Thursday, March 6, 2014

Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

by Susan E. Davis, PT 

It’s all about guiding and empowering you to help your pet avoid injury, provide practical solutions and achieve rapid restoration of health and function!   

Many hours of my work week are spent caring for pets after surgery and guiding their owners through the recovery process. I am often amazed by the lack of adherence to post-op instructions, including some owners neglecting to read them at all!

Even worse, some veterinarians don’t provide written documentation about post-op care. 

The first few days and weeks after surgery are so critical to insuring a good outcome for your pet that is bears a review of best practices for pet owners to follow.

1. Expect written post op instructions from your vet and if not provided, insist that they are given to you, even if hand written.

2. Adhere to the instructions fully.  

Have a conference with all of the family (or with yourself!) 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.

3. Once the 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. These 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.

If it stays lumpy or puckered, or has sections that remain open and do not appear to be closing, contact your vet.

4. 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 normal range of motion.  In this case, you may be advised to apply Vitamin E gel or other topical agent to rub on the scar, or have a physical therapist perform some release and massage techniques.

5. 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.

6. Misc

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 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.

7. 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!

Help them go from this

To this!  


Susan E. Davis (Sue) is a licensed Physical Therapist with over 30 years of practice in the human field, who transitioned into the animal world after taking courses at the UT Canine Rehabilitation program.  She is located in Red Bank, New Jersey.

She has been providing PT services to dogs and other animals through her entity Joycare Onsite, LLC in pet’s homes and in vet clinics since 2008.

She also provides pro bono services at the Monmouth County SPCA in Eatontown, NJ.  Sue is the proud “dog mommy” to Penelope, a miniature Dachshund with “attitude”.  For more information see her website , or follow on Twitter @animalPTsue.

Sue is also the author of a fantastic book on physical therapy, Physical Therapy And Rehabilitation For Animals: A Guide For The Consumer.  

Physical therapy can do so many great things for your dog. Understanding all the possibilities physical therapy can offer will change your dog's life. This book definitely belongs on the shelf of every dog lover.

Articles by Susan E. Davis:
Functional Strengthening Exercises: the What, Why and How
One Thing Leads To Another: Why The Second ACL Often Goes Too
Compensation: An Attempt To Restore Harmony
Paring Down to the Canine Core
Canine Massage: Every Dog ‘Kneads’ It”
Photon Power: Can Laser Therapy Help Your Dog?  
Physical Therapy in the Veterinary World  
Reiki: Is it real? 
Dog Lessons: Cooper  
The Essentials Of Canine Injury Prevention: 7 Tips For Keeping Your Dog Safer 
It's Not Just Walking, It's Therapy! 
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part I)
Treatment And Prevention Of Canine Intervertebral Disc Disease (Part II Physical Therapy)
Range Of Motion: It’s A Matter Of Degree…
The Weight Of Water And How It Helps Dogs 
By Land or By Sea? A Comparison of Canine Treadmills 
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part I)
Unraveling The Mystery Of Fascia And Myofascial Trigger Points (Part II) 
Scar Tissue: Is it Too Much of a Good Thing? 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Ramps! 
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Indoor Duo Dog Exercises!
Physical Therapy Tip Of The Month: Best Practices After Your Dog’s Surgery

Related articles:
Surviving The Post-Op: After Your Dog's ACL Surgery 
Cruciate Ligament (ACL/CCL) Surgery Post-Op Care: Example Plan
Coco's TPLO Post-Op Diary


  1. We plan to take a couple days off to be with the puppies after their surgery. Partly to watch them, mostly because we like to be home with our dogs.

  2. Great tips to share. Hate to say I have way too much experience in this area...wish I didn't.

    1. I wish that too, for both of us. Sometimes, though, it might be a price to pay for active life, too.