Many aspects of small animal surgery mimic human surgery, albeit on a smaller scale. For example, many clinics have a surgery suite where veterinary technicians help with anesthesia and prep; electronic devices monitor heart rate, blood oxygen levels and blood pressure; and gowned, masked veterinary surgeons preside. But what if your animal is too big for the surgical suite? What happens when your cow or goat needs surgery? Here’s how it works.
You might be surprised to know the types of surgeries that are frequently and successfully done on the farm. Over the next three months, we’ll talk about some commonly encountered large animal surgeries, but before we get into details, let’s talk about the farmer’s role. Farm animal surgery might appear vastly different from cat and dog surgery in the clinic, but it adheres to the same principles of hygiene and animal welfare. Also know that rather than a team of technicians, your veterinarian might look to you for an extra hand.
Preparation for a Procedure
Depending on the length and involvement of the surgical procedure, your veterinarian might ask you to keep your animal off feed or pasture the night before (although water is OK). This is usually done when an animal is placed under full anesthesia and laid on the ground. For ruminants, restricting feed decreases the amount of bulk in the rumen and can help prevent bloat or regurgitation during and after surgery.
Keeping your animal in a stall or small indoor pen overnight, if possible, helps control its feed intake as well as helps keep it clean, dry and easily caught the next day.
The Day of Surgery
Three important aspects to consider when picking a surgery site on your farm are: space, light and cleanliness. For smaller livestock such as sheep, goats and alpacas, a stall or even the aisle of your barn might provide adequate space, while larger animals such as horses require much wider areas like pens or corrals. Some surgical procedures are done with the animal under sedation and still standing; this requires less space than when an animal is under anesthesia and lying flat out. Cattle often require a form of sturdy restraint such as a chute to safely work; some large dairy farms even have hydraulic tilt tables to restrain a cow on her side. These tables are typically used for involved hoof care.
Adequate lighting is the next important consideration. Depending on your farm setup and the weather, many procedures can be done outside in the daylight. Indoors, light requirements take more attention. The more overhead lights and lanterns, the better; sometimes in a dark corner, you might have flashlight duty. Some vets bring their own headlamps, for bright, focused illumination.
To accommodate cleanliness, choose a surgical site that is dry and free of excess debris. Depending on the flooring, especially if it’s dirt or loose grit, a clean drop cloth or tarp can help. Scour the area and remove items that could pose tripping or tangling hazards for humans or animals. This includes wheelbarrows, shovels, pitchforks, wires and buckets.
Other helpful tips for a vet- and animal-friendly surgical site include easy access to water for washing, a convenient trash receptacle, and available extension cords for extra lights and the use of clippers.
Surgical aftercare varies by the procedure but a few tenets are the same: keep the animal quiet and in a moderately small, uncluttered space as it comes out of sedation or anesthesia. Animals in this situation are wobbly and disoriented to varying degrees depending on the drugs used. Never trust a sedated animal—it might appear dopey but a sudden loud noise or movement might startle it and elicit a response far out of proportion to the cause. Always treat sedated animals with patience and in a calm, quiet manner.
Ask your vet when the animal can have food after surgery. Also go over pain management, follow-up care, healing process expectations and timeline. If this is the first surgery you’ve experienced on your farm, have a notebook on hand for the post-surgery debrief and also for writing down questions ahead of time to make sure you don’t forget to ask something. Planning ahead as much as possible can make an on-farm surgery feel practically routine.