How to Care for and Keep Dog Stitches Clean After Surgery
|Expert Reviewed||Dr. Rachel Barrack, Veterinarian & Certified Veterinary Chinese Herbalist|
Caring for Dog Stitches After Surgery
Whether your dog was just spayed, neutered, or had a recent laceration repair, he/she will be sent home with an incision closed with stitches, sutures, staples, and/or suture glue. Your veterinarian should have provided you with aftercare instructions, but you still may have the following questions:
- How do I care for my dog's stitches?
- How long do dissolvable stitches last and what is the healing time?
- How do I keep stitches clean?
- What if my dog chews, licks, or scratches the stitches out?
- How long should my dog wear a cone?
- Is this normal? What if the stitches bleed, ooze, or have pus?
Sometimes, you aren't even given the opportunity to talk to your vet after your dog’s surgery because the team has limited time and other patients to attend to. Let's review some of the most important aftercare instructions for dog spays, neuters, and surgical procedures.
ALWAYS put an Elizabethan collar (e-collar) or cone on your dog when he/she is unsupervised after surgery.
How to Care for Your Dog's Surgical Incision
Schedule the surgery on a day your dog can be supervised.
Set up a comfortable, quiet space for your dog to recover.
Keep your dog away from other dogs and household activity.
Leash walk for potty breaks and prevent jumping and running; no running or free play.
No jumping up and down from furniture. Lift your dog up and down onto the couch or bed. Do not leave them unattended. Barricade staircases.
Keep the wounds and stitches clean and dry (no bathing) unless otherwise instructed to do so.
Cones and E-Collars
Keep a cone or e-collar on at all times to prevent chewing, scratching, or licking.
Monitor the Incision
Monitor the incision for signs of infection (heat, swelling, pus, oozing, discharge).
Take Home Instructions
Only cover the incision or apply ointments if your vet advises you to do so.
Monitor your dog for behavioral changes (lethargy, panting, discomfort).
Keep your vet's contact and emergency numbers close by.
What Is the Healing Time for Dog Stitches?
According to Pet Education, within 7 to 10 days a dog's incision is capable of withstanding tension and stretching. 7-10 days is the average healing timeframe for a typical spay, but activity should be resumed gradually, and the site should be monitored until your next vet visit. Healing time depends on the surgical procedure, the suture material, suture absorption time, and your dog's health and age. Stitches generally last long enough to promote the healing of tissue. So, whether your dog received absorbable stitches, non-absorbable stitches, or staples, you will need to take good care of the area as it heals.
The moment an injury takes place (surgery is classified as an injury), the immune system activates white blood cells which mobilize to the incision site. The skin will redden, bruise, and swell, but over time, scar tissue will form. Incisions heal side-to-side, so this means that a 4" incision will heal at the same rate as a 1" incision.
The Stages of Wound Healing
How to Keep Dog Stitches Clean and Free From Infection After Surgery
Keeping the Incision Site Dry and Clean
You may feel compelled to give your dog a bath, but you may want to hold off if your dog has an incision that has to heal. This also means preventing your dog's incision from getting wet in the rain. Do not apply creams, ointments, or disinfectants unless your vet told you to do so. Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide use is prohibited as these chemicals will damage the tissue. You can wipe your dog's body down with natural baby wipes or dog-approved wipes to keep them fresh (do not wipe around the surgical site).
Do not bathe your dog unless instructed to do so by your veterinarian.
Why Is My Dog's Wound or Incision Not Healing?
Here are some things to watch for that may impair healing. Common causes for prolonged healing times include the following:
- Pre-Existing Health Conditions: diabetes, kidney and liver failure, hormonal imbalances, cancer
- Excessive Activity: post-surgical activity (i.e. jumping and play)
- Medications: i.e. corticosteroids, aspirin in high doses
- Age: senior dogs take more time to heal
- Nutritional Deficiencies: vitamin A, vitamin C, zinc, protein deficiencies
What Is a Suture Reaction?
In some cases, a dog's body may reject stitches rather than absorb them, triggering inflammation or a suture reaction and a prolonged healing time. A suture reaction is an inflammatory response by the body to a "foreign substance." This reaction may present as localized inflammation. The body is reacting to the foreign substance by either trying to dissolve it, break it down, or push it out. You will often see draining tracts and/or heat and redness.
Abdominal surgeries are closed in layers, so several types of suture material might be used to close the incision. If the suture reaction is deep, your veterinarian may have to go in and replace the suture material with another type. If the suture reaction is superficial and easily accessible, it may be a simple matter of removing the sutures and using suture glue or surgical staples depending on the stage of healing.
Consider the Type and Severity of the Surgery
It's important to consider the invasiveness and severity of your dog's procedure to gauge healing time (always follow your veterinarian's aftercare instructions):
- Dog Neuters: Many puppies that are neutered at 2 months of age will bounce back the next day, and healing will seem almost immediate as their incision site is small. You should still allow for a minimum of 7 days for healing. Neutering in adult male dogs is less invasive than a spay surgery, however, post-operative care should still be followed for 7 days minimum.
- Dog Spays: As for an adult female dog who is spayed, a minimum of 7 days is mandatory, as the procedure is more invasive, the surgical incision is larger, and healing time is prolonged. A dog's age and size is a huge factor in female dog spays. Large female dogs, older female dogs, and deep-chested dogs tend to have more difficult spays, require longer recovery times, and may be more sensitive post-operatively.
- Orthopedic Surgery: Knee surgery in dogs, which is quite common, requires rehabilitation. Your dog's incision may start to improve at the one week mark but mobility must be limited, so this type of healing will be parsed out according to your veterinarian's designated rechecks. By two weeks, the wound should have closed, however, there will often be a 2-week recheck and a 6-week recheck. Immobilizing dogs who have undergone orthopedic surgery is a must as is keeping the surgical site clean. Bone plates can become infected and must then be removed in a second surgery.
- Mass Removals: When a large mass is removed, not much tissue may remain to close the incision. In this case, there may be lots of tension which can ultimately cause the incision to open up despite being stitched. To prevent this, your vet may use a special tension-relieving pattern to stitch up the area. Mass removal wounds should also be given a minimum of 7 days healing time.
- Emergency Surgeries: Emergency surgeries often involve a dog that is already compromised on a systemic level, and recovery can be much longer than one week. Each case will vary, so be sure to consult with your veterinarian for week-by-week instructions as some medical emergencies require extensive post-operative care.
Compare Healthy and Infected Surgical Incisions
What Type of Stitches Does My Dog Have?
There are different ways to close an incision in dogs. Just as you stitch pieces of cloth together, a dog's skin can be sutured with needle and thread. The thread is usually made of synthetic material, but non-synthetic suture exists for specific procedures. Stitches can be absorbable or non-absorbable. In the case of absorbable stitches, the dog's body will naturally break down and absorb the suture material over time.
Depending on the type of incision, the stitches may be used to close just skin or several layers of tissue. For instance, in a simple laceration involving just a superficial skin tear, the edges of the skin are stitched together. In the case of a major surgery, the vet may need to stitch up muscles, the subcutaneous layer made of fat and connective tissue, and then finally skin, meaning there will be several rows of sutures in a single incision site.
Types of Stitches or Sutures Used in Dog Surgeries
Muscle and subcutaneous layers and organs, like the intestine. Soft tissue (bladders). Not used for tendons or ligaments.
Does not need to be removed unless suture reaction occurs.
synthetic (polyester) or organic (collagen)
Good for cardiovascular repair. Not for gastric or bladder surgery. Excellent for skin closure, ligaments, and tendons.
Needs to be removed by veterinary clinic generally 10 to 14 days after procedure.
synthetic (nylon) or organic (cotton, silk)
Faster than suturing. Closes incisions of the skin, clamps vessels internally, sternum closure in open chest surgery.
Generally removed 10 to 14 days later (if accessible) using a specialized staple remover.
titanium or stainless steel
Allows wounds to heal more cosmetically. Acts as an additional wound barrier.
Falls off naturally on average within 7-10 days; keep dry.
How Long Do Dissolvable Stitches Last?
According to the Journal of Dairy, Veterinary & Animal Research:
"Synthetic absorbable sutures loose most of their tensile strength within 60 days and eventually disappear from the tissues because they have been hydrolyzed."
What does this mean? Most absorbable sutures require 60 days to be completely absorbed by the body (hydrolyzed). Not to fear, absorbable stitches lose (dissolve) between 50% of their strength by 7-10 days, meaning the body is well on its way to healing.
Surgical Adhesives or Suture Glue
In some cases, your vet may use surgical adhesives to close the wound. Suture glue cannot be used near the eyes and is not suitable for oozing or contaminated wounds. Also, incisions closed with adhesives are more prone to opening up if they get wet. Adhesives are used to close very small incisions or act as secondary reinforcement for a top suture layer. Surgical glue is gradually removed by the body within 10 days on average.
How to Stop Your Dog From Licking at Stitches and Pulling Them Out
Your vet sent you home with an Elizabethan collar (also known as the "cone" or more humorously, "the cone of shame") for a good reason: to help protect the area from excessive licking. Excessive licking may cause your dog to pull out the stitches or even introduce bacteria to the site, causing an infection. There are several techniques that you can use to prevent your dog from licking:
- Elizabethan collars (e-collars), cones, or similar devices
- t-shirts and socks (if approved by your veterinarian)
- supervision and commands such as "leave it"
- vet-approved anti-lick strips or sprays
- dog puzzles and distracting toys (frozen kong treats)
- sedation or tranquilizers in extreme cases
Dog saliva is not antibacterial and dogs should not be allowed to lick at their incision site.
Can I Cover My Dog's Stitches?
Depending on the location and type of incision, you can ask your vet about using a bandage to keep your dog from licking the area. If the incision is near the abdomen or shoulder area, you can try to discourage licking by putting a t-shirt on your dog. Simply put your dog's head and front legs through the head and armholes of the shirt. If the problem area is the foot, you can ask your vet about placing a sock on the area. Of course, avoid doing so if you own a dog who would eat the sock or shirt and be at risk of an intestinal obstruction!
How to Stop Your Dog From Scratching at Stitches and Opening Them Up
As the wound heals and the fur starts growing back, the area starts to get itchy. The Elizabethan collar may not be helpful in this case, as it prevents licking, but won't do much for scratching. Monitor your dog closely for scratching, and if possible, find a way to discourage scratching by using a command such as "leave it."
Crating your dog when you are not around may be helpful if it's snug enough to discourage scratching. Depending on where the incision is, letting your dog wear a t-shirt may also help to discourage scratching. This can be good for incisions on the abdomen and shoulders; check with your vet, as some procedures require the wound to air. Remember that dogs are capable of scratching their front legs with their back legs, so if your dog has an incision behind the front legs, he/she may cause significant damage by scratching!
How Long Should a Dog Wear a Cone After Stitches?
Keep your dog's cone on for as long as your veterinarian has recommended activity restriction—generally 7-14 days. Neck collars for well-behaved dogs may be more appropriate, as are inflatable donut collars for small, mellow dogs that can be closely monitored. Just know that no collar or cone is foolproof, and dogs can get around the tip of cones with their tongue. Some dogs may react terribly to cones. It is okay to remove a cone while your dog eats if they are struggling to do so, but only if you are monitoring them 100% of the time. You may prefer to hand feed them or elevate their bowl.
Important: Restrict a Hyper Dog's Activity After Surgery
Yes, those staples and stitches are strong, but if your dog moves in a way that puts tension on the area or stretches it excessively, this may impair healing and the sutures are at risk of opening and bleeding. Depending on the incision, your vet may recommend activity restriction for anywhere between 7 and 14 days or even longer. How to limit activity:
- Always take your dog out for potty breaks on a leash.
- Discourage running around and jumping especially during the first days. Jumping up and down in the house or on furniture may cause swelling and pain.
- Barricade stairs or carry your dog up and down depending on necessity.
- Avoid long walks and rough-housing with other dogs.
- Your vet may recommend cage rest or keeping your dog in a small room.
- Tranquilizers or sedatives may be prescribed for particularly hyper dogs.
When Dog Stitches Open Up, Come Out, or Look Infected
A big threat to an incision is an infection. The infection prolongs healing time and the pus may put extra tension on the stitches making them more prone to coming out. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics to prevent this complication especially if the area was already infected or you are dealing with a difficult wound such as an animal bite. What to look for:
- Signs of an Infection: If you see active bleeding, oozing, and bright green pus or odorous discharge, take your dog to the veterinarian right away. Behavioral changes, fever, panting, and loss of appetite, are all indications that your dog may be harboring an infection and should be seen ASAP.
- Open Wounds: The most serious complication of an incision is protruding tissue. Stitches are meant to keep the dog's underlying tissues in place, and when the stitches come out, there's the risk that the protruding tissues will trigger a serious and even potentially fatal infection.
Do Not Treat the Wound
Alcohol and hydrogen peroxide should not be used on incision sites and stitches as these chemicals will cause cellular damage and slow healing.
Signs That Your Dog Needs Medical Attention
What indicates a post-operative medical emergency?
- Excessive swelling or redness at the surgical site
- Fresh blood seeping for over 24 hours
- Discharge or drainage dripping from the incision site
- Foul odor, pus, or off-color drainage
- Missing sutures with redness/swelling and discharge
- Edges of the skin are no longer together or a wide gap exists over ¼ inch
- Protruding tissue (medical emergency)
- A dog that is listless and not eating
When Discharge From Your Dog's Stitches Is Normal
Know What Normal Is
Do your best to keep the area as clean and dry as possible. It's good practice to observe the incision at least twice a day; consider taking pictures of the site in the same light as a reference. Know how many stitches or staples your dog has so you can keep track of them.
Characteristics of a Normal Incision
- Clean with edges touching.
- Reddish/pink color that intensifies during the first days as the area heals.
- Some bruising along the edges in pale dogs as the area heals.
- Clear, blood-tinged discharge in small amounts (first 24/72 hours).
Clear, Blood-Tinged Discharge
A small amount of clear or blood-tinged discharge can be seen seeping intermittently in the first 24/72 hours. According to Assisi Animal Health, it's normal for a little blood mixed with plasma (a clear, yellowish fluid) to leak from the wound site. Normally, the discharge should have a light yellow tint (serous) or a pink tint (serosanguineous) and it shouldn't have any odor. This can be observed by gently blotting the incision site with clean gauze or a clean paper towel.
Why Did My Dog Get a Seroma After Surgery?
At times, dogs may develop a seroma at the incision site. When small blood vessels are ruptured, a seroma (an accumulation of plasma) will form as a pocket of extra space around the surgical site. The majority of these non-painful growths reabsorb on their own with time and the swelling will decrease. This collection of serum may occur because of excess "dead space," and the inflammation is often seen in animals that were too active during the recovery process or who licked and chewed the incision site. Hot or warm compresses (avoid moisture on the surgical site by using a plastic bag or similar barrier) may be helpful as these will encourage blood flow, allowing the body to reabsorb the extra fluid faster. Always test the compress on your skin first to avoid thermal or cold burns.
This article should not be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog's incision is showing signs of infection, or your dog is experiencing post-operative surgical complications, please contact your veterinarian immediately.
Dr. Rachel Barrack
- The article has been modified since this review was written.
© 2014 Adrienne Janet Farricelli