The Good, the Bad and the Inevitable: Post-Surgical Complications in Pet Medicine

Cat in cone

There’s only one reasonable explanation for why a veterinarian’s patients might not suffer post-surgical complications: That doctor doesn’t perform surgery.

Complications are inevitable, after all, even when no one is at fault. That’s why they’re called “complications” and not “god-awful mistakes that could have been avoided with better training and closer attention to detail.”

In fact, post-surgical complications aren’t just inevitable. They’re pretty common, too. That’s why many major medical institutions (including plenty of vet schools) offer “Morbidity and Mortality” rounds (aka “M & M” rounds), a regular roundup of cases-gone-wrong. Because knowing how things go south is one way doctors learn.

Which might explain why we veterinarians are so practiced in the art of the post-surgical complication. Indeed, the complication rate that attends our patients’ recovery after any given procedure means we have ample opportunity to witness the many ways in which our work can be compromised.

The Drawbacks of a Quick Recovery

It makes sense. After all, pets aren’t likely to slow down after surgery — not unless we make them. Then there’s their mouthy way with a wound to consider. (No, licking a wound for hours on end is not healthy.) Given all their diabolically willful tricks, is it any wonder dogs and cats tend to bless their vets with plenty of post-op complication-based learning opportunities?

I’ve seen patients get around their E-collars and their T-shirts in desperate (and athletic) attempts to consume their stitches. I’ve seen dogs bounce around their crates until their wounds reopened from the strains of this simple (if relentless) activity. I’ve had mama cats somehow find their way back to their kittens to nurse post-sterilization (a surefire recipe for premature suture removal). And get this: A colleague once awoke to a midnight emergency call after a dog not only gnawed her incision open, but also consumed several lengths of her own intestines (apparently by way of keeping her spay incision “clean”).

Sometimes it even happens for no apparent reason. (“I promise she didn’t lick at it.”) Our animals are just like that. If they followed veterinary advice to take it easy, complication madness might not happen with such maddening regularity. But then, try telling that to the 6-month-old Lab who’s as likely to bowl you over as look at you.

Which has its pluses, of course. We should all be so lucky to exit the hospital feeling so well. It’s thanks to our modern anesthetic protocols and sophisticated pain-relieving abilities that our pets no longer slump in the corner and sleep it off for a couple of days. Instead, most are up and wagging their tails, bouncing off the walls, doing all the things pets should do — that is, if they hadn’t just spent the previous day in the OR getting their [fill-in-the-blank] removed.


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