Care for dogs stitches after surgery is fundamental to help your canine companion heal and to prevent the potential for complications. This cannot be emphasized enough considering that failing to monitor an take care of the dog's stitches may lead to re-hospitalization, having the dog go again under anesthesia, not to mention extra costs. Veterinarian Dr. Eric Weiner shares below several tips on how to care for dog stitches after surgery and lists several do's and don'ts dog owners should become aware of.
How to Care for Dog Stitches After Surgery
Congratulations! Your dog successfully underwent a surgical operation. Now what? Whether the surgery was for an elective procedure or an emergent one, the care for the surgical wound is about the same. Here are some things to look for and the do’s and don’ts of caring for stitches (AKA sutures).
Restrict Your Dog's Activity
First off, it is of utmost importance to keep your dog calm. It is fantastic if he or she is feeling better and wants to run around. Do. Not. Let. Your. Dog. Run. Around.
Exercise, such as running, jumping, running up and down stairs and any other high impact activity can not only pull the stitches out, thus opening the wound, but also disrupts the tissues as they are healing. This delays new tissue formation and healing and increases inflammation.
More inflammation also delays healing and increases discomfort. Extra inflammation also lends to accumulation of inflammatory fluid, called a seroma. This is typically not a huge deal and can be managed with medical care, and may not need to be drained.
Pain is useful in that it inhibits movements, which helps with healing. Now of course we do not want our pets in pain, so they will be on pain meds. That makes it our job to keep them inactive while they are going through the healing process.
Use an Elizabethan Collar
Let’s talk E-collars. Oh the dreaded “cone of shame,” As a veterinarian, we get that dogs hate them and you get bruises on the back of your legs as your dog bulldozes into you.
Here is why the cone is important: What does your dog do when something is irritating or painful? Lick, scratch, and rub right? Sure, why not? They don’t have anything better to do. These activities cause mechanical or physical disruption of the sutures and can break them open. What happens when the incision breaks open? Back to surgery under anesthesia, or at least heavy sedation. That’s more risk under anesthesia for your dog, and for your wallet.
Please keep in mind that if the discharge instructions were not followed and your dog was allowed to play and lick, it was not the veterinarian’s fault; additional charges for their time, equipment, and staff are reasonable and fair. Also note that dogs do get used to the E-collars and should be able to eat and do normal daily activities with it on. Give it time. It may just take some getting used to.
The other problem with allowing the dog to lick and scratch is that they are introducing bacteria to the vulnerable site. Veterinarians are trained to take extra measures to use aseptic techniques to minimize bacterial contamination, before, during and after the operation. Therefore it is unusual for incisional infections to occur if they are properly cared for.
Infections can have serious consequences in terms of healing and comfort level. Depending on the location and severity of the infection, treatment can range from antibiotics to surgical intervention, again adding risk and cost. If you notice a foul odor or thick white discharge from the wound, please notify your veterinarian.
Follow Post Operative Instructions
It is always good to follow the post operative care instructions given by your veterinarian. These are usually written down on the discharge summary or sometimes the invoice. The keys are to keep the areas clean and dry, and give all medications as directed.
Medications are carefully selected and calculated for a certain purpose. If the directions are not followed, they may not work, and can be dangerous. If your dog has an issue with the meds, please contact your veterinarian before adjusting the dose (or just stopping the meds) on your own.
Icing the incision for about 10 to 15 minutes twice daily in the first few days after the surgery can help decrease swelling and inflammation. Wrap the ice pack in a clean towel, do not put it directly on the dog’s skin. If it is going to be a battle to do it, it is not worth stressing them over, so it is better to just abort mission. If the area gets dirty, gently clean it with a clean wash cloth, do not overly scrub, and then pat dry.
The normal healing process of a typical incision takes about 10 to 14 days. Orthopedic procedures may take longer to heal in terms of prolonged activity restriction. It is important to note that incisions heal side to side, not length-wise. A 2-inch incision will heal in the same time period of a 10-inch incision.
Some redness, bruising, and a little straw colored to reddish oozing may be expected. Any excessive pain, changes in color around the wound, swelling or pocketing of fluid, or drainage such as blood or pus warrants immediate veterinary attention. The incision should pretty much look like a zipper. Sometimes you see the stitches and sometimes you do not, depending on the suture technique performed.
It is a good idea to take a look at it at the vets office (if it is not bandaged) to see what it looks like on day 1 so you know what to compare it to as you monitor at home. Again, if you notice that the skin is splitting open, please notify your vet.
Please resist the urge to wrap wounds yourself unless you are trained to do so. Improperly wrapping, either too loose or too tight can have dire consequences. If you are concerned how the wound looks, you are much better off either emailing pictures to your vet or at least calling them to see if they recommend coming in, or if they think continued monitoring at home is appropriate.
The Bottom Line
Having a pet with a surgical wound can be daunting, but it does not have to be. Most times you will be given a set of discharge instructions when you pick up your pet describing how to care for the wound. This typically includes activity restriction (leash walks to go to the bathroom, then right back inside), wearing an E-collar, keeping the area clean, and carefully following label directions on medications.
Monitor the wound for changes in color, smell, amount of discharge, or pain. If you notice increased swelling or if the wound margins are coming apart, please contact your veterinarian. If all of the instructions are followed, there is a higher chance for success and quicker return to normal function.
About the Author
Dr. Eric Weiner is a small animal veterinarian practicing in Orlando, Florida. He is a third generation veterinarian as both his father and grandfather are vets. Although he grew up following both of them around and wanted to be a veterinarian himself, he took a bit of a detour and attended Hofstra University originally as a music major.