Preparing Your Dog for Surgery

I wouldn’t consider myself terribly lucky to have experience in this topic.

It’s an unfortunate fact that Moses has undergone two major procedures: one for bloat and one for his spinal cyst.

Take into account his neuter, and the big guy has been under the knife three times.

Moses, released from the vet after bloat in October 2009

But if I can put together some pieces of advice for others, I suppose that could be the silver lining.

First, I should note there are two kinds of pet surgeries, and we’ve experienced both:

1.  The expected.

2.  The unexpected.

Granted, not a lot of preparing can be done for the second category.

The unexpected for us was bloat, but it could be an accident, porcupine encounter, nearly anything – that’s why it’s “unexpected”.

But, as any good Girl Guide can tell you, there is a way to be as prepared as possible for those sorts of situations, including:

– knowing where the nearest 24 hour vet is located

– having a pet first aid kit on hand

– consider taking a course in pet first aid (I’ve taken one, and would highly recommend it)

– having a pet insurance policy or being otherwise financially prepared for surprise vet bills

– ensure your dog is comfortable being handled by strangers

– putting your dog on a quality diet to keep them as healthy as possible overall

– training with your dog (mastering skills such as recall, heeling, and stop can be potentially life-saving)

On the flip side, the “expected” category are the times when your dog is going into the vet and you have at least some advance notice, such as a spay or neuter, or diagnostic work (CT Scan, for example), or major surgery (like Moses’ dorsal laminectomy to remove the cyst).

And in addition to the precautions noted above that also apply, there are definitely some further words of advice I’d like to pass on.

1.  Prepare your household

Our Moses-specific addition

Our vet was very straightforward with us: when we brought Moses home from his surgery, he wouldn’t be able to walk.  And even as he learned and got more mobile over time, stairs would be a challenge.  To this day, almost a full 16 weeks after the surgery, we’re still not having Moses take a tonne of stairs.

Luckily, the Husband has some mad construction skillz (yes, with a ‘z’, that’s how you know they’re “mad”), and was able to outfit our back yard with the ramp before the surgery.  We purchased the black rubber floor mats to help provide grip, which we also placed throughout the house to give Moses some stability on our tile floors.

The ramp proved to be invaluable as we found ourselves offering Moses considerable support in and out of the house during the first couple of weeks, and it’s been very easy for him to use during recovery.

2.  Get them groomed

We didn’t do this and I really wish we had.

Like I said, Moses was immobile when he was out of surgery.  And I don’t just mean unable to stand up – the first day was a struggle for him to even lift his head.

This limited mobility made for a lot of laying around, which, for a long-haired dog, can lead to matting.  I brushed Moses on alternating sides for over an hour each day during the first week after his cyst was removed to combat this and was barely able to stay on top of it.  It would have been off to a much better start if we had taken him into a groomer before he went in for the procedure.

Besides, if your dog is prescribed some post-op downtime in the house after an operation of any kind, it would probably be nice to have them smelling fresh.

3.  Prepare yourself

Serious procedures are stressful, worrisome and emotionally taxing over all.

Trust me.  I know.

So do what you can to divide responsibilities, get some sleep, and just find the time to cope in the way that works best for you.

For example, I had the day off we took Moses in for his CT Scan during the diagnostic process and it was the worst decision I could have made, since I was mostly left with my thoughts all day and did nothing but fret.  So the day he was in for his actual surgery, I went to work like usual, kept busy and survived the day.

It also helps if you talk through some of the potential out-comes and “what-ifs” with the family, so perhaps some tough decisions don’t cause tension and take everyone by surprise.  Like writing your own will, there are certain topics no one wants to discuss, but it’s still the responsible thing to do.

4.  Ask the vet as many questions as possible and follow their instructions

Maybe it’s just me, but the more informed I am, the more secure I feel in my situation and my decisions.  So I asked the vet some questions, did some reading on my own, and then came back with follow up questions.

Post-op care also comes with lots of information and instruction. When it has come to Moses’ recovery, we’ve followed the vet’s instructions to the letter and I must say, so far it’s turned out very well!  Sure, it was hard not to walk him for 8 weeks, and it was even harder to walk him for only 5 minutes when we were finally able.  But they don’t just make that stuff up for the fun of it.  It’s important not to push it too far.

On the other hand, it’s as equally important not to go too easy on them.

Remember that cart I mentioned that the Husband was going to build to help support Moses and aid in walking?  A prototype was made, but a functional cart never came to be and Moses walked on his own after 2 weeks out of both will and necessity.

I think a major reason why we didn’t pursue the cart building with more gusto is because a certain anecdote our vet told really stuck with us:  she mentioned how several small dogs become reliant on the carts and their use can come to mean the dog never walks without it again.  Not only did we not want that for Moses, with a dog his size, such a fate would be near impossible to accommodate long-term.

Instead, the Husband retro-fitted a seatbelt harness so that we could help him ourselves.  It was motivation for all of us to get him up at at ’em again as soon as possible.

Moses stands, with moral support only, for the first time after cyst removal (August 2011)

5.  Consider dieting (the dog, not you)

Of course, you should always ensure your dog is a healthy weight and not carrying too much extra around the mid-section (for the large breeds, too many extra pounds can literally shave years off their lifespans).  And if post-op recovery means reduced mobility and a less intense exercise regime, it makes sense to reason that your dog will therefore be burning fewer calories in a day.  Therefore, a temporary diet cut-back can prevent them from putting on some extra pounds in the meantime.  Depending on what health issues you may be encountering with your pup, excess weight can mean extra strain on their joints, and agonize any existing issues or lengthen the recovery process.

6.  Get creative

Yes, going through a major surgery with your pet is sad, stressful and expensive.  Having a bored dog going stir-crazy in the house afterwards can be additionally frustrating.  But there are lots of ways to make the best of it by working on old or new tricks and in-house games with your dog.  Hide and seek or remedial tracking exercises with toys in the house are a great way to keep them calm but still have fun and get their mind working. Give them a task by practising patience in the form of sit-stays and down-stays.

For Moses, motivating him to walk and regaining dexterity in his front legs was our focus, so we had him “high-five” a lot for food, tickle his feet so he’d move them, and would entice him with his favourite treats and practice short-distance recall to get him moving around.

7.   Be prepared for some odd behaviour

Just like people, when pets are sick or unwell, they can behave in ways contrary to their normal selves.

We saw this first hand with Moses.  He’s usually pretty laid back and tolerant, but while his condition was progressing, and while he was just gaining his mobility back, he became unusually sensitive to those around him – particularly other dogs.  By this, I mean he became clearly uncomfortable if dogs around him were getting too excited or rambunctious, likely because high-energy play could result in him getting knocked over or hurt.  So, in what was very uncommon for Moses, he kind of became the “Fun Police” for a little while there, scolding other dogs who were threatening excitement.  He also occasionally barked at passing dogs and people as we started introducing walks again – something we’d not previously seen from him, but potentially a result of cabin fever (which is my official guess based on the fact that these behaviours have since ceased, and he’s very much his “old self” once again).

There’s no real way to predict how your dog’s behaviour could possibly change, but be prepared that it could happen and don’t worry too much if you notice a few things.   If you keep to your normal interactions and training routine, and handle behaviour anomalies as you usually would (and don’t hesitate to ask for professional support or advice), you should notice that they’ll work themselves out for the most part as your dog’s health and routine also go back to normal.

8.  Stay optimistic

This can be tough.  Especially if your dog comes home a depressing sight: shaved, immobile, drugged up, unresponsive.  And it doesn’t make you a terrible person to wonder at least once “did we make a mistake going through with it?”  I know it was either the first or second night – when Moses would sadly sigh, and was unable to get up to even use the bathroom – that very thought crossed my mind, with concerns about recovery, long-term prognosis, cost, and quality of life weighing heavily.  But if you have come to the decision that going through the surgery in the first instance was in your dog’s best interest, trust your decision-making and stay positive about the days to come.

I can say for certain, for us, it was entirely worth it.

Worth it.

Of course, a lot of this advice stems from my own personal experiences, so it could be irrelevant or directly contrary to other experiences out there.

Though, at the end of it all, I just hope no one has to actually put any of this advice to use.