Six Myths About Surgery

By: Shawn Messonnier, DVM

TVMA Member
Plano, TX

Published January 2016

At some time in their lives, most pets will have one or more surgical procedures. This could be spaying/neutering, a dental cleaning or the removal of a tumor or wart. Because surgery involves the risk of anesthesia and other procedures, pet owners often have anxieties about their pets’ surgeries. This article will address six of the more common myths associated with pet surgery.

Myth 1: Your pet is too old for surgery.

Age itself is not a disease. A pet is never too old to undergo surgery. However, you may decide not to have a surgery performed on an older pet for other reasons. For example, a 15-year-old Labrador retriever with hip dysplasia and arthritis might be a candidate for a total hip replacement surgery. You may decide against it due to the cost of the procedure, amount of post-operative physical therapy required and the fact that this pet has already lived to the end of his life expectancy. Overall, with modern anesthetics, anesthetic monitoring and analgesic (pain-relieving) medications, senior pets do very well with their surgery and have few to no negative post-operative effects.

Myth 2: You should wait to spay or neuter your puppy or kitten.

Early spaying and neutering have several health and behavioral benefits for puppies and kittens. Females spayed before their first heat have almost no chance of developing breast cancer later in life. Males that are neutered have no chance of developing testicular diseases and a reduced chance of developing most prostatic diseases and perianal tumors. From a behavioral perspective, early spaying and neutering usually reduces aggression between pets and reduces the chances of behavioral urine and fecal marking in the house. Pets who don’t undergo the procedures may miss out on the positive benefits of early sterilization.

Myth 3: There is such thing as a “routine” surgery.

Speaking of spaying and neutering, it is all too common for many pet owners to consider these surgeries as “routine.” I have never seen a “routine” surgery, as they are all different. Doctors rarely know exactly what will be involved until they are performing the procedure. While spaying and neutering are commonly performed procedures, they, like all other surgical procedures, should never be viewed as routine. In any surgical case, there is always the potential for some unexpected complication.

Myth 4: All tumors should be removed.

While an early diagnosis of cancerous tumors is extremely beneficial, not all tumors are cancerous, and not all tumors need to be removed. The first step in deciding whether to remove a tumor or other growth is to identify it. If it is cancerous, it certainly should be removed. Determining the type of growth is done through a needle aspirate (using a small needle to collect a sample of the tissue) or a biopsy. After identifying its type, we can make a thoughtful decision.

Here are the guidelines I use to help pet owners determine if and when a growth or tumor should be removed:

  • Any growth that is large enough to aspirate with a small needle and syringe should be aspirated and the contents of the aspirate should be examined microscopically.
  • If the tumor is benign, such as a fatty tumor or cyst, but it is large, growing or bothering the pet or the owner, schedule surgery to remove it.
  • If the aspirate shows a malignant cancer, it should be removed surgically.
  • If the aspirate is non-diagnostic, it should be removed surgically and biopsied.

Any surgically removed lesion that has been shown to be cancerous or for which a diagnosis was not made using aspiration cytology should be sent to a pathologist for further microscopic examination and definitive diagnosis.

It is often unnecessary to remove small benign lesions. In most cases, your veterinarian will simply recommend you monitor these types of lesions and have them rechecked if any growth in size or change in appearance is noted. However, if your pet is scheduled to have another anesthetic procedure performed, such as a dental cleaning, it is often a good time to have a benign lesion removed.

Myth 5: It’s okay to wait for a tumor to grow before removing it.

Unless an aspirate of the tumor has been examined microscopically, all tumors should be viewed as potentially malignant until proven otherwise. When small in size, tumors are much easier to remove, surgery is often much less complicated, and recovery is faster. Removing tumors when they are small may actually cure the cancer without the need for chemotherapy or radiation. Therefore, unless we know that the tumor is benign and unlikely to hurt the pet, it should be immediately removed rather than waiting for it to grow.

Myth 6: Pain medication is not necessary for most surgeries.

Pain (analgesic) medication should be used whenever we know or suspect a pet may feel pain. For the majority of animal surgeries, some type of analgesic medication should be given. The best way to use pain medication is through preemptive analgesia and multimodal analgesia. Preemptive analgesia involves administering the medication before pain occurs. (It is much easier to control pain before it starts.) Typically, this means giving the pet medication prior to the start of surgery. Multimodal analgesia involves giving the pet several different classes of medications, such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), opioids and local anesthetics. Each of these medications works to relieve pain via different mechanisms and, when used in combination, helps to achieve a high level of pain control. Naturopathic medications, such as herbs and homeopathics, are also frequently used to aid in pain relief. Additional pain medication should be given for a minimum of several days following any surgical procedure to ensure your pet stays comfortable once he or she is at home.

There are many myths surrounding surgery in our pets. Talk to your veterinarian so that you, armed with the proper information, can make the best decision about your pet’s health care needs.

Shawn Messonnier, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. He lives in Plano, Texas and practices at Paws & Claws Animal hospital and Holistic Pet Center.