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10 Questions To Ask Before Your Pet's Surgery

Posted December 22, 2014 in Dog Surgery A-Z

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a mobile, board-certified surgeon in Allentown, PA. Find him online at He is the co-author of “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound” (

Chris Longenecker, a Certified Veterinary Technician in Reading, PA, contributed to this article.Pet parents checking in at the vet

It is always surprising to me that some clients are not sure of their pet’s diagnosis, or what risks are involved. This is critical, and you should make sure you understand your pet’s condition so you can be better informed and prepared. Here are 10 questions to guide your discussion with your family vet or surgeon.

1. What is my pet’s specific diagnosis?
Always ask your family vet or your surgeon for the exact name and spelling of the diagnosis. It is not always easy to understand or remember, so get it in writing. Seriously, who can remember (and spell) “Legg-Perthes disease” (a condition of the hip) or “hepatic microvascular dysplasia” (a liver condition)? If a biopsy has been performed, ask for a copy of the pathologist’s report. 

Now, in some cases, we have to be humble and acknowledge that we are simply not sure about the diagnosis. That’s OK as long as you understand the possibilities - good or bad. When thereareseveral possibilities, ask your vet to write them down (legibly).

2. What are the treatment options?
It is important that you understand all of your options when it comes to your pet’s treatment. Vets, whether generalists or specialists, will tend to recommend the best solution in their mind. Most of the time, that’s what you should consider doing.

However, there may be a plan B or C or D. What are those options? Why aren’t they as good?

Some treatments are called “medical” or “conservative.” In the case of a fractured bone, this would mean placing a splint or cast. The opposite is called “surgical” treatment. With a fracture, this could mean repairing the broken bone with a metal plate and some screws.  Most of the time, there are fairly clear reasons to choose one versus the other, and you need to understand them.

Another example is a dog with hip dysplasia and arthritis. There are many ways to treat this common condition, medically or surgically.  Your vet’s or your surgeon’s job is to discuss each option with you, along with the pros and the cons, so you can make an informed decision.
And if your pet has cancer, you need to understand the risks and benefits of surgery and/or chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy.

3. Complications and Risks
Always ask your vet about possible risks and complications of a particular surgery. Every single procedure has potential risks. No exception. As you can imagine, removing a fatty tumor under the skin doesn’t quite involve the same risks as removing a brain tumor.

If your doctor claims to have no complications, I’m sorry to say… you should run away! An honest, humble vet or surgeon should be willing to explain the risks, both in theory and from personal experience.  We may not like talking about complications, but we owe it to you and your pet to discuss risks openly.
We typically describe:

  • Minor complications, which include swelling, bruising, and oozing. Those are natural consequences of many surgeries. They come with the territory.
  • Serious complications, including opening up of the incision, infection or severe bleeding.
  • Catastrophic complications such as complete failure of a surgery.

Anesthesia has its own set of possible complications. Please refer to our blogs on this topic: "5 Questions To Ask Before Anesthesia" and "5 (More) Questions To Ask Before Anesthesia." 

4. How many have you done?
Ouch… this is a tricky topic…  Young doctors might get offended by this question. To be perfectly honest, I used to feel insulted when clients would ask this question when I was a younger surgeon!  Now I know better.  It’s a legitimate question.

Don’t be afraid to offend someone.  As your pet’s best advocate, you really should know how many similar procedures your doctor has performed. Hopefully, it makes sense that a vet who has done 1,000 spays or 1,000 TPLOs or 1,000 brain surgeries will have more experience and know-how when treating your pet.

5. Prognosis
What is the prognosis or likely outcome of surgery? In the case of cancerous tumors, you need to understand a little bit about statistics. When we say that a patient might live an average of 1 year after removing a specific tumor, what does that mean?
It means that scientific studies looked at say 100 dogs and studied how long they survived. On average, they may have lived 1 year. However, some lived less (2 days) and some lived more (2 years). So please understand that the numbers you hear are only an indication of possible survival. It’s merely an average.

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Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and author. His traveling practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. You can visit his website at, and follow him at