If your pet is a dog, cat, ferret, or rabbit, it is likely that your pet will need surgery at least once in his or her lifetime, most commonly to be neutered or spayed. Many other species of pets may require surgery, even birds, reptiles, and fish. Understanding what happens after you bring in your pet for surgery can help you to feel less anxious, and be more prepared to ask those questions you still may have.
What to expect prior to your pet's scheduled surgery
When setting up an appointment for your pet's surgery, you will likely be given some instructions regarding withholding food from your pet the night before surgery. Be sure to follow your veterinarian's instructions carefully since some pets can have food withheld for only a short time, and others require a longer time. Food is withheld so that if the pet vomits while under sedation, the pet is less likely to vomit food which could be aspirated into the lungs.
At the time you make your appointment, or in the mail, you may receive some paperwork to complete. This may include a permission form to sign and a form listing some tests your veterinarian recommends before surgery to check for any underlying health problems. These tests could include a Complete Blood Count (CBC), a Chemistry Profile, a Thyroid test, or an ECG, among others. The type of tests your veterinarian recommends will vary, depending on your pet's age, species, any previous health problems, and the type of surgery.
Be sure to review any paperwork well beforehand, when you have a quiet moment to read it thoroughly. If you have any questions about the procedure, or what a certain test is or why it is being recommended for your pet, call the veterinary hospital and ask. You will feel less rushed and anxious if you have everything clear in your mind before the day of the surgery, rather than finding yourself standing at the admitting desk the morning of your pet's surgery, trying to make up your mind about tests and options you are not sure you fully understand. Make sure you understand what the procedure will involve, and what to expect afterwards. Will your pet need help getting in and out of the house or litter box to urinate and defecate? Will there be sutures (stitches) that will need to be removed? If a biopsy is being performed, when can you expect to receive the results? Will there be dressings for you to change or medication you will need to give? How long before your pet can be left alone at home? Can your pet have food and water when he gets home? Will your pet need a special diet temporarily?
What to expect on the day of your pet's surgery
On the day of surgery, after your pet is admitted, a physical examination will be performed, and any needed testing will be done unless it has previously been performed. Once the test results are back and everything looks OK, your pet will be prepared for surgery. Your pet will usually be given a sedative at this point, which will help to calm and relax him, followed by an intravenous anesthetic (may not be necessary in smaller pets) and then a gas anesthetic. For most species, an endotracheal tube will be placed in the trachea to protect the airway and to administer the gas anesthetic that will keep your pet unconscious during the procedure.
During surgery, several types of monitors are often used to make sure that your pet is doing well. These may include a heart rate monitor, which counts the number of heartbeats per minute, and a pulse oximeter, which monitors the amount of oxygen in the blood. Sometimes an ECG monitor may be used, which shows a tracing of the electrical activity of the heart. The type of monitor used often varies with the type and length of the surgery, and the species of animal. Birds, reptiles, and small pets will often be placed on a specially heated pad to keep them warm during the procedure. Intravenous fluids will often be given during surgery and for a short period thereafter.
Once the surgery is over, the anesthesia is stopped and the pet is allowed to wake up in a quiet area where he can be monitored until he is able to move around safely on his own. This may take several hours to overnight, depending on the type and length of the surgery. Birds, reptiles, small animals, or very young pets are often placed in an incubator to prevent them from becoming hypothermic (chilled). Although you will be anxious to take your pet home with you, it is best for him to stay in the hospital where he can be monitored until the veterinarian feels it is safe for him to leave. During this time, your veterinarian can also provide any needed pain medication.
You will feel less anxious about taking a pet in for surgery if you understand what is going to be done, and why. If you have questions, always ask.