Is Surgery Risky For Dogs?


Surgery is very common for dogs, with millions of procedures performed each year. However, any time anesthesia is used, there are inherent risks involved. As a dog owner, evaluating the potential dangers of surgery is important to keep your furry friend safe. Though modern veterinary medicine has made the process much safer, being informed about surgical risk factors can help you make the best decisions for your dog’s health.

In this article, we’ll look at the primary considerations around surgical risk for canine patients. We’ll explore the steps vets take to mitigate dangers, data on outcomes, and how to have informed conversations with your veterinarian when surgery is recommended. While any procedure does bring some level of risk, understanding the factors involved can give you confidence that your dog’s wellbeing is the top priority.

Evaluating Risk Factors

There are several factors that can influence the risks associated with surgery in dogs. Age is one significant factor, as older dogs tend to be at higher risk for complications due to reduced organ function and other age-related issues. According to research, dogs over the age of 7 have an increased rate of anesthetic-related deaths compared to younger dogs (Risk Factors in Small Animal Anesthesia).

A dog’s weight and body condition can also impact surgical risk. Overweight and obese dogs are more prone to breathing issues under anesthesia as well as delayed recovery times. Certain dog breeds like Bulldogs and Pugs are anatomically prone to airway obstruction and do not tolerate anesthetics as well as dogs with normal airways.

Underlying health conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and respiratory conditions can increase the risks associated with anesthesia and surgery. Dogs with pre-existing conditions will often need additional pre-operative testing and monitoring during and after surgery.

The type of procedure being performed also affects the level of risk. More invasive surgeries that penetrate body cavities tend to have higher rates of surgical site infections compared to clean procedures (Risk factors for surgical site infection associated with clean orthopedic surgery in dogs). Complex orthopedic procedures also carry greater risks than routine spays and neuters.

Overall, a thorough pre-operative evaluation of the dog’s health status, breed, age, and the procedure specifics allows veterinarians to assess and mitigate surgical risks through proper planning and care.

Pre-Op Testing

veterinarian reviewing dog's pre-operative blood test results

Before any surgery in dogs, veterinarians typically recommend pre-operative testing to detect any underlying issues that could complicate the procedure. Two common pre-operative tests are bloodwork and imaging.

Pre-anesthetic bloodwork provides important information about a dog’s organ function and overall health status. According to VCA Animal Hospitals (, standard pre-anesthetic bloodwork includes a complete blood count (CBC) to check levels like red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets, as well as a serum biochemistry profile to analyze kidney and liver function. Abnormal bloodwork results may lead a veterinarian to run further tests or postpone surgery until any issues are addressed.

In some cases, vets may also recommend imaging tests like X-rays, ultrasounds, or CT scans to get a clear picture of the dog’s internal anatomy before surgery. This allows the surgical team to identify any anatomical abnormalities ahead of time.

While not all dogs require extensive pre-op testing, following the vet’s recommended plan helps minimize surgical risks and improves outcomes.

Anesthesia Risks

Anesthesia carries inherent risks for dogs undergoing surgery. According to the AKC, certain breeds like pugs and bulldogs are at higher risk for anesthesia complications due to their shortened airways (AKC). In addition, smaller dogs, senior dogs, and dogs with health conditions may be at increased risk.

Potential anesthesia complications include reduced blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and reduced respiration. In rare cases, organ failure, seizures, or even death may occur. However, veterinarians take precautions to monitor vital signs and prevent anesthesia overdose. They administer pre-anesthetic medications to calm anxiety, induce sleep, and prevent pain. Throughout surgery, they use pulse oximetry and electrocardiograms to closely monitor heart rate, oxygen levels, breathing, and blood pressure (VCA Hospitals).

Still, it’s important for owners to discuss all risks with their vet beforehand. Certain high-risk dogs may benefit from bloodwork, x-rays, EKGs, specialist referrals, adjusting medication, or postponing nonessential surgery to minimize dangers.

Intra-Op Complications

During surgery, dogs can experience a variety of complications, including:

Excessive bleeding (hemorrhage): This can occur if blood vessels are not properly clamped or ligated. Severe hemorrhage may require blood transfusions to stabilize the dog [1].

Low blood pressure (hypotension): Anesthesia can cause blood pressure to drop dangerously low. Fluids, medications, and adjustments to anesthesia may be needed to restore normal pressure [2].

Arrhythmias: The heart can develop abnormal rhythms, especially if the dog has underlying heart disease. Antiarrhythmic medications may be administered [3].

Hypothermia: Body temperature can decrease during prolonged surgery. Warming blankets and fluids help maintain normal temperature.

Aspiration: Stomach contents may be inhaled into the lungs. Positioning the dog and using a cuffed endotracheal tube reduces this risk.

Nerve damage: Excessive retraction or improper positioning can damage nerves. This may result in paralysis or loss of function.

Pain Management

dog wearing cone collar after surgery

Controlling pain after surgery is extremely important for a dog’s recovery and well-being. According to the 2015 AAHA/AAFP Pain Management Guidelines, effective perioperative pain management facilitates recovery by reducing physiological stress responses. NSAIDs like meloxicam are commonly used for post-op pain control in dogs and help alleviate inflammation and discomfort. Multimodal pain management may also be utilized, combining NSAIDs with other analgesics like tramadol or gabapentin. This provides better pain relief than a single medication alone.

Uncontrolled postoperative pain can lead to slower healing, increased risk of complications, and behavior changes in dogs. Managing pain properly allows dogs to meet recovery milestones faster and return to normal activity levels sooner after surgery. Close monitoring and adjustment of pain medication dosages is key, along with follow-up exams, to ensure the dog’s pain is well-controlled in the days and weeks following the procedure.

Infection Prevention

Preventing infections is a major priority after any surgery. Surgical site infections are common complications in veterinary procedures, occurring in up to 27% of clean surgeries (Nelson, 2011). There are several steps vets take to reduce the risk of infection:

Antibiotics – Antibiotics are routinely given before, during and after surgery to prevent bacteria from developing into an infection. Broad-spectrum antibiotics like cephalexin are commonly used.

Sterile environment – The operating room is thoroughly disinfected and surgeons wear sterile gowns, gloves, masks and caps. Sterile drapes cover the surgical site.

Wound care – The surgical site is closely monitored for signs of infection like redness, swelling or discharge. Stitches and staples are removed on schedule and the wound is kept clean and dry.

Nutrition – Providing optimal nutrition supports immune function and wound healing. Probiotics can help maintain healthy gut flora after antibiotics.

Strict hygiene – Hand washing protocols before interacting with the surgical patient. Keeping the recovery area very clean.

Close monitoring in the days after surgery allows vets to catch post-operative infections early and promptly treat with medications, flushing the wound or additional surgeries (Medical News Today, 2019). Preventing infections improves surgical outcomes.

person disinfecting operating room

Recovery Process

After surgery, dogs require a recovery period with restrictions on activity to allow incisions to heal properly. This typically involves strictly limiting exercise, playtime, and walks for 10-14 days post-op (source). Jumping, running, and rough play is prohibited during initial recovery. Dogs may be confined to a crate or small room to restrict movement. Short, leashed walks are recommended starting a few days after surgery to encourage bathroom breaks without overexertion.

Surgical patients are often prescribed pain medication for the first 7-10 days. Diet may also be adjusted post-operatively, switching to bland, low-fat foods that are gentle on the stomach. Incision sites need to be monitored daily for signs of infection like swelling, discharge or redness. Elizabethan collars are commonly used to prevent licking or chewing at stitches. Follow-up veterinary exams assess healing progress and determine when normal activity can be resumed (source).

Outcomes Data

Statistics show that most dogs have excellent outcomes from surgery. In one large study of over 15,000 dogs that underwent a range of surgical procedures at a veterinary teaching hospital, the mortality rate was just 0.09%. Major post-op complications occurred in only 1.48% of dogs. These rates compare very favorably with data on human surgeries. For instance, mortality rates for human patients after major surgery can range from 1% to 4%.

While any surgical procedure does carry risks, advancements in veterinary medicine have made surgery quite safe for most dogs. When performed by an experienced veterinary surgeon at a properly equipped facility, surgery offers dogs the best chance at treating many medical conditions and returning to full health. With appropriate aftercare and monitoring by owners, the vast majority of dogs recover well from surgery. While individual factors like a dog’s age, breed, and health status can impact risks, owners can feel reassured by the excellent track record for routine surgical procedures in dogs.


dog resting after surgery with incision

While there are always risks involved when a dog undergoes surgery, proper preparation and care from pet owners can help reduce those risks. Doing health screening tests ahead of time allows vets to identify and address any pre-existing conditions. Modern anesthesia methods are much safer now than in decades past. Following post-op instructions for pain management, infection prevention, rest and restricted activity will support the recovery process. Although complications can occur, most surgeries have positive outcomes that improve dogs’ health and quality of life. Being informed and proactive helps minimize surgical risk for canine patients.

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