Canine Post-Op Physical Therapy: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

Many hours of my work week are spent caring for dogs after surgery and guiding their owners through the recovery process.

I am often amazed by the lack of adherence to post-op instructions. Some owners neglect to read them at all. Even worse, some veterinarians don’t provide written documentation about post-op care.

Canine Post-Op Physical Therapy: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

The first few days and weeks after surgery are critical to ensuring a good outcome for your dog. It bears a review of best practices for dog owners to follow.

Recommendations for canine post-surgical physical therapy practices and expectations

Written post-op instructions

Expect written post-op instructions from your vet. If the surgeon doesn’t provide any, insist that they are given to you, even if handwritten.

Adherence to instructions

Adhere to the instructions fully.

Have a conference with all of the family and adopt a “boot camp” mentality for the next 2-3 weeks. If anything is unclear, obtain an explanation from the doctor as soon as possible.

Inspecting the incision

Once bandages are removed examine the scar. If you feel squeamish about this, ask a family member or friend to help.

The scar should be dry, and clean, though initially there may be dried blood or dark scabbing. Check the skin temperature near the scar (you should not touch the scar directly for the first week or 2) using the smooth side of your forearm. The skin should feel cool or slightly warm. Skin color at the scar should be light to pink.

Signs to be wary of are

  • oozing
  • swelling
  • redness
  • bleeding
  • significant warmth or a feeling of heat in the area
  • white pus

The above are signs of possible infection and may require immediate care from your vet.

The suture line should be flat and smooth, though there may be some initial puckering during the first 1-3 weeks. Contact your veterinarian if the incision

  • remains lumpy or puckered
  • has sections that remain open and do not appear to be closing
Incision healing

As the incision heals it will close, with the edges meeting each other, and then eventually fully closing tightly, becoming “sealed”

Until it is sealed, it should be kept dry, no bathing or swimming.  When the incision is closed, it can be checked for underlying mobility.  This will be done by a vet or therapist.

Scar tissue is needed to secure and protect the area, but over-adherence to the underlying skin and soft tissues should be avoided.  Some incisions heal “too well” and excess scar tissue can cause hardness and tightening, restricting the normal range of motion.  In this case, you may be advised to apply Vitamin E gel or other topical agents to rub on the scar or have a physical therapist perform some release and massage techniques.

Activity restriction

It cannot be stressed enough to strictly follow your vet’s instructions in these areas.

Confine means that you may need to use a crate or isolate your dog in a small area using gates.

Support means you may need to roll towels or place pillows under the leg or operated area to elevate it. You might need to physically carry your dog or use a sling under the belly and ribcage to assist them up and outdoors.

Restricted activity usually means no off-leash movement, and use a leash at all times whether indoors and out. This includes keeping your dog off stairs, furniture, and separated from other pets.

Other recommendations

Sometimes the hardest aspect of pet ownership is figuring out what is normal or okay and what is not/when to call the vet.

Here are some helpful ways of assessing your dog’s status at home:  learn how to take your dog’s temperature using a rectal digital thermometer. Your vet can guide you what is normal for your dog but in general, over 102.5F indicates an abnormality. Check the appearance of your dog’s gums by lifting the lip and looking for color and texture.  Pink and moist is good, but red or gray is bad, along with excessive dryness or lots of thick saliva and drooling.   Be on the lookout for signs or pain such as panting, trembling, refusal to make eye contact, rounding or roaching of the spine.

Final words of advice

The post-op recovery period is no fun, especially the first few days, but you will get through it! Try to keep a light-hearted mood around your pet, as they read us “like a book” and watch our reactions closely. If you stay positive and low-key, your dog will be more relaxed and tolerant of the situation.

Commit to getting through the initial period, knowing that your strict efforts to follow all instructions will be well worth it for the benefit of your beloved dog!

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Physical Therapy: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

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Related articles:
Cruciate Ligament (ACL/CCL) Surgery Post-Op Care: Example Plan

Further reading:
Rehabilitation After Surgery for Pets

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