When your dog has surgery, the aftercare can be quite stressful. With the majority of surgeries, your dog will be sent home with an incision that is closed with stitches, sutures, or staples. Following your dog’s procedure, your veterinarian will provide you with instructions to take home. Stitches in dogs can require extra care compared to humans as dogs don’t understand to leave their stitches alone and stay calm. However, there are some best standard practices to follow when it comes to caring for your dog stitches after surgery.
How Long Do Stitches in Dogs Take to Heal?
On average, a dog’s incisions with stitches take 10-14 days to heal. However, this timeframe is dependent upon a number of factors, including what type of surgery was performed, the suture material, suture absorption time, and your dog’s health and age. Within 10-14 days a dog’s incision should be able to withstand stretching and tension. Just because the incision may be healed, does not mean activity should resume as normal immediately. Incisions heal side-to-side, rather than lengthwise. No matter how long the incision is, all incisions heal at the same rate generally speaking.
How to Keep the Incision Site Clean & Prevent Infection
Keep Stitches Dry
It is critical for stitches and the incision site to be kept dry at all times, unless otherwise instructed by your veterinarian. This includes no bathing or swimming until the incision has healed. In addition, keep an eye out for rainy weather. If unable to avoid rain, cover your dog’s incision site properly to maintain dryness. No ointments or topical creams should be applied unless instructed otherwise. This includes alcohol and hydrogen peroxide as these chemicals can cause damage to the tissue. If your dog is in need of freshening up, you can wipe them down with dog-friendly wipes. However, be sure to steer clear of the area surrounding and the incision site itself.
Post-surgery, it’s absolutely critical to keep your dog from chewing, licking, and biting at their stitches and incision site. This can result in infection and opening up the site again. When your dog is unsupervised, be sure to keep a cone or e-collar on to prevent licking, biting, or irritating the incision site in any way. Cones are available in hard plastic or soft version). If your dog is struggling to get used to a standard cone, there are other options such as recovery jumpsuits they can wear and donut-style collars. In addition, be sure to schedule the surgery on a day where you or someone else can supervise your dog (to prevent licking/biting and monitor anesthesia recovery).
While a cone helps to prevent licking and biting, it’s not much help when it comes to scratching. Scratching can do serious damage so it’s critical to prevent. When the incision starts to heal and your dog’s fur starts growing back in, the surrounding area will start to feel itchy. If your dog’s incision is behind their front legs, they will be able to scratch with their hind legs. In this case, keep an extra watchful eye. If your dog knows the command “leave it” or something similar, use it to discourage scratching. Depending where your dog’s incision is located, a t-shirt covering the site may help to prevent them from scratching. However, be sure to speak with your vet, as for some procedures it’s necessary to let the site air.
Monitor for Changes of the Incision Site
Check out the incision on a regular basis to monitor for signs of infection including heat, swelling, pus, and discharge. Monitor for any changes and contact your veterinarian if any issues arise.
It’s pertinent to restrict activity post-procedure, as excessive activity can lead to stitches breaking apart or the incision bleeding. Typically, activity needs to be restricted for 7-14 days post-procedure, but your veterinarian will provide proper instructions for your dog. The last thing you want is for your dog to cause stretching of the incision. Walk your dog on a short leash for potty breaks and do not allow them to run or engage in physical activity outside of these short potty breaks. This includes playtime with other dogs. Jumping and climbing is also off limits, including getting on and off furniture or climbing up and down the stairs. When stairs or car rides are necessary, consider using a sling or other device to assist your dog.
In addition to these prompts to follow in order to keep the incision site clean and infection-free, be sure to follow general post-op instructions including:
- Recovery space: Set up a comfortable, quiet area in your home for your dog to recover. Either a crate or room where they are more confined is the ideal recovery space. Our product directory includes a variety of crates.
- Confinement: Ensure your dog is kept separate from other dogs and too much activity.
- Monitor Behavior: Monitor your dog for any behavioral changes including lethargy, discomfort, pain, etc.
- Emergency Preparation: Be sure you always have access to your dog’s veterinarian’s contact information as well as an emergency veterinary hospital.
To learn more about caring for your dog post-orthopedic surgery, click here.
How Do I Know My Dog’s Incision is Healing?
Typically, the incision will look redder in the first few days following surgery. The skin itself should remain its normal color. When incisions are healing properly, they’ll appear clean with the edges touching each other. Once the incision is fully healed, the redness should disappear and no sutures are needed to hold the wound together. While most discharge is a sign of infection, it is important to note that some types of discharge are normal. It’s normal in the first 24-72 hours for there to be a small amount of discharge that is clear or light yellow/light pink tint with no odor. However, if you witness any other type of discharge, be sure to contact your veterinarian. No tenderness or pain should be present on or near the site as well. A few symptoms that indicate the incision may be infected and medical attention is needed:
- Redness around the stitches
- Swelling/tenderness on or near the incision site
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Warmth on our around the incision site
- Discharge from the incision (blood, pus, odorous discharge/drainage)
- Changes in behavior including loss of appetite, lethargy, or panting
Even more consequential than an infection, protruding tissue can be a complication of improper healing and opening of the incision site. Stitches are intended to keep the underlying tissues in place, but when stitches are pulled out, there’s a risk that the protruding tissues can bring on a more serious and even sometimes fatal infection. This is why it’s so crucial to ensure you and your dog follow post-operation instructions.
Types of Stitches
Dissolvable or absorbable stitches are made from synthetic or organic material. These stitches dissolve overtime and do not require removal unless a reaction occurs. They typically begin to dissolve 7-10 days following surgery and will completely be absorbed by the body within 60 days. This type of stitches can be used on muscle and subcutaneous layers and organs, such as the intestine. Soft tissue, like bladders, can also use dissolvable stitches. However, it is not to be used for tendons or ligaments.
Non-dissolvable stitches are made from synthetic or organic material and will need to be removed by your veterinarian. Typically, this type of stitches will be removed 10 -14 days following surgery. Non-dissolvable stitches are often used for cardiovascular repair, skin closures, ligaments, and tendons. Unlike dissolvable stitches, these are not used for gastric or bladder surgery.
Surgical staples are made of either titanium or stainless steel and just like dissolvable stitches, require removal 10 -14 days post procedure using a specialized staple remover. Staples are utilized to close incisions of the skin, clamp vessel internally, and for sternum closure in open chest surgery.
Suture glue is made of a material called cyanoacrylate and functions as an additional barrier to the wound. It can be used for minor incisions or to function as a secondary reinforcement. The glue falls off on its own 7-10 days following surgery.
Process of Wound/Incision Healing
The healing process of the wound or incision begins as soon as it is inflicted. There are four phases in the process of wound healing: Inflammation, Debridement, Repair, and Maturation. The overall process of healing is the same when it comes to wounds and incisions, however a few differences are noted due to the fact that the incision is “intentional” rather than a traditional wound. Learn more about the healing process below:
- Inflammation: The first stage in the healing process is inflammation which starts immediately. Its purpose is to control bleeding and activate the dog’s immune system. Blood clots are formed and the blood vessels are constricted to limit blood loss in the area of the wound/incision.
- Debridement: The second stage is debridement where fluid, dead tissue, and immunologic cells create pus which flows as a liquid from the wound and carries debris with it. This process starts within a few hours of the incision being initiated. These cells are essentially consuming dead tissues and cleansing the wound/incision area.
- Repair: The repair stage begins in a couple days. Collagen starts to fill in the wound/incision to bind the torn tissues. The edge of the wound begins to create the moist, pink tissue that fills in the wound. Wound contraction occurs and new skin will form and cover the wound itself. However, when the wound is intentional aka an incision, due to the sutures in place, there’s no area for the body to fill with tissue. The wound is instead already held together and simply needs to bond together. The new skin begins to form across the site within 2 days.
- Maturation: The final stage in wound healing is maturation, which starts in 2-3 weeks but can take months or years to complete. Scarring forms once enough collagen has been deposited. This scar will become stronger overtime as new blood vessels and nerves grow in and the tissue restructures. Eventually, 80% of the original strength of the tissue will be recovered. When the wound is intentional aka an incision, the stages of healing work exactly the same but at a more rapid speed because there is no space in the tissue to fill in. For an incision, the whole process typically takes between 10-14 days total.