Learn about elective surgery in dogs and cats here!

Pet health care questions and answers about puppies and dogs

Elective Surgery... Should You Or Shouldn't You?

Many dog and cat owners worry about surgical procedures carried out on their pet.  Veterinarians today employ several pain reducing protocols that truly help minimize the discomfort of a surgery.  Nevertheless, fear of anesthetic risks, bleeding issues, infection and psychic stress all enter into the discussion of should you... or should you not... go ahead with a proposed surgery on your pet?   Each case is unique and you and your veterinarian need to thoroughly probe the pros and cons of elective surgery before the scalpel is used.

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Elective surgery is often done on dog and cat patients; each case needs independent evaluation.

     There are many examples of situations where surgery is required to save the patient’s life.  There is an entirely separate category of surgery, though, that does not qualify as “necessary”.  Those surgical procedures that are undertaken by choice are termed elective surgery. In other words… elective surgery is optional.  It does not have to be done to save or stabilize the patient’s life.

     We all are familiar with the common elective surgeries done on humans… liposuction, face lifts, skin tag removal are just a few.  And in dogs, ear cropping, spay/neuter surgery, tail docking, come readily to mind.  Most people agree that ear cropping is a cosmetic procedure with little verifiable medical rewards for the dog.  There’s a vast gray area though, where a dog owner needs to carefully consider the choice to proceed with a surgical procedure because there are many elective surgeries that, although may not be considered life-saving, still provide health-enhancing benefits.

     The patient with fat deposits exemplifies the dilemma dog owners and veterinarians face regarding the decision to do or not do surgery.  Many veterinarian recommend removing fat deposits, called lipomas, once they reach a certain size because if left to their own whims these fatty growths sometimes enlarge to huge proportions.  But which fat deposits can be left alone and which should be removed?  Even if probed and analyzed by needle biopsy and shown to be benign, some fat deposits simply do not stop growing! 

     And what are the risks versus benefits of a procedure?  Let’s take as an example dental procedures.  If loose teeth, gingival growths and deep infections are present, a case could be made that the dental procedure really needs be done to improve and safeguard the patient’s quality of life.  The down side is that, because these elective procedures require some form of anesthesia and surgical invasion of the patient, they are not entirely without risk.  With modern veterinary medical presurgical protocols, though, the attendant risks can be minimized; and one important tool in identifying the “at risk” patient is the blood chemistry profile assessment.

     Most veterinarians believe pre-anesthetic blood screening before any surgery is important. While most healthy animals are at minimal risk for complications during an elective surgery such as a neuter or spay, there is always the chance that an animal could have an underlying problem that might not manifest itself until the animal is put under anesthesia. Surgery is not a good time to discover that there is a heart or liver problem.


Gall bladder obstruction in a dog

Exploratory surgery often reveals the cause of an elusive problem

A cat spay procedure

Spay and neuter surgeries represent a common elective surgery

Ear canal resection in a dog can have long term benefits

Lateral ear canal resection eliminates 90% of chronic ear problems

A blocked tomcat has a perineal urethrostomy surgery

Perineal urethrostomy can be done to prevent urinary obstruction in cats and dogs

Modern veterinary medical gas anesthesia machine

Modern gas anesthetic machine

     Veterinarians will discuss the “risk versus benefit” topic with the pet’s owner, and relate the ways to reduce risk and maximize the benefit before any elective surgery is performed.  In many situations the timing of the surgery is critical. 

     Cancer surgery, if done early, may have rewarding benefits long term; but if indecision delays the procedure the benefit of surgery may be undermined. Orthopedic problems such as torn ligaments, fractures, cartilage damage and the ravages of progressive arthritis are time critical… irreversible degeneration awaits whenever corrective or reconstructive surgery is delayed.

     Timing of an elective orthopedic surgery revolves around several factors.  In general, the sooner an orthopedic problem is corrected the less long term, untreatable degeneration can occur.   Regarding many tumors, lipomas and cysts, excision early surgical intervention can be important.

     A veterinary orthopedic surgeon remarked "If the surgical repair will be effective regardless of duration of the problem, the decision to go to surgery depends on the severity of clinical signs and how badly the animal’s quality of life is affected.  An example of this is total hip replacement for dogs with hip dysplasia.  Regardless of the degree of arthritic change, within reason, an artificial hip is likely to be successful since the arthritic joint is actually being replaced.

     We never encourage clients to have a total hip replacement performed on their dog unless the clinical signs are significant. However, if we determine a hip replacement is warranted, we prefer to proceed with surgery sooner rather than later. Why make the dog live with an uncomfortable or painful hip for an extra year when a total hip replacement yields almost immediate and excellent results?”

     Pet owners always have to consider the expense, whether the problem is negatively affecting the animal’s quality of life and whether the problem is likely to worsen to the point that surgical repair will be significantly less effective.  And regarding the anesthetic factors, in generally healthy animals anesthesia risk is minimal with today’s anesthetics and monitoring equipment.  It always is helpful to do a  presurgical blood chemistry evaluation.

     Based upon information gathered regarding the pros and cons of the situation, the ultimate choice to proceed rests with the dog owner.  Will the expected goal of the surgery weighed against the required anesthesia and chances for success of the procedure be worth the associated risks?  Should your dog be spayed?  Should that bump be removed before it progresses into a life threatening cancer?  Does that bad breath indicate a dental procedure is needed?  The right answer to these kinds of questions is achieved through understanding the risks and weighing them against the benefits… and acquiring patient data.  And even though the decision to proceed may not be as clear cut as life-saving emergency surgery on a dog run over by a logging truck, you will nevertheless have the confidence that you did the right thing to improve or ensure the quality of life for your dog or cat.

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