Monitoring a pet’s incision after surgery is an important part of post-operative care. Infections, suture problems, and other issues can result in a life-threatening situation for the pet, so it’s vital that owners closely monitor the incision.
There are four different types of incision closures and each one requires a slightly different form of care. They are as follows:
- Traditional Sutures or “Stitches” — Traditional sutures must remain in place for 10 to 14 days. Then, they must be removed at the veterinary clinic. Generally, you don’t need an appointment for suture removal and a vet tech often handles the removal. It takes just a minute or two.
- Dissolving Sutures or “Stitches” — Dissolving stitches are always used subcutaneously (stitches are often applied in layers, with one layer of stitches applied to close the muscle or other subcutaneous structures, and a second “layer” applied on the skin’s surface.) They are sometimes used to close the incision at the skin’s surface. These stitches don’t require removal; they dissolve in 10 to 14 days.
- Staple Incision Closures — On occasion, a veterinarian will close an incision using surgical staples. These are fairly uncommon and they tend to be reserved for use in hospitalized patients. Staples are typically removed after 7 to 10 days.
- Glue Incision Closure — Some incisions are closed using skin glue. Over time, the glue dissolves, so there is no follow-up care required, providing the incision heals properly and without infection.
If your cat, dog, rabbit, ferret or other pet has dissolving stitches or a glued incision, it’s important to know that in rare instances, the animal’s body may cause the stitches or glue to dissolve prematurely. This can cause the wound to open after just a day or two. If this occurs, this is a veterinary emergency and it’s vital to seek immediate medical attention for your pet.
Monitor the incision for the following signs of a problem:
- The edges of the incision are pulling apart or a gap has formed between the edges of the incision;
- Swelling that gets worse after 24 hours post-operation;
- Worsening redness;
- Foul, slightly “sweet” odor;
- Lots of discharge, especially white, green or yellow discharge;
- Stitches have been chewed out or staples have become dislodged;
- Incision has re-opened after partially healing.
Generally speaking, after the first 24 hours, the incision should gradually begin to improve in terms of appearance. If you observe worsening redness, swelling, discharge, etc., this is a sign of an infection. In terms of discharge, a slight bit of clear or blood-tinged discharge is not uncommon over the first 24-72 hours. But discharge late in the healing process can be indicative of an infection, especially if it’s white, green or yellow in color or if it has an odor.
I’ve found it’s helpful to photograph the incision on a daily basis; this is extremely useful in terms of monitoring. It’s important to use the same lighting and position for each photo, so they’re consistent in this regard. Then, simply compare the photos to determine whether the incision is getting worse in appearance or gradually improving. Failure to improve over several days can also be a sign of a problem.
If a problem arises, the photographs can also serve as a handy display for your veterinarian.
Some incisions may also have a drain — a rubber tube that extends out of the incision at the skin’s surface. This is often used in wounds and in situations when there is significant drainage or a high risk of infection. This will prevent drainage fluids or pus from accumulating in a pocket beneath the skin (called an “abscess”), which could cause the incision to open.
Drains are secured with one or two non-dissolving sutures. Once healing is mostly complete, the stitches will be removed and the rubber drain will be pulled out.
Remember to keep your pet’s incision dry if it has been closed using dissolving stitches or glue. Bathing or washing the area can cause the sutures or glue to dissolve prematurely.
If your pet was sent home with a “cone” or an inflatable e-collar, it’s important to keep it on until the incision is completely healed. Near the end of the healing process, the incision will get itchy and the pet may scratch, lick and bite the incision. This can cause the incision to re-open, so it’s important to keep the cone on!