Caring for Recovering Pets

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

It can be a stressful time for any paw-parent when their beloved furbaby is at the vets for an illness or surgical procedure. It’s important to remember, they are in excellent, professional hands. However, you might be wondering how to give your pet the best possible care when they come home? Every case is different, and your vet will give you specific discharge instructions, however there are some principles which you can put in place to provide you pet with the best home-care possible.

Immediate Post-Surgical Care

Following any surgery or procedure, or any hospital admission for a medical illness, your pet will receive careful monitoring by the veterinary staff. This will ensure your furchild is kept comfortable and recovering uneventfully.

If your pet is just in the clinic for the day for a surgical procedure, the vet will call you afterwards to let you know how it went and when you can collect your baby. Even though you’re likely to want to collect your pet as soon as possible, they cannot be in a better place for recovery than your veterinary practice. If on the rare occasion, your pet was to take a turn for the worse, the veterinary staff will be there to spring into action quickly. So, if you can cope to give your pet a few extra hours there after their procedure, this is best for them.

At this time, you can busy yourself by making sure your home is ready. You’ll need a warm, comfortable area for your pet to rest within easy access to food and water, and if a cat, a litterbox. When your dog needs to go to the toilet, they should always be on a lead, so that they don’t charge off an over-exert themselves. Or worse, pop stitches and open up surgical sites! So, make sure a lead is within easy access of the back door. Alternatively, if your furchild is going to struggle with walking, placing an absorbent pad in their bed for accidents is a good idea. You might also want to have a blanket or towel to hand which you can loop under their belly and use as a sling to aid them to walk.

When you come to collect your pet, the vet or vet nurse will probably have a discussion with you about home-care instructions and medications. These are really important, so make sure you fully understand them before leaving. 

Coming Home

Finally, your furry friend is on their way home! You might be filled with anxiety about your role of providing recuperation care for them, but try not to show it, as pets are highly attuned to how their human parents are feeling. The last thing they need is to be worrying about why you’re worrying!

Your pet can travel in the car like normal, as long as they have a comfy bed under them and you drive smoothly. You might find it comforting to have someone with you, as this will prevent you from constantly turning around and checking how your pet is while driving. 

If your pet has had surgery, they are likely to not quite be themselves yet. The effects of the anaesthesia will take the remainder of the day to wear off, and your pet might seem wobbly, drag his paws or seem uncharacteristically unsociable. Rest is the best way to ensure the anaesthetic wears off quickly.

Rest

Rest is the key for a recuperating pet, especially when they are still slightly drugged up from the anaesthetic. You’ll want your pet to be resting somewhere warm and cosy, as well as confined. Too much bouncing around can pop stitches, re-injure injuries or damage dressings. This is particularly important if your furbaby is recovering from an orthopaedic injury, such as a ligament tear or spinal condition. 

Your vet will be able to give an indication how long your pet needs to be kept calm for. For routine surgeries, such as neutering, it is likely to be 10-14 days, however for injuries such as slipped discs or cruciate ligament tears, you might have to keep them quiet for six to twelve weeks. In these particular cases, if your pet cannot be trusted, they will have to rest in a crate, and only be let out under constant supervision.

Exercise

Your pet won’t need the usual run around the block or stroll through their woods when they get home. In fact, it is likely to be several weeks before you should take your dog out for a walk or let your cat out of the house to explore.

If your pet has had routine surgery, you can begin walking and letting them outside unsupervised when the stitches come out. This is usually two weeks after the surgery.

Some conditions, particularly ones which affect mobility, are likely to take a little longer to get better. Patience is really important, as even though your dog will be begging to go out, or your cat will be stressed in the house, it is for their own good.

Finally, if they are recuperating from an infectious condition, check with your vet first whether they are potentially still infectious before you take them to in a public area.

Nutrition

After your pet comes home from the vet, they might not be too interested in food. Anaesthetic medications can make your pet feel nauseous, and therefore don’t try to force feed him. Also, pain can cause inappetence, so it is important to monitor your pet closely to see if he is comfortable. Eating is important for recovery though, so offer him little and often.

You are most likely to be successful in getting him to eat if the food is light and easy to digest. Most veterinary practices sell ‘gastro-intestinal’ food, which is ideal for a recovering pet. They are gentle on the stomach, highly palatable, and nutritionally balanced. 

If your pet has been extremely ill, your vet may also provide you with electrolyte solution to offer in addition to food and water, as well as a food which is high in calories, so your pet doesn’t need to consume too much of it to meet his daily requirement.

A tip to boost your pet’s appetite is to slightly warm the food. Don’t cook it, otherwise it will lose some of the vital nutrients. A few seconds in the microwave is all that’s needed. This increases the smell of the food, and makes it more appetising. This trick is particularly good for cats, who will not eat if they cannot smell their food.

Finally, if you don’t wish to feed your pet a food from the vets, you can feed small meals of boiled chicken and rice. However, even though this is bland, easy to digest and palatable, it is not nutritionally balanced, so should not be fed for more than a couple of days. Your pet needs a balanced diet containing all the essential nutrients to recover quickly.

Medications

If your pet is discharged with medications, it is your responsibility as a paw-parent to ensure they receive them. This might be harder than you expect, as not only do medications require specific timings for administration, many pets are not overly obliging to open their mouth for a pill, especially if they are feeling ill.

Your vet will ensure that all the medications have instructions on them, so if you have multiple ones to remember, when you get home make a chart with timings on it, that you can tick off each time and date as you’ve given it. You might not need to give any medications in the evening you bring him home, as many vets will have given injectable versions of the drugs which last until the next day. This is important to clarify with your vet so that you don’t accidentally over- or under-dose your furbaby.

Your vet can show you the best way to give the medicines. It should be as gentle and stress-free as possible. Remember to give your pet plenty of praise afterwards. Tablets can be hidden in food if your pet is eating, however if not, you will have to use your fingers or a pill-popper to push it in (the latter is certainly a wise investment if you have a cat and want to keep all your fingers!). A handy trick can be to ask your vet for a spare small syringe, and fill it with water. Once you have the tablet at the back of your pet’s mouth, quickly squirt in the water, which forces them to swallow.

Finally, some medications have to be taken with food, and some on an empty stomach to prevent side effects. If it is a medication which requires food, make sure your pet has eaten beforehand or place the medication in the food, so that you don’t risk your pet turning up his nose at his food after you’ve given the medication.

Dressings and Wounds

If your pet has had a wound, whether it be an injury or a surgical incision, he might come home with a dressing. This could be a simple plaster, or a full leg bandage and splint. But the basics for caring for a pet with any dressing follows the same rules.

Rule #1: Never let the dressing get dirty or wet. Dressings are usually breathable, which means that if the dressing gets dirty, so does the wound, which can lead to infections. If your pet has a dressing on their leg and they need to go outside, you can cover it in a plastic bag to prevent it getting contaminated. In addition to this, your pet’s saliva is also full of bacteria, so if they want to lick their dressing, it’s time for the cone of shame to go on.

Rule #2: Check it frequently. Dressings can slip or come undone in an instant. If you’re not sure how to put it back on, it is best to immediately take your pet to the vet, as a bandage which is put on incorrectly can cause serious complications and injuries in itself.

Rule #3: If a leg is bandaged, frequently check the toes. It’s easy for blood flow to become restricted when a bandage is placed snuggly around the leg. Your vet might have left your pet’s toes showing, which should be checked for swelling, pain and cold several times a day. These are all indications that the bandage is too tight.

Rule #4: A bandage should never smell. If it smells or looks like bodily fluid has seeped through, then immediately take your pet to the vet to be assessed. These are potential clues that there is an infection underneath.

Boosting Your Pet’s Mood

After a few days, your pet might be becoming frustrated at their change in routine and forced rest, and you might be becoming tempted to bend the rules and let him outside for a bit of a run around. However, there are better ways to boost your pet’s morale.

Gentle indoor enrichments can give your pet a boost. For cats, a toy dusted in catnip, or a little mouse on a string can give him a real sense of pleasure, and for dogs, a rewarding chew toy such as a Kong helps to release endorphins as he chews and licks, which relax him. In addition to this, you can spend extra time stroking or brushing your pet, which he is sure to love. Finally, a gentle game that can be played with dogs is a scent game, where your pooch has to find something that you have laid out a scent trail for. This keeps his mind busy as well as gives him a change from resting on his bed without running around.

Follow-Up Appointments

Follow-up appointments are vital to ensure that any wounds are healing appropriately, and that your furry friend is recovering as expected. A vet looks for subtle problems, so even though you might think your pet is fine, they could still pick up on things that need to be addressed.

For most routine surgical procedures, you will need to visit your vet two to three days later, as well as two weeks later to remove the stitches. However, other ailments might require a check up the next day, or might have a longer gap before the next appointment.

When to Go to a Vet Sooner

It might seem like common sense, but if your pet suddenly has a change in condition, or your beloved furbaby seems much more off-colour than you expected, you should take him back to your vet sooner than their follow-up appointment. All vets must legally provide an out-of-hours emergency service either themselves or with a partnership clinic, so don’t hesitate to get in touch. But how do you know what is not normal, when you’re expecting your pet not to be normal to some degree? These are scenarios which require a vet trip:

  • Fits and seizures.
  • Extreme lethargy (expect your pet to be a little lethargic though).
  • Crying, whining, or acting unsettled. This might indicate pain.
  • Swelling, smell, seeping through of a dressing.
  • Fast or deep breathing, or wheezing.
  • Persistent coughing (especially if your pet has had a breathing tube in during surgery).
  • For cats: straining, crying or spending a long-time urinating.
  • Loss of appetite for more than 24 hours.
  • Excessive vomiting or diarrhoea.

Take Home Message

Care of a recovering pet is much more than providing them with their normal home and routine. You should be prepared to nurse them back to health for several weeks. As a result, they will need much more attention than usual, and you might find it helpful to take the initial few days off of work or arrange for someone to be with your pet 24/7. Your furbaby will appreciate it and before you know it, will be back to full health.