Care of Surgical Incisions in Cats
How are surgical incisions closed?
The surface or skin layer of your cat's surgical incision may have been closed with surgical glue, sutures, or staples. The suture pattern that is used to close the skin depends on the length of the incision and how much tension is present across the incision, or on the preference of the surgeon. The sutures may be placed on the skin surface, or they may be buried beneath the skin surface using absorbable suture material. If a surgical incision extends through several layers of tissue, each layer will be closed separately, meaning there may be multiple rows of sutures (stitches) in a single incision site.
If the surgical procedure involved the removal of a large mass, repair of a large wound, or debridement (cutting away) of infected or dead tissue, the loss of tissue may result in a surgical incision that is under a lot of tension. Excessive tension across an incision line may cause the wound to gape open and delay healing. To minimize the tension on the incision line, your veterinarian may have used a special tension-relieving suture pattern, or a type of skin suture called a stent suture where some tubing or a button may be added to the skin layer.
"Excessive tension across an incision line may cause the wound to gape open and delay healing."
If the surgical site was contaminated or infected before surgery, a surgical drain may have been placed within the incision to drain away any infectious material.
Are the post-operative care instructions the same for each type of incision?
The general instructions for incision care are the same for all surgical incisions.
Under no circumstances should a cat with a fresh surgical incision be allowed to go outdoors. Restrict your cat's activity for 7-14 days to allow the incision to begin healing. Do not allow your cat to jump or engage in any strenuous activity that could cause excessive stretching of the surgical incision, especially in the first few days after the operation. Too much activity may cause the sutures to break apart or cause the incision to bleed. Your veterinarian may recommend cage-rest or confinement in a small room.
Do not bathe your cat or allow the incision to get wet. Do not apply any cream, ointment, disinfectant, or other substance to the incision unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian. NEVER clean the incision with hydrogen peroxide or alcohol, as these products will damage the cells and delay healing.
"Do not allow your cat to lick or scratch the incision..."
Do not allow your cat to lick or scratch the incision, as he may pull the sutures out and could introduce an infection into the incision.
If the incision is not bandaged, inspect it at least twice daily. If a surgical drain was placed, you may be instructed to clean the drain several times per day. Your veterinarian will tell you when to return to the clinic to have the drain removed.
What should the incision look like?
The incision should be clean and the edges should be touching each other. The skin should be a normal or slightly reddish-pink color. It is not unusual for the incision to be slightly redder during the first few days while healing begins. In pale-skinned cats, bruising is often seen around the surgical site. This may not appear until a few days after the operation and can sometimes appear expansive compared to the size of the incision. This is due to blood seepage under the skin edges and is normal.
In some cases, a small amount of blood may seep intermittently from a fresh incision in the first 24 hours, especially if your cat is active.
What should I be concerned about?
Contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice:
- continuous dripping or seepage of blood or other fluids from the incision
- intermittent blood seepage that continues for more than 24 hours
- swelling, excessive redness of the skin, foul smells, or discharge
- your cat has removed some or all of the sutures
What should I do if my cat keeps licking or chewing at the incision?
If your cat persists in licking or chewing at the incision, he may need to wear an Elizabethan collar (cone) to prevent this behavior (see handout “Elizabethan Collars in Cats” for more information). Many cats find these collars strange at first and will attempt to remove them. However, with patience and positive reinforcement, most cats will settle down and tolerate wearing the collar in a short time. Depending on the location, a surgical recovery garment that covers the incision may be worn as an alternative. Your veterinarian can advise you on the most suitable option for your cat.
When do the sutures need to be removed?
If your cat’s incision was closed with sutures that were buried beneath the skin surface, they do not require removal. If your cat’s incision has non-dissolving sutures, staples, or stent sutures, they are usually removed 10-14 days after surgery; the actual time depends on the type of surgery performed. Your veterinarian will tell you when to return to the clinic for suture or staple removal.
When can my cat resume normal activities?
In the case of a minor procedure involving a small incision, exercise restriction should be maintained for a few days after sutures are removed. If your cat underwent major surgery or has a large incision, a longer recovery period will be required and may involve keeping your cat housebound for several weeks. Your veterinarian will give you detailed instructions on how long you should restrict your cat's activities following surgery.
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