Some people are lucky and their dogs never see the inside of an operating room. For those of us whose beloved family members do end up there, it’s important to know what the risks and potential side effects are, how to take care of your dog when they get home, and how to minimize the risks before they go in for surgery.
Surgery can be a stressful event for your dog’s body and some side effects can be expected for the first 24 hours after they return home. That can include dizziness, nausea, loss of appetite, reduced balance, and whining.
The best thing you can do is keep them warm and comfortable, feed them soft, bland food (if they’ll take it) and keep an eye on them. Any side effect that seems excessive or lasts more than 24-36 hours should be taken up with your vet.
Table of Contents:
Before the surgery
Your vet should give you all the instructions you need before the day of the surgery. In most cases, your dog will not be allowed to eat the morning of their operation, but they can have water right up till you leave for the vets.
Under most circumstances, they can take their medications on the surgery day. Again, your vet should give you guidance, but if they don’t, be sure to ask.
On the morning of the operation, take your dog on a short on-leash walk so they can go to the bathroom, but don’t let them run around and get over-excited.
Minimizing the risk of general anesthesia
There is one important thing you can do to reduce the risk of an incident, and that’s diligently following the pre-operative instructions you’re given by the vet. That includes any fasting instructions, which can be hard when your dog is begging for food and doesn’t understand why you’re not giving them any.
If the operation is not being performed by your usual vet, the operating vet should:
- Ask you about your dog’s previous medical history and the medication they’re on
- Carry out a full physical exam, including their heart and breathing
Some conditions increase the risk of surgery for your dog, and you may not be aware that they exist. For example, heartworm, lungworm, liver and kidney disease, diabetes, allergies, and more can increase the risk of complications.
To mitigate these, before the operation, you can also ask the vet for:
- A full physical exam
- Blood and urine tests to identify any existing abnormalities or illnesses
- ECGs to measure heart performance in older dogs
Information about your dog’s breed is important
Note that some breeds have peculiarities that your vet should be aware of, so it’s worth doing your homework.
For example, my two boys are sighthounds, which means they have lower body fat than other breeds so they process drugs differently. Their blood levels are also slightly different which can complicate the vet’s reading of pre-operative bloodwork. They’re a more nervous breed, too, so are more likely to overheat.
Dogs with squishy faces like Pekingese, Boston terriers, pugs, bulldogs and boxers can be harder to sedate. Other dogs like poodles and Yorkshire terriers are at risk of throat collapse during surgery.
The point here is to make sure that the operating vet is familiar with your dog’s breed and knows what could go wrong. Ask as many questions as you need to feel comfortable and confident that the vet has taken these things into account.
I’m such a helicopter dog-mama that I emailed my vet the blood levels that are normal for sighthounds. Later, they added them to my dogs’ notes. I wouldn’t have done that if they’d needed to go to specialist surgeons, but I would have at least asked the question to make sure the specialists knew.
Ask your vet about their post-operation monitoring processes. How often will they check on your dog after the surgery is done? Will someone stay with them until they’re awake? If your dog needs to stay overnight will there be someone on-site to monitor them? What is the vet’s process in the event of an emergency?
How will the anesthetic be given to my dog?
There are three ways your vet can anesthetize your dog:
- Local anesthesia where the pain-blocking is in a specific area of their body like a tooth
- Regional anesthesia which covers a larger area of the body, such as the entire lower half
- General anesthesia which knocks your dog out entirely
In this post, we’ll focus on the effects of general anesthetic.
How does general anesthetic work?
The drugs given for general anesthesia work by making your dog unconscious. Their muscles relax, their nerve responses are blocked, they are unable to move and don’t feel any pain.
The amount and type of anesthetizing drugs given depends on:
- How long the surgery is going to be
- Your dog’s weight
- Your dog’s medical history
- Your dog’s age
- Your dog’s breed
The anesthetic is monitored throughout the operation, and your dog will be given an IV during and after the operation to replace lost fluids, help dilute the drugs given them and to prevent damage to internal organs. Heart rate and blood pressure monitors as well as other measuring equipment run throughout the surgery to provide the best possible outcome for your dog.
How long does it take a dog to recover from anesthesia?
After the surgery, the vet will give your dog medications to reverse the effects of the anesthetic drugs so they should be almost back to normal by the time you come to take them home, and some are fully alert by then.
Many dogs do stay a little tired and groggy for 12-24 hours after surgery, but if they’re unusually sluggish or hard to rouse call your vet immediately.
Although newer anesthesia drugs have greatly reduced side effects, operations can still produce stress on your dog’s body and they may be nauseous or vomit after the surgery. This can take a few days to pass.
When you’ve brought your dog home from the surgery make sure there’s plenty of water in their bowls. Keep them calm, undisturbed, warm and comfortable (unless they’re cold-weather dogs like huskies, at which point a cooler room might be better).
You can try and feed them something small, soft and very bland, unless your vet says otherwise. Don’t worry too much if they don’t want to eat anything that day.
Follow all the instructions your vet will have given you for post-surgery care, make sure your dog is warm and comfortable and be ready with hugs and snuggles (if your dog likes that kind of thing).
Dog anesthesia complications
Only around 1 in 1,000 dogs experience complications from surgery. Dogs aged 12 and above are slightly more at risk if they have underlying health conditions, and very young dogs are also more at risk because their organs aren’t yet functioning at full capacity.
Obese dogs can be more at risk of breathing complications during surgery.
As with every surgery, it’s a balance between the risks associated with general anesthesia and the risk of harm from the illness/issue being treated.
Once you’ve brought your dog back home, here are some things to look out for:
Redness at the surgery site
A little pinkness is normal but if the area around the surgery is red and feeling warm, that’s a sign that there might be an infection and you need to contact your vet as soon as you can. Although operating theaters are highly sanitized, infections do sometimes happen.
One way to reduce the possibility of that happening is to stop your dog from licking the wound, and to keep the area clean and dry until the stitches are ready to come out.
My dog is shaking
When your dog comes out of surgery, their body temperature may be lower than normal, leading to shaking. That’s because the drugs dilate the blood vessels allowing body heat to escape.
If your pup is still cold when they get home, keep them calm, comfortable and covered with a blanket in a warm room.
My dog can’t walk after anesthesia
Because anesthesia effectively blocks a dog’s nerve responses, they may well be unsteady on their feet until it has fully left their body. That may take longer for heavier dogs with more fat, or for dogs whose body composition means they metabolize the drugs more slowly.
The vet will normally keep your dog in until all the effects of the anesthesia wear off, but there are exceptions.
For example, both of my dogs suffer from separation anxiety, a common trait in Salukis. They also don’t take well to being enclosed and get very agitated, harming their healing process. So the vet lets me take them home when the effects of the anesthesia have mostly but not entirely worn off.
If your dog is still unsteady on their feet after a day or two, call your vet to ask for advice.
My dog is nauseous
Nausea is a common side effect of the sedation and anesthetic drugs and should pass within 12-24 hours of the surgery. The poor pup may even vomit a little.
You can try feeding your dog a small, soft, very bland meal – as long as the vet has said it’s okay to do so. Don’t worry if they don’t eat until the next day. If they’re still not eating after 24 hours, call your vet.
My dog is whining or making strange noises after sedation
The main reason a dog whines after surgery is because they’re uncomfortable. They might be in pain, cold, confused, groggy, nauseous, and since they have no other way of letting you know, they whine.
The vet should have sent you home with some pain relief for your dog so make sure you follow the instructions given for that. Comfort your dog in a way they appreciate. Mine love a good snuggle so I do that, but not all dogs appreciate that level of closeness.
For some dogs, it’s better to reassure them with calm, gentle words, or a little pat or scratch. For others, it’s enough for them to know that you’re near them.
If the whining continues for more than a day, check in with your vet.
My dog sounds congested after anesthesia
If your dog is coughing after surgery, it could be due to irritation from the tube that was inserted down their throat. The irritation should pass in a few days. The coughing could also be a sign of stress.
If your dog is also very lethargic, weak or has difficulty breathing, call your vet immediately. Other signs to look for include: a runny nose, whistling sound, dehydration and rapid breathing. These are potential signs of aspiration pneumonia, which can be a life-threatening condition if left for too long.
Should my dog be panting after surgery?
Some panting is to be expected once your dog gets home. Assuming it’s not related to a heatwave, they may still be in pain or be stressed. It’s also a way for them to get the residues of the drugs out of their body.
If your dog is panting excessively or for more than a few hours, contact your vet. It could be a sign that their pain is severe and needs addressing, or that they’re having trouble regulating their body temperature.
My dog isn’t drinking after anesthesia
In the same way your dog may not want to eat after surgery, they may also not want to drink anything. They can easily survive a day or two without food and water although if it lasts longer than that, it’s cause for concern.
More often, a dog will drink much more than normal in a bid to flush the drugs out of their system. Again, as long as it doesn’t last more than a day or two, there’s nothing to worry about.
Can anesthesia change a dog’s personality?
The advice from Washington State University says, “Behavioral changes after general anesthesia are extremely common; fortunately they usually resolve within a few days.
Do not leave young children unattended with an animal that has just recovered from general anesthesia no matter how trustworthy that animal normally is. Remember, your pet has been through a lot and probably won’t fully recover and be himself/herself for several days.”
Having surgery is a stressful thing for a dog’s body and psyche. For the first day or two after the operation, they may behave differently, not eat, whine, and be a little unbalanced. The best thing you can do for them is to keep them warm and comfortable, hug them (if that they like that) or leave them be (if that’s their thing).
Any symptoms that seem severe or that last more than 24 hours or more are a cause for concern and should be raised with your vet.