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More about surgery for your pet

Compiled by Dr. Jo Olver

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA —  The immediate first step to surgical procedures, and some others that are non-surgical  such as removing a bone stuck in your animal’s mouth, or taking an X-ray is anesthesia.  A member of the veterinary team will monitor vital signs and otherwise assist closely while anesthesia is ongoing, and during the recovery period.  Anesthesia makes the animal temporarily unconscious so they do not feel anything (especially pain), and when they wake up they have no memory of the procedure.

So what of surgery itself…what are some things good to know before your animal is admitted to undergo a procedure?

Many people are surprised that the hair needs to be cut and/or shaved very closely to the skin in the area that the surgical procedure takes place.  This is to vastly reduce contamination from dirt and hair, cleanse the skin to vastly reduce chances of infection and to allow quick and clean healing.   Several antiseptics in a specific order are used to cleanse the skin and eliminate all the ‘germs’ possible from the skin.

Once this area of skin is free of hair and dirt contaminants, and the skin is extremely clean (called surgical prep), it is isolated and exposed using a surgical drape.  This covers all the surrounding area leaving only the prepped skin exposed. 

The surgeon‘s hands  undergoes an antiseptic preparation, as well as donning sterile surgical gloves.  Depending on the procedure, surgical caps, masks and gowns might be worn.  From the time of the veterinary surgeons’s antiseptic preparation only they will contact the surgical site of the animal.  Further, any items such as instruments or suture material (stitches) are sterile and do not touch any thing except the sterile field they lay on, the surgery site of the animal, and the surgeons sterile gloves.

Any bacteria that might have escaped this surgical preparation is eliminated using antibiotics.  This might be delivered in the IV catheter which was placed earlier for administering anesthesia or given by other routes such as by mouth later on. Antibiotics are chosen depending on the type and length of the surgical procedure, and risks of contamination.  Infection can cause lots of damage to many areas in a body, sometimes far from the site it first occurred.  Importantly infection delays healing - tissues will not heal if infection is present.  Note that the term tissue is an all purpose term used to identify an area of concern in a body, not a specific 

Infected tissue does not heal until infection is cleared, and neither does dead tissue heal.  Unfortunately many have seen trauma on their animals from road accidents.  The skin can look red and raw at first but in a few days some of it might start to become black in color which means the tissue lost blood supply and enough cells were permanently damaged to cause death of that tissue.  In surgery we do the best we can to minimize manipulation and are as gentle as we can be so that few cells die.  Before healing can occur there must be nice healthy living tissue.

The surgical procedure itself generally consists of making careful, specific incisions or cuts to expose the region.  A Spay surgery in a female dog involves removal of the reproductive tract, including uterus and the two ovaries.  Some surgeons remove only the ovaries.  A Neuter surgery in a male dog is much less invasive, and involves removal of testicles only.  The pros and cons of these particular surgeries are for another day but the reason for this surgery is to stop reproduction (making baby animals).

Once the procedure is complete the different layers of tissues are closed as closely to their original structure as possible.  Given gentle tissue handling, no infection and good aftercare, surgical sites usually heal amazingly quickly.

Aftercare is the term for temporary alterations to normal lifestyle - what do you need to do - after anesthesia and surgery, which is important to allow healing as quickly as possible.  Restricting the movement of your animal’s body limits tugs and pulls on sutures which allows them to hold tissues together while they heal.  Keeping the skin clean and dry is also important to encourage prompt healing.  Giving medications recommended by your veterinary surgeon that are deemed to help healing is encouraged.    We cannot predict everything nature throws at us but following these steps during a surgical procedure allows uneventful recovery and healing in the majority of the vast numbers of animals who undergo surgery.

The purpose of surgery is to maintain or improve an animal’s life.  The example of spay and neuter is a classic example.  It improves lives by preventing a miserable existence of unwanted offspring, and by preventing reproductive disease.  Some surgery is to treat open wounds, some to remove an object stuck in the intestines, still other surgery is to correct a defect - all with the objective to spare or improve the quality of life of an animal.  There is an old adage that states “to cut is to cure