How Long is the Recovery Time?

Once the surgery has been completed, “recovery time” has a number of meanings.


When I come out of the operating room to tell clients how an operation went, one of the most common questions I get is ‘How long will the recovery time be?’ says Tufts veterinary surgeon and Catnip editor-in-chief John Berg, DVM. “I always ask, ‘What do you mean by recovery? When the cat can go home? When she can eat? When the incision is going to heal?’ There are a number of time points.”

The answers vary depending to some degree on whether it’s an old cat or a young one, Dr. Berg notes. Old cats are not likely to recover as quickly. “But it’s more about what type of surgery it was,” he says. “A minor surgery like removing a benign mass from the skin is different from a major abdominal or orthopedic surgery.”

Following, some general rules of thumb on timing for post-operative healing. They don’t cover every cat in every instance. But they give a general idea.

  1. When can the endotracheal tube (breathing tube) come out? A cat has to be able to breathe on her own again once she comes out of anesthesia. The timeframe is variable, Dr. Berg says, but that generally happens 15 to 30 minutes after the surgery has been completed and the anesthesia has stopped.
  2. When can my cat be fed again? “Most cats are on intravenous fluids after surgery, but they usually can be fed by mouth again by 5 to 7 pm that evening if the surgery was conducted in the morning or even the early afternoon,” Dr. Berg says. “We typically start with small amounts of food, and the cat builds back to her usual meal size at home.”
  3. When will my cat be allowed to walk? For a minor surgery, the cat can often walk within an hour of the procedure. For a major surgery, Dr. Berg says, the cat may have to remain still till the following morning.
  4. When can my cat go home? “A lot of times, the answer to that question is ‘the same day,’” Dr. Berg says. “But again, it depends on how involved the surgery was. Sometimes a cat has to remain in the hospital for one, two, or three days. It’s mostly about pain control. We can monitor and treat pain better in the hospital than owners can do at home. We certainly don’t want to keep a cat in the hospital longer than she needs to be. If we’re confident on day one that pain control is good, we’ll send the pet home that day.”
  5. When can I take off the cone collar? “You really want to prevent licking the incision,” Dr. Berg says. “People think animals can heal themselves by licking, but that’s not really true. Bacteria from the mouth can cause an infection where the skin is healing. It’s important to keep the cone on for two weeks. Many cats dislike the collars, but they are infinitely better than the alternatives. Some infected incisions may be treated successfully with antibiotics, but more severe ones may require surgery to open the incision, flush it, and place a temporary drain.

“I want to note that a cone collar will protect an incision located in the head or neck area, but may not prevent incisions located anywhere behind the collar from being scratched by a cat’s hind legs. If the cat wants to scratch the incision,” Dr. Berg says, “the area may need to be protected with a bandage. Like the collar, the bandage can generally come off at the two-week mark.”

Check the incision daily once the cat goes home
“If you see any dramatic change in the appearance of the incision — swelling that wasn’t there before, bruising, drainage of pus or fluid — you should take a picture and send it to the veterinary clinic,” Dr. Berg says. “A picture can help the veterinarian decide whether you need to bring in the cat for an examination and possible treatment for infection. This is only for big differences in how the incision looks,” the doctor says. “Subtle changes are not an issue and don’t need to be brought to the doctor’s attention.”


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