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

Some Complications Can't Be Anticipated

Not that any of this makes you feel any better when it’s your pet who’s suffering a complication. Nor is every complication necessarily linked to your pet’s healthy exuberance or surfeit of post-surgical comfort. Sometimes complications arise from just plain bad luck.

Consider these common post-surgical complications:

  • Adverse suture reactions beneath the skin that lead to rejected suture material exiting an incision site for months after a surgery
  • Post-op pain-drug intolerances that yield vomiting
  • Post-op antibiotics that cause diarrhea
  • A cough that lingers for upwards of a week as the result of irritation from the endotracheal tube
  • Transient stiffness or lameness from having to stay in one position for an extended period of time during surgery

Surgical Skill and Good Intentions Aren't Always Enough

Then there’s last week’s patient’s case:

Sparky had needed multiple dental extractions, and his owner had readily acquiesced to the procedure. As a physician, she’d understood the risks of anesthesia and infection well. But she’d not been prepared for the possibility of a complication arising from the nerve block, an injection administered to prevent the pain related to the extraction procedure itself.

So it was that when we discussed Sparky’s complication — bleeding around the whites of his eye as a result of my nicking a nearby vessel during the injection — she seemed a bit put out over the whole thing. Which only made sense. I’d have been alarmed, too. I mean, a bloody eye looks as terrible as it sounds. Luckily, however, it doesn’t hurt, vision isn’t impaired and it always resolves quickly.

“What can I say?” I offered after I’d explained the complication and the difficulty of skirting vessels when you’re trying to block nerves (they live nearby one another). “I’m so sorry! But look at it this way: If I didn’t block a nerve with an injection, he wouldn’t be as comfortable as he is right now. Small price to pay, right?” To which she readily agreed, mollified also, no doubt, by my phone number and plenty of assurances that things would resolve quickly.

Which brings me to my final point: Complications in pet medicine may be inevitable, but resolving them satisfactorily between humans is not. That’s the hard part. And, unfortunately, that’s nothing any veterinarian or physician learns during M & M rounds. That’s a skill we have to practice personally if we plan on keeping our clients’ trust.

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