One of my favourite stories about surgeons comes from a book by Irwin W. Sherman called "The Power of Plagues." In the pre-anesthesia and pre-antibiotic era, speed was considered the sign of a good surgeon. One surgeon, Robert Liston, was particularly renowned for his speed. However, speed sometimes lead to problems. In one surgery, he amputated a leg in 2.5 minutes, but the patient died of infection after surgery (a common event those days). During surgery, he accidentally amputated the finger of his assistant as well, who also subsequently died of infection. To top it off, he slashed the coattails of a surgeon who was watching, who "died of fright" thinking his organs had been slashed too. He’s the only surgeon on record with a 300% mortality rate for a surgery.
These days, surgery is a lot more humane and safe. However, problems like surgical site infections still occur. They occur following a much smaller percentage of surgeries than they used to, but they can still be very serious. Nowadays, more of these infections are being caused by multidrug resistant bacteria, which can affect and be transmitted between both animals and people. It’s been stated that the time of maximal influence on surgical site infections beings and ends in the operating room (e.g. the most critical time for preventing infection is during the surgery itself). However, there are things that can be done at home to help reduce the risk of infection.
- Antibiotics are usually NOT required after surgery, depending on what procedure was performed. But, if antibiotics are prescribed by your veterinarian, make sure you give the full course and follow all instructions carefully.
- Keep your pet from licking the surgery site. Trauma from licking and chewing, and bacteria from the mouth can help start an infection. If your pet is licking or chewing its surgery site, consult with your vet about ways to stop this.
- Keep an eye on the surgery site. If you see signs of infection such as excess heat, pain, redness, swelling or discharge from the site, talk to your vet as soon as possible.
- Don’t touch the surgery site. You could contaminate the site with bacteria from your skin that could start an infection. Also, if an infection is present, bacteria could spread to you. If you must touch the surgical site (e.g. if you need to change the bandage over it, or your veterinarian has instructed you to clean the site), you should wear disposable gloves.