Hopefully you have a great relationship with a vet you love, and they’ll guide you through everything you need to know. This is mostly a guide to what you should expect from your vet, and how to advocate for your dog and manage your stress if necessary.
The BIG IMPORTANT THING that many old school vets may skip is pain management. Pain after surgery was once considered a useful way to encourage pets to limit their activity, but it doesn’t work like that. Pain increases complications. When their incision hurts, dogs are more prone to pick at it, pace, have trouble sleeping, and otherwise be bad patients. It’s better to stop pain before it starts, and definitely before your vet closes for the night, so find out the plan before you drop your pet off for surgery. If you would come home with pain pills for a similar procedure, your pet probably should too.
If your pet is in pain, you cannot give them human OTC drugs. Most of them are dangerous for dogs at the best of times. Your dog’s kidneys, liver, and other organs are still working to get rid of the remaining anesthetic. Adding drugs that aren’t very safe for pets to begin with isn’t a good option. Don’t give them anything without vet approval. Quadruple everything I just said for cats.
Understand your post-op instructions and be ready to follow them. Good pain management will keep many dogs from damaging their incisions, but a cone, bandage, shirt, or other deterrent may be necessary. These can be uncomfortable for your dog, so I try to balance their discomfort with my ability to watch them and the risk involved with their particular surgery. Tearing stitches out of a small skin deep incision is bad, but it could be deadly if the incision goes into the abdominal cavity. Some areas your dog already licks habitually and they’ll have to be protected. Have a couple of ways to keep your pet away from their incision ready to go, even if you don’t need them. You don’t want to be looking for a cone at 2 am. Be honest about how much time you can devote to watching your dog and making sure they aren’t licking. If you’re not going to be around, it’s better for them to be in a cone than back at the vet.
Usually the incision site will be shaved. Your dog may leave the incision alone until the hair around it starts to grow back. This can be itchy and they may start to lick an incision they previously ignored. Discuss this with your vet and find out if there is a safe way to relieve any irritation that occurs after things start healing. Don’t assume they’ll continue to leave it alone.
Your dog’s activity will also need to be reduced after surgery. The level of restriction will vary with the procedure, but have some quiet things to do and a smaller area ready when you get home. Even if you don’t use a crate, tethering, baby gating, or confinement to a smaller area will probably be necessary. A few new food puzzles or chew toys can be useful, but many dogs are happy to nap for a few days as long as you keep things low key. Being able to spend quiet time with you is probably going to be even better than a toy.
If something does go wrong your discharge papers should include an after hours number or the number of an emergency clinic. Know where those numbers are and where the 24 hour clinic is.
These papers should also list healing time, incision care, possible side effects from anesthesia, signs of infection, and potential complications. Don’t hesitate to call or have the incision checked if something weird is going on. Usually those appointments are included in the cost of the surgery.
Mostly your post-surgical responsibilities involve listening to your vet, keeping your dog dry, clean, quiet, and pain free. There should also be some cuddling and sighs of resignation as you pay the bill.