How to Care for Your Small Mammal After Surgery

Written by Oxbow

April 6, 2022🞄

by Dianne Cook, LVT

From routine procedures like spays, neuters, and dental exams, to more intense operations like tumor removals and cystotomies (the surgical procedure performed to remove bladder stones), there are numerous reasons our beloved small pets may have to undergo surgery. Regardless of why your furry companion has had surgery, proper at-home post-operative care is an important part of the healing process. Though the thought of caring for your little one in such a delicate state can be stressful, the following tips and suggestions will provide an idea of what to watch for and will help ensure your beloved companion recovers as smoothly and quickly as possible.

Why Is Post-Op Care So Important?

As prey species, your small mammal is hardwired to hide signs of illness or discomfort. While this mentality prevented your pet’s wild ancestors from succumbing to predation, it can also mean many things can go wrong for a post-operative small mammal before they start showing any blatant signs or symptoms. Luckily, if they are observed closely, it is easier to pick up on the subtle indications that something isn’t going to plan. A properly supervised at-home recovery also ensures your pet can heal in a familiar environment, thereby limiting stress and lowering the risk of secondary health concerns (like gastrointestinal stasis).

Before You Leave the Hospital

When you pick your little one up after surgery, it is important to speak with your veterinarian or their vet tech before you leave the building. Though your veterinarian should have answered most of your questions before the procedure, it’s never a bad idea to verify instructions and make sure the following questions are answered to your satisfaction.

  1. How long is the typical recovery time for this procedure? Animals who have undergone a spay or neuter are generally up and moving around much sooner than an animal who has undergone a more invasive procedure. It is important to know how soon you can expect your little one to return to normal activity levels.
  2. Is there an incision and what does it look like? What do you anticipate the incision will look like as it heals? What is “normal” for the incision? Does the doctor expect there to be quite a bit of discharge, or none whatsoever? Does the vet anticipate any swelling or fluid accumulation under/near the incision? How should you keep the incision clean? You may also want to ask to look at the incision with your veterinarian before you head home so you know exactly what it looks like and you will have a clear idea if something starts to look amiss as your pet heals.
  3. Are there any external sutures, staples, or drain tubes that will need to be removed? If so, when? When possible, most veterinarians will “bury” the sutures (using subcutaneous sutures only) to limit the risk of your pet chewing at their incision or inadvertently pulling out an external suture or staple. The type of closure (external vs internal) used, however, may vary depending on your veterinarian’s preference and the location of the incision. Drain tubes are most often used when there is a risk of excessive fluid or infection accumulating in or around the surgical site. If there are visible sutures, staples, or drain tubes present, make sure to verify when they need to be removed.
  4. When should I bring my pet back for a recheck? Regardless of the type of surgery your little one underwent, they will likely need to return to the hospital within 7 – 14 days for a recheck to ensure everything is healing as expected. It’s a good idea to make the recheck appointment before you leave the hospital.
  5. What parameters constitute an early recheck? Ask your veterinarian for specific signs or symptoms that would indicate the need for an early recheck.
  6. Has my pet eaten since waking up? Most veterinarians prefer to know their post-op patients (regardless of species) can eat on their own before sending them home. This is especially true of rabbits and rodents. Regardless of this fact, it never hurts to verify when your pet last ate, what food(s) they consumed, and how well they ate (did they just nibble, or did they eat readily?).
  7. Do you recommend a supplemental diet during recovery? Your veterinarian may decide to send you home with a nutrient dense recovery diet like Critical Care. If your vet does not feel a supplemental diet is necessary, ask them why and make sure you feel comfortable with their response.
  8. Who should you call if there is an emergency? Though most surgical patients heal without incident, there are times that unanticipated emergencies can arise. Before leaving your veterinary hospital with your pet, make sure you know if your veterinarian sees their own after hour emergencies or if they recommend a particular emergency or referral center for urgent care needs on nights and weekends.

Key Post-Op Care Instructions

Healing from surgery is hard work! During the post-operative phase, the body goes into overdrive repairing muscles and ligaments, forming new neuropathways, and evading infection. Though different surgical procedures require slightly different aftercare, every post-op patient requires special focus in six key areas during the first couple of weeks of recovery: mentation, appetite, output, medications, surgical site, and husbandry.

  • Mentation – Mentation is the fancy medical word for how an animal responds to their environment. Are they bright and alert? Do they seem “loopy” or “out of it”? Are they tense and quiet? Are they overly lethargic or difficult to wake up? After surgery, it’s not uncommon for your pet to be a bit sleepier than usual for the first 24 hours. They should still be easy to wake, frequently feeding, and appropriately responsive to sounds in their environment. If anything seems unusual, call your vet!
  • Appetite – Injectable sedatives and anesthetic gases can both cause nausea and disorientation during the early stages of the post-operative period. Because rabbits and rodents are incapable of vomiting, a decreased appetite may be the only sign your little one exhibits to indicate they are experiencing tummy troubles. Even though your pet should have enjoyed a post-op meal before leaving the hospital, it is essential to closely monitor your pet’s food and water intake once they are home. If you notice your pet’s appetite or thirst starts to decrease, or if they stop eating or drinking altogether, contact your veterinarian right away.
  • Output – Like appetite, it is just as important to keep a close eye on your little one’s output (urination and defecation) after surgery. Do their stools look normal? Have they been passing a normal volume of feces? More? Less? Are they urinating as often as they should? Does their urine look especially dark or smell more pungent? Is your small herbivore able to reach and consume their cecotropes? If anything out of the ordinary is noted, call your veterinarian as quickly as possible.
  • Medications – When referencing medications in a post-op animal, your veterinarian will most likely provide one (or both) of the following: analgesics (pain meds) and antibiotics. Just like in humans, pain meds and antibiotics can cause upset stomachs and stool abnormalities. Pain meds can also cause profound sedation (sleepiness) in some animals. Even more reason careful monitoring of mentation, appetite, and output, as discussed above, is so important. When administering any medication to any post-operative small mammals, you will also want to monitor how your pet is reacting to the meds. Do they seem loopy after getting their pain meds? Do they seem comfortable and relaxed? Have you noticed any unusual behavior? Do they fight you with every dose? It is always best to finish a script as written, otherwise the medication will not be providing full efficacy (this is especially true of antibiotics). If you feel your furry friend is not handling their medications well, speak with your veterinarian before discontinuing. They may be able to adjust the dosing or provide an alternate medication.
  • Surgical Site – Keep a close eye on the surgical site. It is best not to handle your pet too frequently for the first few days after surgery to allow them time to rest and recuperate, but you will need to make sure that you’re checking on your pet’s incision at least twice a day. Small mammals have notoriously thin skin, so it’s not uncommon to see some irritation from having their hair shaved prior to surgery. The skin should still look healthy and dry, however. Moist skin, especially if it is sticky or has an odor, can be a sign of a skin infection. The incision itself should be clean and free from debris (scabs, hay, bedding, etc.). It is completely normal for a little bit of serosanguinous fluid (a thin fluid consisting of blood cells and serum) to leak from the wound for the first day or two after surgery. This fluid is generally pale yellow with a pinkish tint. It should not have an odor and should not be sticky or thick. If you notice any of the following on or near your pet’s incision, call your veterinarian immediately:
    • Excessive swelling
    • Bright red, irritated skin
    • Red streaking radiating out from the incision
    • Incision is hot to the touch
    • Obviously visible blood present at the incision site, especially if it’s dripping or pooling
    • Thick white, yellow, or green discharge on or near the incision
    • An unpleasant odor
    • The incision starts to come apart
    • Also contact your veterinarian if you notice your pet (or one of their animal friends) licking and/or grooming the area excessively. Your kiddo may need an e-collar (or a short separation from his friends) when they are not being directly supervised.
  • Husbandry – It is important to make sure your little one has a safe, clean, warm, and cozy space in which to recuperate once they return home. During the recovery phase, make sure to keep an extra close eye on your pet’s bedding to look for traces of blood, spots of abnormal urine, or loose stools. Your pet’s recovery area should be spot cleaned at least once a day to keep the environment as sanitary as possible. If your pet is generally free roam, it is likely best to keep them confined to a smaller area (like a play yard) while they heal. This will encourage them to take it easy and prevent them from accidently injuring themselves by jumping onto furniture or doing too many “zoomies”. If your post-op pal is part of a bonded pair or group, it is generally best for them to return to the same enclosure or environment to have the moral support of their best buds while they heal. Luckily, small mammals are usually quite adept at monitoring their own activity post-op and will remain quiet and calm, even when housed with their buddies, until their body has healed well enough to safely return to normal activity. Occasionally, however, there can be some concern with excessive allogrooming (social grooming between members of the same species), especially if they are focusing their grooming attention anywhere near the surgical site.

If you are worried that keeping your pet in the same space as their companions will put them at risk of breaking open their incision or otherwise impacting their health and safety, it may be best to separate your furry friends until your post-op babe is fully healed – or until a veterinarian indicates it is safe to keep them together again. If separation is necessary, try to do so in a way they can still see, smell, hear, and interact with each other by using separate play yards or a temporary enclosure divider.

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