Special Considerations for Surgery in Live Animals

Appropriate Techniques

  • Maintenance of the sterile field- If a sterile instrument or gloved hand touches something outside the sterile field (area of the surgical drape and inside of the opened instrument pack), the instrument or glove must be replaced immediately with one that is sterile.
  • Gentle tissue handling- Minimize the use of toothed or crushing instruments. Hold the cut edge rather than grasping the middle of a tissue layer. When tying off vessels, include a minimum of surrounding tissues. Use electrocautery and electroscalpels sparingly as they cause tissue necrosis. Keep tissue moist during surgery.
  • Ablate “dead space” during closure - Any pockets or spaces remaining between tissue layers will fill with extracellular fluid or blood and increase the risk of developing abscesses.
  • Minimize the duration of surgery- Prolonged surgery times expose tissues to contaminants and dry out tissues and lead to an increased risk of necrosis and postoperative infection.
  • Supplemental heat- Animals lose their ability to regulate body temperature while under general anesthesia and they should be provided a heat source during surgery such as a heat lamp or heating blanket. Regular body temperature must be maintained throughout the procedure and recovery period.
  • Supplemental fluids - Prolonged surgeries in larger species require placement of an IV catheter and intraoperative fluid supplementation. Fluid administration may also be continued into the postoperative recovery period. Please contact Veterinary Services for assistance in developing a fluid therapy plan.

Surgery in Non-Mammalian Species

Aquatic Species:

  • Surgical preparation of the incision site should minimize disruption of skin and mucus layer.
  • The skin at the incision site should be gently wiped with sterile gauze or cotton-tipped applicator to reduce gross contamination. If greater antimicrobial activity is wanted, the skin can be wiped with a dilute solution of povidone iodine (1:20) or chlorhexidine (1:40). Application of harsher chemical disinfectants and alcohol may irritate the skin and increase the risk of tissue damage and postoperative morbidity and mortality.
  • For larger fish species, removing large scales by extracting them caudally can facilitate a smooth incision.
  • A sterile clear plastic drape can be positioned over the animal to help isolate the incision site, create a sterile field and help retain moisture. A rim of petroleum jelly can be used to adhere the drape to the animal, if desired.
  • The animal's skin should be kept moist throughout the surgery, with care taken to prevent irrigating the incision site with contaminated anesthetic or tank water.

Avian Species:

  • After the animal has been anesthetized, the animal should be positioned to allow easy access to the surgical site.
  • The feathers at the surgical site should either be parted for small incisions or plucked to expose the intended incision site. The skin should be exposed to create a space approximately twice the size of the intended incision. Tape can be applied to surrounding feathers to prevent them from entering the sterile field during surgery.
  • The skin should then be cleaned and disinfected with a chlorhexidine or povidone iodine-based disinfectant. The site should be scrubbed by starting at the center of the site and working outward in a circular pattern. Typically, one scrub with a disinfectant, followed by alcohol will suffice.
  • If possible, the use of a sterile surgical drape is recommended to help isolate the sterile field and reduce the risk of postoperative infection.


  • The animal should be anesthetized and restrained in a position that allows easy access to the surgical site.
  • The skin should then be cleaned and disinfected with a chlorhexidine or povidone iodine-based disinfectant. The site should be scrubbed by starting at the center of the site and working outward in a circular pattern. Reptiles harbor significant pathogens on the skin, such as Salmonella, and a prolonged vigorous scrub with multiple applications of disinfectant followed by an alcohol wipe is recommended.
  • A sterile surgical drape should be used whenever possible to isolate the disinfected area from surrounding skin. To be effective, a drape should adhere tightly to the skin and be impermeable to moisture. Self-adhesive drapes are available for this purpose.

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