Image via MPH Photos/Shutterstock
By Kate Hughes
For dogs, exercise is an important part of their overall well-being. Going on walks, playing fetch, jogging, hiking—they’re all a part of the routine. But what happens when your pup has to have dog surgery and is unable to exercise? How do you provide your pup with mental stimulation without further aggravating her injury or surgical site?
Keeping your pup mentally stimulated after dog surgery is imperative to healing, regardless of whether the surgery was for a physical injury, like dog ACL surgery or dog knee surgery, or a routine dog neutering or dog spaying procedure.
Mental stimulation for dogs prevents them becoming restless, which may lead to running, jumping and other behaviors that could exacerbate injuries. Additionally, mental stimulation helps relieve post-operative stress.
“There is a relationship between stress and recovery,” says Dr. Carlo Siracusa, DVM, PhD, MS, clinical assistant professor, Behavior Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in Philadelphia. “The calmer and happier your dog is, the faster her recovery is going to be.”
While the go-to option for many pet owners looking to engage their fur friend’s mind are dog puzzle toys, depending on the type of surgery, these might not be the best option for every doggo, especially if you have to restrict food or limit their movement.
But there are other ways to ensure your dog remains mentally stimulated even if she can’t exercise.
Provide a Good View
First and foremost, dogs recovering from surgery need a comfy spot to recover, preferably with a good view.
“Dogs like to lay in places with strategic value,” Dr. Siracusa says. “They like couches not just because they’re comfy, but because they offer a vantage point. They can see doors, they can see windows, and they’re not isolated because they can keep an eye on everything. When you’re setting up a spot for your dog to recover, giving her a vantage point is important because it keeps her engaged, even if she can’t move around very easily.”
If you want to encourage your dog to stick to a certain spot, Dr. Siracusa recommends making that spot particularly cozy, using your dog’s favorite bedding and keeping that spot warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Stimulate the Mind
Chilling in front of the TV isn’t just for people who are feeling under the weather—some dogs enjoy watching television as well.
“If you can’t be home with your dog and you’re concerned that she’ll get bored without you, try turning on the TV,” says Dr. Susan Nelson, DVM, a clinical professor at Kansas State University Collect of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan, Kansas. “Even if you’re not sure that your dog will be receptive, it’s worth trying. There are many dogs out there that find ambient noise soothing, so something calming like a nature program would definitely offer some comfort.”
Dr. Nelson also says that classical music can help keep dogs calm. “There are studies that show in a shelter environment, classical music can put dogs at ease.”
Make Mealtime More Engaging
Dr. Siracusa says that keeping pups engaged with their meals for longer periods of time is another way to provide mental stimulation for dogs. This may involve a dog bowl that forces your dog to eat more slowly.
You can use a dog slow feeder, which is a dog bowl that is specifically designed to make your dog work to get to her kibbles. These dog bowls stimulate a dog’s senses and encourage pups to use problem-solving skills to get their food.
If you want to provide your dog with a special treat, you can always prepare frozen snacks for her. “Make popsicles for your dog with chicken broth, and freeze kibble or other food inside. They have to stay there and lick until that popsicle melts to get their reward,” Dr. Siracusa explains.
You can use a KONG classic dog toy and fill it up with some dog food or dog treats. You can fill an ice cube tray with a pet-safe broth, like the Honest Kitchen beef bone broth with turmeric, and freeze it for longer-lasting entertainment for your dog.
Both Dr. Siracusa and Dr. Nelson say that training your dog to perform simple tasks is a great way to keep her mentally stimulated after surgery.
“There are many different types of training,” Dr. Nelson notes. “Target training is where you teach the dog to touch objects with their noses.” Dr. Nelson recommends that people looking to train their dogs start with YouTube videos. “There are a lot of great training videos online,” she notes.
Dr. Siracusa says that the training doesn’t need to be complicated. “A treatment I recommend often is teaching ‘watch me’ or ‘touch me’ to the dog. The ‘watch me’ command requires no movement on the dog’s part, so it’s great for dog surgery recovery periods. The ‘touch me’ commands could be as simple as touching different parts of your hand with their nose. So if you’re right next to the dog, it would require very little movement.”
Go for a Ride
Even if your dog can’t go for a walk, getting him some fresh air goes a long way toward the animal’s mental health. For smaller dogs, this could involve walks in a doggy stroller, while larger ones could go for car rides.
However, if your dog finds rides—whether in a stroller or car—particularly stimulating, you may not have this option. “You have to know your dog,” Dr. Nelson says. “If your dog gets excited easily, this might not be the best option, because she’ll react to things she sees and may further injure herself.”
Know Your Dog
Dr. Nelson and Dr. Siracusa both stress that knowing your dog is the most important factor in determining the best type of mental stimulation for post-surgical healing.
“You know your dog best and can see what’s working and what isn’t,” Dr. Nelson says. “And if you find that your ideas aren’t working, go to your veterinarian and ask for advice. They know you and your animal and can help you come up with new ideas.”