure and the general excitement about the day in the clinic, but they should not be completely averse or apathetic towards normal interactions. They also should still be excited by things that normally pique their interest. So, for instance, if your pet loves to eat, you should expect they’ll be willing to eat a little the night of the procedure. The same goes for a toy, treat, or attention. Keep in mind; though, you’ll need to go easy on them. Don’t get overly excited or loud yourself as you may strain or irritate them. Some pets are willing to do too much, and we don’t want to accidentally encourage that either.
This monitoring parameter is difficult to objectively assess; however, if your normally social and friendly dog is unwilling to get up and greet you, or tolerate attention from their favorite family member, it may be an indication that something is off. Again, you’ll have developed a pretty good idea of what to expect over your time with them already, so trust your instinct if you feel that something is off.
Monitoring your furry friend after they’ve had surgery can be a nerve-racking experience. Believe me, I’ve seen it from both sides of the fence. Unfortunately, every pet will have a slightly different response to the stress of being spayed or neutered and the anesthesia that these procedures entail.
These are some categories surrounding immediate post-op monitoring that I’ve found helpful for pet owners to focus on in the first 24 hours after surgery. Of course, should you ever be concerned, even if it doesn’t make the list presented here, it is best to have your pet evaluated. Thanks for reading!
Every pet is different. Please note that this article is for informational purposes and should not be used in place of a veterinary visit or consultation. There are serious and potentially fatal side effects that can develop following spay and neuter procedures.