How to Care For Dogs Recovering From Surgery or an Injury

The time following surgery for your dog can be confusing and distressing for you both.  Depending on what the surgery was, there will be different requirements in terms of wound care, recovery and rest time, and the medications or supportive therapies they may need post-surgery.  This guide offers some practical general guidance, but make sure that you always follow any advice given by your vet post surgery.


Immediate Post Surgery

The first 24 hours after your dog returns home from surgery can often be the most challenging.  Your dog will likely still be drowsy from the effects of the anesthetic and it can make them confused, uncoordinated, distressed and unsettled.

Trying to make sure they are warm, comfortable, safe and secure is a priority.  Make sure that you or another member of the family is around to supervise them, try to give them a quiet space away from excitable children or other animals and make sure that they have access to water to keep them hydrated.

In the immediate hours after surgery if your dog shows any unusual symptoms it is important to consult your vet immediately to establish if they may be having a post-surgery problem.  Signs to look for can include:

  • Trembling/ the inability to get warm
  • Being extremely lethargic, weak or unresponsive
  • If there is any bleeding/discharge from the wound area or anywhere else
  • A Fever
  • Respiratory issues
  • Gums that are not as pink as normal
  • Excessive Vomiting or Diarrhea
  • Blood in the urine or faeces

If your dog does not have a bowel movement in the first couple of days after surgery you should not be overly concerned about this unless it is alongside any other worrying symptoms.  Don’t forget that your dog will likely have been fasted before the surgery and then may have had a decreased appetite afterwards. Also, some of the medications they may be on to control pain could be associated with constipation.

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The first 24 hours after surgery are the most challenging and your dog will need round the clock supervision. 

Pain Medication

Depending on the type of surgery or injury that your dog has, they may also be prescribed medication to help manage any pain they may have a result.  It is always good to be aware of what is being prescribed and the potential side effects. Don’t be afraid to ask your vet if you have any questions or doubts, especially if you are aware of your pet having had any negative reaction to medication in the past.

It is important to make sure that you follow the guidance on amounts to administer carefully and if you do notice any adverse effects like unexpected drowsiness, sickness or diarrhea you should consult with your vet immediately.  They may need to try an alternative option to ensure a better reaction.

NEVER try to give human pain medication to your dog.  Some of these will not be effective, some may cause a bad reaction and some can actually be fatal for your dog.

For some wounds, it may be appropriate and helpful for your dog if you use a cold compress to help reduce inflammation and numb the area slightly for pain relief.  Only use these though on agreement with your vet.

Wound Care

Your dog will not understand that it is important for them to leave their wound alone to allow it to heal effectively.  For them it is an instinctual behavior to try to lick it to keep it clean and, if it is uncomfortable, they may also want to gnaw, chew or scratch at the wound site.

If they are allowed to do this then it can increase the chances of infection occurring, of the wound opening up again and of it not healing properly.  It is a myth that a dog’s saliva has antibacterial properties that can help with the healing process!

It is vital that you use whatever management tools may be most appropriate to minimize the opportunities for them to do this.  Supervision is important in the early stages but it is not possible for you to be watching them 24/7 so there are also some useful tools that we will discuss which can be used to stop them from being able to access their wounds so easily.

While mild swelling and redness around the wound site are to be expected in the first day or so and should not be any cause to panic, if your dog has stitches, you should check these daily to make sure that they are not loosening or that the wound area is looking abnormally red or inflamed.

If there is any sort of discharge, bleeding, a bad smell or the wound area feels hot to the touch or has anything protruding from it, then again it is important that you seek veterinary advice immediately.

Do not be tempted to put any creams or lotions on the wound site unless you have been specifically directed to do so by your vet.  You could be inadvertently aggravating the wound, increasing the likelihood of bacteria build up, and it can also be unnecessarily uncomfortable for your dog.

If your dog has bandage coverage these may need to be changed periodically.  Your vet will advise and they may need to help with this to allow them to assess the wound and ensure the bandages are applied appropriately. It is important that the bandage is kept dry.  You may need to use booties or bags around your dog’s paw if they are bandaged when taking them out for a walk or for a toilet break. Do not bandage a wound area yourself in an attempt to keep it clean or free from licking, this should only be done on your vet’s instruction.

The Pawz Disposable Boots are well reviewed in terms of staying on well and keeping a wound area dry and clean, although they do not fit well over a bandage.  Sometimes using a few well-sealed poo bags tied at the top can offer good protection to a bandaged paw when outside.

Don’t leave any waterproof covering over the bandaged site when you are indoors, this can increase the chances of sweat and moisture gathering and this can slow the healing process and increase the chances of bacteria gathering which could cause infection.

It is also important not to give your dog a bath while the wound is healing – you may just need to put up with a stinky companion for a couple of weeks!

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Don’t be tempted to give your dog a bath in the first couple of weeks after surgery.  The wound needs to be kept dry to promote healing. 

Tools to Help Minimise Your Dog Paying Too Much Attention to the Wound

There are a number of tools that you can use to try to stop your dog from being able to access their wound site.  Some work more effectively than others, some are more comfortable for the dog and some will only work if the wound site is in a particular position.  Some of the more common options include the following:

Elizabethan Collar

This is the most common solution.  It is the hard, cone-shaped collar that is often provided by the vet.  While this can be the most effective option for stopping the dog from accessing most wound sites, it can be distressing and uncomfortable for some dogs.  You need to make sure it is the right size so that it cannot easily slip over the head and that it is deep enough in length that they cannot still reach their wound site.

You may need to help them negotiate around doors and furniture at first as their spatial awareness with it on may be a bit off! Usually, after a couple of days, most dogs adjust to wearing the collar and it is better them being a bit uncomfortable in this, than having the risk of them inflicting damage on the wound area.

The Comfy Cone is slightly softer variety and a popular choice in place of the hard plastic variety.

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Inflatable Collar

A more comfortable option is the inflatable style collars that are widely available online and in some pet stores and vets.  These are less obtrusive, easier for the dog to move and sleep in, and are generally better accepted by the dogs but, depending on where the wound site is, they are not as effective as the standard cone for preventing some dogs from still accessing the wound area.

The Kong Cloud Collar is a popular choice of this style.

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T-shirts and Bodysuits

For some dogs, using a post-surgery body suit or even just a suitable doggy t-shirt can be enough to prevent your dog from licking the wound.  This is a much more comfortable and easily accepted option for most dogs. It will only work if the suit can cover the wound and some dogs will still try to gnaw on it through the fabric so it is always a good idea to have a collar back up too just in case.

It is also important to ensure that the fabric does not rub or agitate the wound area and that it is not so tight that the wound cannot breathe and heal properly.  It may be sensible to ask for your vets advice on their appropriateness for your dog’s individual case.

The Surgi Surgery Onesie Recovery Shirt is a popular choice.

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For the first 24 hours after surgery, your dog may not have their usual appetite.  When they are ready to eat, it is best to offer them something bland, light and easy to digest. Chicken and rice (if your dog does not have any specific intolerances) are often recommended.  There are also veterinary prescribed foods available for post surgery. Feeding small and often initially is a good idea, especially if you normally only feed one or two large meals.

If your dog continues to have a lack of appetite after the first 24 – 48 hours then we would recommend consulting with your Vet, especially if there are any other worrying signs such as your dog vomiting, continuing to be lethargic or particularly uncomfortable.

If your dog is on extended crate rest and is not able to get as much exercise as they normally would you may also need to consider cutting back their food portions a little for the duration to help them avoid putting on any unwanted weight.  Always chat with your vet about this so that they can help you make an appropriate judgement.

If your dog is on antibiotics, or the surgery or the meds they are on are giving them an upset tummy, then it can be useful to give them probiotics for a couple of weeks after the surgery.  Antibiotics rid the stomach of its natural flora and the probiotics can help to restore this.

The Purina Pro Plan FortiFlora Dog Probiotic Supplement is often recommended by vets and is a tried and tested formula with solid reviews from customers.

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Exercise Levels

Regardless of the surgery, in the immediate 24 hours after surgery, it is very important that your dog is kept calm, quiet and as still as possible.  They should really just be going outside for toilet breaks and always on a short leash.

Generally after this, for less serious surgeries care should be taken with regards to how much exercise they get for at least the next week to fourteen days.  Usually, they should still have shorter, on leash walks. No visits to the Dog Park, for example.

You will also need to make sure that your dog is not overly excited or encouraged to jump up, run or rough house.  You may need to prevent them from jumping up on sofas or down from human beds and you may need to help them up and down the stairs initially, especially if they are a small breed.  Baby gates and having someone around to keep an eye on them in the immediate days post-surgery can be helpful.

For more serious surgeries major restrictions on exercise may be required for four to sometimes even 8 weeks.  Full recovery for certain surgeries can even take a number of months.

While it can be tough for you and your dog, they don’t understand why they shouldn’t be charging around at their usual pace, it is very important that you take the vets guidance on this seriously and don’t cheat.

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You should follow your vet’s advice regarding restrictions on your dog’s exercise regime post surgery.  No off leash in the first week or two and possibly longer, depending on the surgery 

To Crate or Not to Crate?

Crate rest is not required for all dogs post surgery.  Often just supervising and restricting their exercise initially, perhaps just going out for toilet breaks, is enough.

For dogs with a more serious type of surgery, often those involving orthopedics (operations on the musculoskeletal parts of the body), your dog will need to be on very restricted rest to maximise the chances of a good recovery.  In these cases, crate rest is often recommended and this can be for up to a number of weeks in some more extreme cases.

It can be a challenge to keep your dog stimulated and enriched and also, if your dog is not used to being crated, then it can also be stressful if it is not introduced carefully.  For more guidance see our article on how to introduce your dog to a crate successfully.  Using stationary interactive treat toys and giving your dog the opportunity to do minimal movement nose work tasks can be great ways to help keep them entertained and stimulated.

If your dog is going to be in a crate it is very important to make sure it is the right size.  Too big and it can give them too much room to bash around, potentially injuring themselves further, and too small and they can be cramped and uncomfortable and it could possibly cause problems for the healing process if they do not have the appropriate space to let the wound breathe or stretch out enough to avoid further pain.  It also needs to have appropriate supportive bedding that covers the full crate floor and that is very clean to help minimize the chances of dirt getting into the wound and causing infection. If your dog is wearing a cone, the cage should be large enough that your dog can still comfortably maneuver without it getting stuck.

If they are not crated, make sure that their bedding is clean, comfy and large enough that they are not having to curl up if this will put pressure on the wound or make them uncomfortable.

If your dog has never used a crate before and is extremely distressed when left in it, perhaps throwing themselves at the door, spinning frantically or aggressively digging or gnawing in their attempts to get out, they could actually harm themselves, open the wound or slow down recovery time.  In these cases, it may then be better to confine them to a small room or smaller space in a puppy pen or behind a baby gate instead.

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If your dog needs to be on crate rest, make sure it is introduced carefully and that is the appropriate size 

Additional Enrichment Ideas

Keeping your dog mentally challenged when they are on restricted exercise or crate rest is extremely important. There are lots of ways that you can help keep your dog feeling happy and engaged that don’t involve lots of physical exertion or movement.  Some of the most popular options are outlined below.

Sniff Time

If your dog is allowed exercise but it is to be restricted, then offering them more opportunities for sniff time can be a great way to keep them engaged and stimulated.  Slow your walks down and let them choose what they want to stop to sniff and for how long.

For dogs on crate rest, you could use a snuffle mat if they are allowed that sort of range of movement.  This offers them the opportunity to use their nose from a relatively stationary position.

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Short Training Sessions

Working on basic, limited movement training can also be a great option.  Not only are you mentally challenging your dog and helping to stave off boredom, but it will tire them out and will help to increase that all-important bond between you.

Perhaps you could work on a new little trick or on things that don’t involve much movement.  For example, you could work on asking for a bark on command, getting a head tilt, teach them to hold an item, or working on a touch command and getting them to then focus on touching, pushing or pulling certain targeted items.

Interactive Treat Toys or Chews

While chews are often the go-to option for people to give to their dog as they are something that is easy and the dog enjoys them, these should be used in great moderation.  If your dog is on restricted exercise they could be prone to putting on weight and too many big chews will increase this chance. They are not as mentally enriching as an interactive treat toy, a training session, or sniff time either.

Having an arsenal of treat toys that can be used in a stationary position can be really useful.  You can even fill these with some of your dog’s daily food rations to avoid overfeeding them (perhaps just top it with something extra tasty for more incentive).  Every dog is different with how much of a challenge they will like, but a Classic Kong is always a good option and some of the toys from West Paw Designs range, like the Tux.  For more ideas see our article on safe, interactive treat toys.

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Alternative Therapies

For some surgeries, especially the orthopaedic ones, it can be useful or recommended for your dog to have some post-surgery therapy to help promote healing.

It is always important to consult with a vet to establish if it is appropriate, when it should be started, how long would be beneficial and what option may be best.  Always make sure that you go with a recommended and fully qualified therapist too.

Some of the more popular options include:


Hydrotherapy, where your dog swims in a controlled environment with assistance, is a popular form of exercise post surgery as this is a very low impact form of exercise and does not put any unnecessary strain on the bones or joints.
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Supported swimming sessions at hydrotherapy pool can be useful for strengthen muscle tone without putting extra stress on joints 

Physiotherapy/ Canine Massage

Seeking assistance from a traditional, qualified canine physiotherapist can be useful.  They will usually provide some specific exercises to help with strengthening muscles and for promoting balance and they could also help with massage techniques too which can help to flex and manipulate limbs in a controlled, gentle and beneficial way.  It can help your dog to get back their range of movement. This can also be very relaxing for your dog too!

So, the key points to be mindful of when caring for your dog post surgery are to:

  • Make sure that you are patient and give your dog the appropriate amount of time to rest and heal
  • Always follow your vet’s advice
  • Make sure that you keep your dog mentally enriched while on restricted exercise
  • Keep a close eye on the wound site and make sure your dog does not fuss over it
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