Caring for your dog’s incision and stitches after surgery may seem like a daunting task that requires a lot of responsibilities, and that’s because it does. This is a point in your dog’s life where he needs your support more than ever.
The most important thing to remember after a dog has surgery is to keep the wound clean. While you shouldn’t be submerging the wound in an attempt to wash it, keeping your dog from licking the site is the best way to prevent infection.
To avoid infection and support your dog’s recovery after surgery, you should know what to expect from the post-surgery healing process. You should understand the possible complications around stitches and surgical incisions, how to prevent your dog aggravating the wound, and signs of infection you should watch out for.
If you and your dog are preparing for dog surgery, we’ve gathered all the information you need as a responsible pet owner. Learn all about how to help your dog heal after surgery and prevent infection below.
What to Expect as your Dog’s Incision Heals
As your dog’s incision heals, you should expect them to be lethargic and unwilling to move around much, depending on the location of the site. It’s also normal for them to want to lick the incision site, which you need to be prepared to prevent.
The period right after surgery is crucial, since your dog is still in the process of recovering. Proper care and mindfulness will be key to ensuring that your best friend’s incision or surgical wound does not reopen or become infected.
Having said that, knowing what the surgical wound looks like every step of the healing process is important since your dog will be relying on you to know whether the wound is healing properly, or if there is something wrong which may require another visit to the vet.
The veterinarian has the responsibility of giving the owner specific and step by step instructions on how to look after your dog’s incision. Your responsibility is making sure the vet’s instructions and guidelines are meticulously followed to mitigate the risk of infections and other complications, as well as to expedite the closing of the wound.
The instructions for caring for your pet after surgery will vary depending on a number of factors, such as the type of surgery and incision, your dog’s breed, and other considerations that need to be taken account of. The guidelines will involve anything from keeping a close eye to ensure your dog does not run and unintentionally loosen the stitches, to changing bandages and/ or cleaning a drain site a few times a day.
How Long Will It Take for My Dog’s Incision to Heal?
Generally, an incision on a dog takes an average of 10 to 14 days to heal. The exact duration depends on factors such as the dog’s breed & size, the type of surgical incision, the number of stitches, and the nature of the surgery, among others.
Things such as the dog’s health and age at the time of surgery, suture material, and suture absorption time also play a part in the recovery time of the incision.
In most cases, stitches used in surgeries should last long enough to promote tissue healing. So regardless if your dog has staples, non-absorbable stitches, and/ or absorbable stitches, the area will require utmost care during recovery.
However, keep in mind that this does not mean regular pre-surgery activities and practices can resume right after. It is simply the average duration in which the incision can withstand tension and stretching; too much physical movement may still cause it to reopen. So the aftercare guidelines should still be in place until the vet says it’s safe for your dog to get back to their usual routine.
Is My Dog’s Surgery Incision Site Healing Properly?
If the edges of the incision are touching each other and look relatively clean, the incision site is likely healing properly. If the skin has retained its colour or is a slightly pinkish-red colour, are also common signs that the wound is healing correctly.
However, it’s completely normal for the incision site to show a much redder colour during the first few hours right after the surgery.
Keep in mind that a suture reaction may also occur. This is what happens when the dog’s body rejects the stitches instead of absorbing them. This causes an inflammation which extends the healing time. The inflammatory response will usually include draining tracts and/ or redness.
While this does indicate an infection, improper aftercare or contamination may also be the cause, so the stitches themselves aren’t always the cause. When in doubt, visit your veterinarian for a professional assessment of how your dog’s incision is healing.
What Complications Should I Look For?
Complications to look for as a dog’s surgical wound heals are swelling, discharge, missing sutures, and protrusion of tissue. The most common cause of these are excessive chewing, licking, or scratching of the surgical site.
Although a little bit of swelling at the incision site is normal, excessive swelling can indicate the start of an infection, or reaction to the suture. This can lead to herniation of the underlying tissues of the incision, or when the tissue protrudes out of the wound. Discharge of slightly blood-hued or clear fluid is usually associated with infection arising from an incision. Discharge from a surgical incision should always be minimal and intermittent; any more than this and it is a cause for concern, especially if it has a foul smell.
Missing sutures are not a cause for concern if there isn’t any redness, swelling, and/or discharge at the incision site. However, in some cases, the sutures may have to be replaced to prevent infection.
Protrusion of tissue from the incision is what may happen when the sutures which support the underlying tissue break down. When tissue protrudes through the incision (Dehiscence), it may lead to serious, life-threatening infections.
Should any of the abovementioned complications happen to your dog, or if you suspect any of them, set an immediate or emergency appointment with your vet before it worsens.
How Do You Care For a Dog With Stitches?
The most important things to do when caring for a dog with stitches are:
- Restrict movement and minimise playtime – You can do this by using a much shorter leash, reducing the distance travelled during walks, and blocking access to certain areas in the house where they are more likely to engage physically (such as the stairs). You may have to temporarily confine them in a comfortable cage, crate or smaller room to make sure they aren’t disturbed by other pets or household activity.
- Regularly examine the incision site – Not all incisions have to be covered. If the incision isn’t covered (depending on the vet’s advice) make sure that you check on the site at least two times a day, or as often as needed. This is especially true if your dog starts to exhibit behavioural changes which may indicate a problem.
- Attach an e-collar or cone – Cones or e-collars prohibit your dog from licking, scratching or chewing the incision site and surrounding area. Aside from the fact that the stitches may come undone, dog’s mouths are also full of bacteria that will inevitably contaminate the open wound.
- Keep the surgical site dry – This is closely related to keeping the incision site clean. A dry surgical site greatly lowers the risk of contaminants such as bacteria reaching the incision and causing infection. Although dry does not always mean it is clean, most contaminants enter through a liquid medium.
- Ensure comfortable sleeping areas – The healing process is not easy, and your dog is most likely having a hard time with the pain and the itchiness. Providing a comfortable sleeping area in which he will not have to roll or tumble (which disturbs the incision site) is important for your furry friend.
- Give them extra attention – The recovery period may be taking an emotional or mental toll on your dog. Make yourself more present around your pup and let them know that you’re by their side. Give your dog some gentle affection and reassurance, ensuring his stitches are not disturbed, and let them sleep near you or in your room if possible.
- Strictly follow the veterinarian’s advice – Your vet knows best, so follow whichever advice they give you to expedite your dog’s recovery. The recovery process can be challenging for both the owner and the dog, so making sure everything goes smoothly is in your best interest too.
- Clean the site as instructed – Your veterinarian should have given you step-by-step instructions on how to clean the incision properly. Make sure to follow this faithfully, and only diverge from this plan with your vet’s approval. Avoid applying any home remedies or other ointments without checking with your vet.
- Contact your vet when in doubt – There will inevitably be some instances in which you may feel unsettled by changes in your dog’s behaviour or the appearance of his incision site. These may not always be a cause for concern, but calling or visiting your vet can give you peace of mind that it isn’t anything serious.
What to Avoid When Caring for a Dog With Stitches
The most important things to avoid when caring for a dog with stitches are:
- Washing your dog – Never wash or bathe your dog right after surgery, as it takes some time for the incision to fully close. During recovery, the incision is prone to contamination, which may lead to infection. If you must clean your dog, consult with your vet to ask the best way to go about it. The most important thing is to keep the wound clean and dry as much as possible.
- Leaving them unattended – Make sure someone is around to keep an eye on your dog after surgery. If your dog gets a burst of energy and decides to run and jump around the house, this can reopen the wound or disturb the stitches. Although the ‘cone of shame’ does prevent a dog chewing or licking the surgical site, your dog may try to find other ways to scratch the itch, such as rubbing the wound against a surface.
- Allow your dog to lick the surgical site – Your dog will inevitably try to lick or scratch his healing incision site, regardless of whether he is wearing a cone or not. Dogs can sometimes remove their cone or e-collar and lick or chew the wound if left unsupervised, even briefly. As such, it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on your pup.
Dog Stitches FAQs
What Are the Different Types of Dog Stitches?
There are three types of sutures or stitches used in canine surgeries: suture glue, surgical staples, absorbable stitches, and non-absorbable stitches. Each has a specific use in certain surgical procedures, and care instructions will differ slightly.
Absorbable Stitches or dissolvable stitches can be made from synthetic material (polyester) or organic material (collagen). They’re meant to be used on muscle, soft tissue (such as bladder tissue), subcutaneous layers, and organs (such as the intestines). These cannot be used for ligaments or tendons. Absorbable stitches don’t need to be removed unless a suture reaction takes place.
Non-Absorbable Stitches can also be made from synthetic material (nylon) or organic material (silk or cotton). They’re ideal for cardiovascular surgery, skin closure, ligaments, and even tendons. They are not to be used for gastric or bladder surgeries. Unlike absorbable stitches, standard stitches will have to be removed by the veterinarian approximately 10 to 14 days after the surgical procedure.
Surgical Staples are made from either titanium or stainless steel, and are known to be administered much faster than regular sutures. These are used to close incisions on the skin and clamp down blood vessels, as well as for sternum closure in open chest surgeries. Much like non-absorbable stitches, these are removed in 10 to 14 days (if still accessible) using a specialised tool.
Suture Glue is made from cyanoacrylate, and allows wounds to heal more ‘cosmetically’ (meaning it makes the wounds less noticeable). It also acts as another layer of wound barrier. Suture glue naturally falls off in 7 to 10 days and needs to be kept dry in the meantime.
How Often Should I Check My Dog’s Stitches?
A good rule of thumb is to check a dog’s stitches at least twice a day (one in the morning and another in the afternoon/ night). However, this is circumstantial and largely depends on your veterinarian’s advice.
When examining the stitches, take note of the incision’s length, number of stitches, and the skin colour/overall appearance of the wound. This will help you pick up any changes or problems as they evolve.
Taking photos as the wound heals can also help you detect or confirm any issues, and is a great reference point for your vet if any complications arise.
What Should I Do if My Dog Is Chewing the Stitches?
The simplest way to prevent your dog from chewing stitches is to put on a cone or e-collar. Your vet can also prescribe some itch-relieving medication or ointment if the problem persists.
As your dog’s surgical incision heals, it will usually be itchy, which causes most dogs to lick or chew the area. A cone or Elizabethan collar will make the wound inaccessible and stop your dog from chewing the stitches.
Keep in mind that it is a misconception that your dog’s saliva has antibacterial properties, or that it will expedite recovery. It doesn’t take much chewing or licking to reopen wounds, pull out stitches or cause an infection, so this should definitely be avoided.
Can I Cover My Dog’s Stitches?
You should avoid covering your dog’s stitches unless your vet has said otherwise. Elizabethan collars can be used to prevent your dog from licking their stitches without covering the site and risking infection.
If you’re not sure whether to cover your dog’s stitches and incision, get in touch with your vet and clarify. If you’re aiming to prevent your dog licking or chewing on the stitches, there are other methods that can be effective for this.
How Long Do Dissolvable Stitches Last on Dogs?
Generally, you can expect dissolvable or absorbable stitches to last a week or two. The amount of time dissolvable or absorbable stitches last depends on how many were used, where on the dog’s body the incision is, and the size of the incision.
When Do Dog Stitches Need Removing?
Non-absorbable stitches or surgical staples will have to be removed 10 to 14 days after the surgery or as per your vet’s recommendations. Suture glues will naturally fall off in 7 to 10 days, while absorbable stitches don’t need to be removed.
Outside of the routine removal of stitches, your veterinarian may have to remove and replace the stitches if they have come undone. This may be due to a dog chewing the stitches, through too much physical activity, or because of a suture reaction.
Can Dogs Have Side Effects From Surgery Stitches?
Yes, surgical stitches can cause a reaction in some dogs. This occurs when the dog’s body rejects the stitches instead of absorbing them, causing inflammation which extends the healing time.
Signs of a suture reaction may include draining tracts and/ or redness. If you see any symptoms that concern you, check in with your veterinary surgeon.
How Do I Know If My Dog’s Stitches Are Infected?
The main symptoms of an infected surgical incision in dogs include:
- Colour – If you notice red streaks around the surgical wound and/ or away from it, then your dog may be suffering from an infection called Lymphangitis — a rare and severe form of lymphatic infection. Red streaks aside, any form of unusual or unexpected discolouration should immediately warrant a visit to your vet.
- Swelling – Inflammation/swelling is normal, and always occurs after a surgery, but should subside after a week. If the swelling continues or becomes extremely large, then your dog may either be suffering from a surgical site infection, or a suture reaction.
- Discharge – Discharges are a common sign of infection in any animal, especially if it smells foul, or resembles pus. If there is something oozing out of the wound and you’re not sure whether it’s a sign for concern, it’s best to consult your vet to identify the underlying cause.
- Smell – A foul smell or pungent odour coming from either the wound or its discharge (if any) is a common indicator of an infection, and should be a cause for an immediate visit to the vet. If you are unable to visit immediately due to any reason, take note of the smell, the colour of the discharge, and the state of the wound, so you may opt for a teleconsultation with the vet in the meantime.
- Heat – Fever is a sign that the body is fighting an infection. Consequently, heat around the area of the wound indicates the same. If your dog or the surgical wound is hotter than it normally should be, then it is most likely an infection.
- Blood – During the first few days after the surgery, intermittent drops of blood coming from the wound is normal. However, if it continues in the following days or worse, bleeds more profusely, then it could be a life-threatening infection. Immediately rush your dog to your vet as it may succumb to blood loss if left untreated.
- Pain – Your dog’s behaviour will tell you if it is in pain or not, and lethargy is one of those traits that indicate recurring or constant pain. If your dog is exhibiting aversion to being touched, lethargy, and/or loss of appetite, then he may be experiencing pain caused by an underlying infection.
As an owner, you will never have the expertise and proficiency to visually diagnose an infection at your dog’s surgical site. As such, should you have any concern, it is highly recommended to consult your veterinarian. If you doubt anything about your dog’s surgical site or stitches looks normal, consult your vet, even if it’s small. Being overly cautious is the best approach during your dog’s recovery period.
What Should I Do If My Dog’s Stitches Are Infected?
If you suspect that your dog’s stitches have become infected, immediately give your vet a call and follow their advice. Chances are your vet will ask you to bring your dog to the clinic for further assessment. But under no circumstances should you try to treat your dog’s wounds, as this may worsen the situation.
Listed below are the general things you should do in the event that the stitches are infected:
- Follow Your Vet’s Recommendations – As previously mentioned, give your vet a call and schedule an urgent appointment. They will probably give you some first aid such as cleaning the wound and/ or keeping it covered, among others. In any case, forgo any thought of medicating it yourself.
- Administer Prescribed Antibiotics or Topical Treatment – Your vet will prescribe certain antibiotics and/or topical creams for your dog’s infection. Make sure you follow your vet’s instructions and administer them timely and properly. Be sure to continue using a medication or treatment for as long as your vet specifies, and don’t stop just because the wound is looking better.
- Cleaning the Wound (If Recommended) – Your vet will let you know whether you should clean the infected wound or not. It may not always be a good idea to clean a surgical site, since cleaning may sometimes aggravate the infection. That’s why you should follow your vet’s advice for this.
Should your vet ask you to clean the wound, the process will involve steps like:
- Dab away excess moisture and/or discharge
- Apply warm water (not too much) using a bulb syringe
- Remove excess moisture again by dabbing, and check if the wound is clean
- Repeat the process until the wound is reasonably clean
Remember to only use medications and topical treatments that your vet has prescribed. Just because medications or remedies are advertised to help with infection, it doesn’t mean they will always help the healing process. Never use soap on the infected site and do not bathe your dog until the wound is healed to avoid further complications.
What Should I Do If My Dog Pulled Out Its Stitches?
If your dog manages to pull out its stitches, it is at risk of blood loss, painful scarring, and even infection, so you need to visit your vet immediately, even if it seems like your dog is fine or only just pulled out a couple of stitches. Your vet will assess the wound and see what steps need to be taken yet.
Some owners are afraid to visit the vet due to embarrassment, or judgement that they were not monitoring their dog enough to prevent it from happening. You should not feel this way, as sutures coming undone or being pulled out happens a lot more often than you would think.
Dogs have natural instincts which push them to chew or pull out the stitches. It’s also common for dogs to remove a cone or e-collar after surgery to lick the wound, sometimes without their owner noticing. It can happen to anyone, so don’t feel self-conscious. Remember that your dog’s life may be on the line, so forget what people may think and call the vet!
In the event that your dog pulls out their stitches at a time when veterinary clinics are closed, don’t wait for the next day. Look for a 24-hour animal hospital and give them a call ASAP to ensure your dog is looked after.
What Causes a Dog’s Stitches to Get Infected?
A dog’s stitches may get infected if it isn’t kept clean and if the area surrounding the incision site is contaminated by bacteria. Stitches keep an incision closed, but there is still enough space for contaminants to enter the wound. It could be a sign of infection if you notice excessive bleeding or swelling.
How Can I Prevent a Dog’s Stitches Getting Infected?
The two best ways to prevent infection are to keep the incision site clean and restrict your dog’s physical activities. Infection occurs when contaminants enter the open wound, so ensuring it is clean, especially by using an e-collar, will largely mitigate the risk.
In addition, prohibiting your dog from engaging in strenuous physical activities, especially outdoors, reduces the risk of the sutures coming undone (which exposes the wound). This also keeps contaminants from the environment finding their way to your dog’s incision.
This article is published in good faith, for general informational and educational purposes only. Paws and More Vet Centre does not make any warranties about the ongoing completeness and reliability of this information. This article should not be used as a substitute for veterinary advice, including for diagnosis or treatment of a pet’s medical condition. Always consult a veterinary professional before making decisions on your pet’s health.