Cat Behaviour After Surgery: What to Expect

Most cats undergo surgery at some point in their life which may be elective or non-elective. Elective surgery such as spay and neuter or dental surgery is planned in advance and is not an immediate emergency. Non-elective surgery on the other hand is surgery that must be performed as soon as possible and may include trauma or surgery to remove an aggressive cancerous tumour.

Cats who have had minor procedures will be discharged the same day, but more complicated surgeries will require the cat remain hospitalised for a few days to enable monitoring and post-surgery care.  At the time of discharge, the veterinarian will provide a discharge sheet with information on what to expect, how to care for your cat and administer prescribed medications.

Common behaviour after surgery

Most surgery is performed under general anesthesia, which is a combination of medications used to render the cat unconscious for the duration of surgery. Cats who are discharged the same day will still be groggy, clumsy on their feet, sleep more, and may even vomit. All of this is entirely normal.

Cats may sleep considerably more in the first 24 – 48 hours post-surgery as the effects of anesthesia wear off and their body heals. Keep the cat confined to a quiet room with a soft, comfortable bed, food, water and litter tray. A laundry or bathroom is ideal as they can be easily cleaned if the cat vomits or has diarrhea.

Groggy cat post dental surgery
Norman had significant dental work recently and was extremely groggy for 48 hours due to the effects of anesthesia and analgesics.

Soft stools can occur due to the effects of anesthesia and medications, however, diarrhea is not normal post-surgery and the veterinarian should be notified. If the diarrhea is mild, they may recommend a bland diet, more severe cases may require medical treatment, or in some cases, the cat will be re-admitted to provide supportive care.

A cat’s personality can temporarily or permanently change after surgery. Withdrawal, clinginess or even aggression can manifest post-surgery due to pain and medications. These behaviour changes are short-lived and the cat’s personality will return to normal as he or she recovers. Cats who have experienced chronic pain may become more happier and social after surgery. Spaying and neutering eliminate sexual behaviours, male cats roam and fight less once they have been neutered and female cats will no longer experience estrus.

Types of surgery and what to expect

Below are a few common types of surgery and what to expect once the cat returns home.

Dental surgery

Most cats will be discharged the same day as surgery and will experience some oral pain, bleeding and a brown/red discharge. Along with the effects of the anesthesia, the cat may paw at the mouth and refuse food for the first 24-48 hours. Soft food that has been lightly warmed up can help entice the cat to eat and is gentler on the mouth than dry food.

Perineal urethrostomy

A perineal urethrostomy is a surgical procedure performed on male cats who have had recurrent bouts of urinary obstruction. This occurs when mucus plugs, crystals or stones become lodged in the urethra, the thin tube that passes from the bladder to the tip of the penis. Frequent urination, blood in the urine and urine dribbling are common for 3 – 5 days after surgery due to inflammation. If necessary, confine the cat to a laundry or bathroom with tiles, which will make cleaning up easier.

Orthopedic surgery

Broken bones or joint repair surgeries typically require a few days in hospital to manage pain and potential complications. The cat will require cage rest once he or she returns home to keep them running, jumping or climbing. Any movement beyond a few steps to the litter tray risks damaging the repaired bones or joints.

Desexing (neutering) surgery

The most common type of surgery, desexing involves removing the uterus and ovaries in female cats, and the testicles of males. Kittens bounce back extremely quickly, in fact, sometimes this can be a problem as they don’t realise they need to let their body heal for the first few days after surgery. Confine the kitten to a small room or dog crate to help tamper down their exuberance.

Elizabethan collar

broken leg in cats
Cat with a broken leg wearing an Elizabethan collar

The cat may be sent home with an Elizabethan collar (e-collar), to protect the incision site from self-trauma. Most tolerate the Elizabethan collar well, however, some will resent it and do everything in their power to remove it. Elizabethan collars can make it difficult for cats to eat, drink or get comfortable. If your cat is struggling to accept his or her e-collar, speak to your veterinarian about alternatives such as inflatable cuffs or body suits which are more cat-friendly and better tolerated.

How to keep a cat from jumping after surgery

Some cats bounce back quickly after surgery which can pose a risk to the surgery site. Cats should not be allowed to jump until their body has fully healed. Keep the cat confined to a small room away from furniture he or she can jump onto, or rent/buy a dog crate to confine the cat.

Cat not eating after surgery

Inappetance is common after surgery as anesthesia and pain can both affect the cat’s appetite. Loss of appetite should resolve after 24 hours. Hand-feed warm chicken breast, or small ‘gourmet’ pouches of cat food. It is better to feed small meals often during recovery.

Refusing to eat after dental surgery is common due to oral discomfort. Soft food is more gentle on the mouth and has a higher water content. Do not be alarmed if your cat has blood-tinged saliva after dental surgery, this is completely normal. It can take up to 7 days for a cat to recover from dental surgery. My cat recently had extensive dental surgery and still hadn’t eaten almost 48 hours after surgery. Dine Creamy Treats helped turn this around which I gently squeezed onto his tongue to give him a taste.

Water intake can be encouraged by offering small amounts of tuna water. Fluids can be administered with a syringe if the cat is refusing all fluids. Your veterinarian can provide instructions on how to do, to ensure it is carried out safely. If not done correctly, water can aspirate into the lungs.

If the cat is still refusing food and water after 24 hours, contact your veterinarian.

Cat not using the litter box after surgery

Most cats will urinate normally after surgery, with the exception of cats who have had a perineal urethrostomy. Anesthesia and analgesics and reluctance to drink post-surgery can cause constipation. Cats may not pass a bowel movement 3 – 5 days after surgery. Encouraging the cat to drink water and eat wet food can help. Consult with your veterinarian if your cat is straining to in the litter tray or has not passed a bowel movement after 4 – 5 days. They will be able to prescribe medications to encourage defecation.

Non-recognition aggression

Cats may experience aggression from household cats when they return home from surgery. The trigger is still not entirely understood but is thought to be due to the unfamiliar smell, or worse, the vet smell, which can trigger anxiety. This behaviour typically lasts less than 24 hours, but the recuperating cat should be kept apart from the aggressor(s).

Non-recognition behaviour in cats
The brown cat on the left is acting aggressively toward the seal point cat on the right who has just returned from the vet.

Incision care

Surgery involves making an incision and usually stitches. Keep the area clean and dry and check the incision site twice a day. Seek veterinary attention immediately if you notice bleeding, oozing, swelling or redness, and do not apply anything to the site unless instructed to do so.

The veterinarian may have inserted a Penrose drain near the surgical site which helps facilitate the healing process by removing fluid and air from the area, while discharge is normal, it should not have a foul odour.

Medications

Unless the surgery was minor, the veterinarian will discharge the cat with painkillers and/or antibiotics. Always read the label and administer as prescribed. Some medications will need to be stored in a refrigerator to maintain their freshness and effectiveness. Store on the top shelf away from small children.

One person should be in charge of medicating the cat to prevent an accidental double-up of medication. Store your cat’s medication out of reach of pets and children and away from human medications.

Never administer human medications, which include painkillers to your cat unless the veterinarian has instructed you to do so. Most medicines safe for humans are toxic to cats due to their unique metabolism and can be fatal.

When to call the veterinarian

Most cats will have a smooth recovery after surgery, however, sometimes it will be necessary to follow up with the veterinarian, this may include:

  • Refusal to eat after 24 hours
  • Bleeding, redness, oozing or swelling of the surgical site
  • Vomiting more than once
  • Diarrhea
  • Not passing a stool after 24 hours
  • No signs of improvement after 48 hours

Author

  • Julia Wilson, 'Cat World' Founder

    Julia Wilson is the founder of Cat-World, and has researched and written over 1,000 articles about cats. She is a cat expert with over 20 years of experience writing about a wide range of cat topics, with a special interest in cat health, welfare and preventative care. Julia lives in Sydney with her family, four cats and two dogs. Full author bio