Enrichment for Dogs Post-Surgery

Unlocking the Joy: Enrichment Ideas to Aid Dogs’ Post-Surgery Recovery

When I was a vet tech, one of the (many) things that led me to move from a medical field to a behavioral one was watching clients and their pets truly struggle during the post-surgery or post-treatment period. And after years of comforting clients as they cried, vented, or ranted about how difficult and draining their pet’s post-surgery recovery was, I realized that a big part of why it’s so difficult is that they weren’t really prepared for it. They didn’t know what to expect. “Ah!” I thought, “We can help with that!”

When someone’s pet needs surgery or a major treatment, all of their focus is on getting through the procedure: How will it go? Will it be successful? There’s a sense of relief when they pick up their beloved companion from the vet and drive them home–a feeling that – whew! – it’s over! In reality, their journey has just begun.

We can’t explain to dogs that they are in post-surgery recovery and that they need to slow their roll and take it easy. They may want to go go go and it’s never fun to have to be the person who has to tell them to stop stop stop when they don’t understand why we’re thwarting their grand plans. Fortunately for us, however, the post-surgery recovery period doesn’t have to be miserable. We can create an enrichment plan that addresses their behavioral and emotional health while their physical health is on the mend. Even better: we can do it in a way that is fun and fulfilling for everyone involved!

Collaborate With Your Vet On the Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment Plan

First things first: we need to make sure that everything you do is approved by your vet. Each situation and dog is unique, so bear in mind that all the ideas and recommendations we’ll discuss in this article come with the big asterisk that *all post-surgery recovery enrichment plans should be supervised by your vet.

Before your dog goes in for whatever procedure they’re getting, ask your vet clear, specific questions about the post-surgery recovery process:

  • Is my dog a candidate for working with a veterinary physical therapist? If so, is there one you recommend?
  • Approximately how long will the post-surgery recovery process take?
  • What activities is my dog allowed to do? How long can they do those activities? How many times per day?
  • What activities should my dog absolutely not do? How long should they not do them?
  • What signs should I expect to see if my dog is recovering well? What will the recovery process look like?
  • What signs should I look for to know if my dog is overdoing it?

Predictability is half the battle, so having a clear picture of what you can and cannot do, and how long you can expect to be in the post-surgery recovery process, goes a long way towards improving your morale.

Nutritional Adjustment As a Part of Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment

Another thing to discuss with your vet is your dog’s diet. Ask them if your dog’s nutritional needs will change as they recover. Here are some questions you and your vet can discuss as you prepare for your dog’s post-surgery recovery plan:

  • Are there any particular supplements or nutriceuticals that my dog would benefit from during their recovery period?
  • Will they be burning significantly more or fewer calories during the recovery period? Should I adjust the amount of food I’m giving them?
  • Will they benefit from a shift in their protein-carb-fat ratio during the recovery period? Is there a particular diet you’d recommend that I switch them to during the recovery period?

While I will again emphasize that there is no blanket recommendation that makes sense for all dogs in the post-surgery recovery process, I will say that I have seen dogs benefit from adjusting their dietary intake during their recovery period to better address the temporary change in their nutritional needs.

Muscle Manipulation As a Part of Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment

One of the most overlooked aspects of a post-surgery recovery enrichment plan, in my opinion, is taking into consideration how uncomfortable reduced physical activity can be. If you’ve ever experienced being on restricted physical activity, you know how stiff and painful your muscles and joints can feel. Now imagine being a dog and living with that discomfort without understanding why it’s happening or how to alleviate it. Of course they’re climbing the walls! 

It makes sense that one of the hardest things about having dogs in post-surgery recovery is that they have lots of energy to burn, but they’re not allowed to burn it. So how can we help them feel like they’ve worked out when they aren’t allowed to actually work out?

There are two primary options I typically use:

  1. Work with a veterinary physical therapist. They will give you PT exercises to do with your dog that can alleviate a lot of that discomfort from inactivity. You’ll also learn ways that your dog can move their body that still fall within the constraints your veterinarian has given you, such as Range of Motion exercises or Hydrotherapy to help your dog maintain their joint flexibility and muscle tone as much as possible during recovery.
  2. Massage. Yep, that’s right! If there is a canine massage therapist in your area and in your budget, that’s always an option. But you don’t have to know a lot about massage to help your pup. The internet has lots of free resources that offer some great tips on how to give your dog a massage, such as this fantastic video by Upward Dog Rehab. Just be careful to avoid any ouchie areas that are close to the surgical site–and as always, listen to your dog! They’ll tell you with their body language if they’re enjoying the massage or saying “no thank you”.

I still get goosebumps when I think back to clients whose dogs in post-surgery recovery were almost frantic before a massage, and then after the massage they were just melty puddles of relaxation.

That said, dogs have to learn how to receive a massage. I know that might sound odd, but until they’ve learned the routine it can sometimes be hard for them to learn how to lie still when it’s massage time. If you have the ability to start giving them massages before whatever procedure they’re going to get, that can help a lot.

If not, though, that’s also ok! Lickimats are a great way to get your dog to lie down and be still long enough for a massage to get underway, and then it usually doesn’t take them long to figure out the routine.

Mental Exercise As a Part of Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment

During the recovery process, dogs may experience discomfort, pain, and boredom. Engaging their minds through enrichment activities can help distract them from their physical discomfort and prevent potential behavioral issues that may arise from boredom or frustration. By keeping their minds stimulated, we can unlock the joy in their recovery, making it a better experience for everyone involved.

I might sound like a broken record, but this is super important: before diving into specific enrichment ideas, it’s crucial to understand the limitations and needs of a dog recovering from surgery. Each dog’s recovery will be unique, depending on the type of surgery or treatment they underwent and their individual health condition. It’s essential to consult with your veterinarian to understand any restrictions or modifications necessary before trying any of the ideas listed below.

Here are some ways to incorporate mental exercise into your dog’s post-surgery recovery enrichment plan:

  1. Puzzle toys: Puzzle toys can be a fantastic way to challenge your dog’s problem-solving skills and keep their mind engaged. Look for puzzle toys that are appropriate for your dog’s size, difficulty level, play style, and texture preferences. In order for these toys to actually function as mental exercise, however, they need to either teach your dog a new skill, level up an existing skill, or require some effort at applying a well-rehearsed skill. Giving your dog a puzzle they’ve solved a million times and can do in a couple of minutes isn’t much mental exercise at all, is it? Toys like the Pet Zone IQ Treat Ball can be a great option because it has several levels of difficulty built in as your dog gets more proficient at using it. For some ideas on how to provide DIY puzzles using common household items that have real staying power in terms of providing a mental challenge for your dog, you can read our blog article on this topic.
  2. Scent games: Dogs have an incredible sense of smell, and engaging their noses can provide mental stimulation and give them some measure of control in their daily routine while they otherwise are living under extraordinary restrictions. One easy way to do this is by giving your dog a snuffle mat or scattering treats in your yard, depending on your dog’s needs and your environmental opportunities. Another option is to hide treats or toys around the house and encourage your dog to find them using their sense of smell. You can start with simple hiding spots and gradually increase the difficulty level as your dog gets more comfortable.
  3. Training Games: There are lots of games that we can teach our dogs that will really give their noggin a challenge. Some of our favorites that don’t involve a lot of physical activity include: 101 Things To Do With a Box, Match To Sample, or Care With Consent–because why not use this opportunity to teach something practical? Care With Consent is particularly useful if the post-surgery recovery process includes medication administration, wound care, or body handling that your dog doesn’t enjoy. Training them how to voluntarily participate in – or at least have a say in – the medical care component of their recovery will not only provide mental exercise, but also make the experience more joyful for both of you!

Remember to observe your dog closely throughout these activities, especially if they have limited mobility or strength. It’s important to adjust the difficulty level of the activities to match your dog’s abilities, energy levels, and the parameters that were given to you by your veterinary team.


Long-Term Calming Projects As a Part of Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment

We on the Pet Harmony team use the umbrella term “long-term calming projects” to refer to any object we can give to a dog that they will lay there and work on for quite some time–and, most importantly, that by doing so we see them get more relaxed in the process. These are important because they can become a signal to the dog that the exciting part of their routine has come to an end, and it’s time for them to settle down and rest now.

If you have the opportunity to incorporate these into your dog’s routine before the surgery or procedure, they’ll be better at relaxing with a long-term calming project during the post-surgery recovery period. But if not, that’s ok! Just like massage, they can learn the routine pretty quickly. 

Since every dog is an individual with individual preferences and needs, we can’t tell you what kind of long-term calming project your dog is going to prefer and will be safest and most appropriate for them. But here are a list of some of the ones we’ve found to be the most popular with the dogs we’ve worked with:

  • Frozen stuffed kongs
  • Frozen stuffed marrow bones
  • Butcher bones
  • Himalayan Chews
  • Frozen lickimats
  • CET chews
  • Nylabones
  • Mammoth Tirebiters
  • Antlers, hooves, and horns

I probably don’t need to say it again, but I’m going to anyway: check with your vet to make sure that whatever long-term calming project you’re planning to use is actually in alignment with the parameters the vet gave you for their post-surgery recovery.

And remember: the best long-term calming project in the world isn’t going to be very successful as a calming project if we’re asking them to relax in a busy, noisy environment. So make sure they have a safe, quiet, low-light place to go to work on their long-term calming project.

Creating Your Post-Surgery Recovery Enrichment Routine

Predictability reduces anxiety, and this is particularly true when your dog is anxious because their regular routine has been disrupted by post-surgery recovery constraints. Additionally, any time you can create a cycle of increasing activity followed by decreasing activity, your dog will be more likely to rest well and fully when it’s time for them to do so.

Once you and your veterinary team have identified how often and how long your dog’s daily activity periods need to be, you can arrange them into a cycle that allows for that ramping up of energy and then gradual ramping back down again. It could look something like this:

  • Potty break
  • PT or other approved physical activity
  • Mental exercise activity
  • Massage
  • Long-term calming project in their safe space

By letting them complete their stress response cycle in a positive way, they are more likely to experience a happier, faster, and better recovery–and you’ll enjoy the process more, too!

Now What?

If you have a dog who is currently or will soon be in the post-surgery recovery process, remember that you are not alone! If you see some ideas for their post-surgery recovery enrichment plan that you think they’ll like, but won’t work for xyz reason, you can always work with someone on our team to help you to troubleshoot. Sometimes it takes experience to identify how to modify a plan to make it work!

4 thoughts on “Enrichment for Dogs Post-Surgery

  1. I’ve had several vets steer me away from things like antlers and bones that are too hard (ie bison), because they can and absolutely do break or chip their teeth on them. It can also wear them down faster than normal which can be an issue as they age. Do you have a comment on this topic?
    Thank you, and love the tips! My pup just had to get his toenail removed and quick trimmed back. He’s naturally high energy so it’s been tough.

    1. Hi Clara! That’s a great question! While it is true that harder chew toys carry an element of risk – because everything does, and nothing is 100% risk free – we believe in the profound importance of people learning how to do risk assessments for the individual animal in front of them, because level of risk really depends on a complex combination of many factors.

      It is important to listen to your vet–and also, it’s important to remember that all humans, everywhere, no matter who they are or how much experience and expertise they have, are subject to a cognitive bias called a “selection bias”. In other words, our personal experiences with the selection of the population we’ve encountered skew our perspective about the whole population. When people work in a caregiving profession like veterinary medicine, they are most susceptible to a type of selection bias called the “failure bias”, because the selection of the population they’re encountering most often is the one where the attempt or procedure failed.

      For example, when I was a vet tech I was vehemently opposed to a raw diet because the overwhelming majority of raw fed animals I encountered were the ones where a raw diet went horribly wrong, and the animal was severely ill. It wasn’t until I started working as a pet sitter, and then later as a behavior consultant, that I started seeing a different population, where animals were thriving on a raw diet. That gave me a broader perspective of both the potential risks and the potential benefits of a raw diet and helped me to realize that my former opposition to raw feeding was the result of a failure bias.

      Likewise, most vets are operating under a failure bias about hard chews, too, and for the same reason! They usually only see the outcomes of when it goes wrong!

      Their experience is valid and we should definitely take those risks into consideration, while also remembering that their perspective is impacted by the population of animals they interact with.

      So at the end of the day, you’re the only one who can weigh the risks and benefits of each option at your disposal and make an educated guess as to which one is going to be the best decision for your dog. You know your dog, the health of their teeth, the vigor and duration of their engagement with chew toys, their chewing behavioral patterns, their texture preferences, and so many other factors in your household and environment, better than anyone!

  2. Emily, I love this response, because it is so accurate. I’ve been vet nursing for 20 years and seen many things, but as you have mentioned above, whenever I recommend bones, I remind clients that each individual dog is different, and you need to risk assess to see if feeding bones (for example) to them is a safe option. I used to feed bones to my previous dog all his life, until he was older and started getting lazy and chewing off big chunks of bones and swallowing them. Thankfully, he would vommit then back up and they didn’t cause an obstruction, but that’s when I had to make the decision to stop feeding bones. It is so important to monitor your pets. 💛

    1. Absolutely, Teesh! That’s a wonderful example of when the risk used to be lower, and then something changed that made the risk no longer tenable. I experienced a similar situation with our dog, Copper. Marrow bones used to be his best and favorite chew toy to complete his stress response cycle and melt into his relaxation station. But when he was 14, he had dental surgery that involved multiple extractions (not as a result of the bone chewing, but as a result of dental disease). After that surgery, it no longer became safe for him to use marrow bones, so now they aren’t an appropriate enrichment item for him. All of life is basically just one big risk-benefit analysis!

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