Note: This is a chapter in the Community Cat Programs Handbook.
Unsocialized cats should not be handled when conscious and therefore require special care when recovering from surgical sterilization (or any surgery). However, by the time cats are picked up from the clinic (in the same trap used to drop them off), they have generally regained consciousness. They may or may not be moving around in the trap at this time.
To minimize stress on the cats, make sure the traps are completely covered with a sheet or towel. If recovery will be done at a location other than the clinic (trapper’s or volunteer’s residence, shelter, etc.), and therefore requires transport, check to see that the trap doors are secured before loading the cats into a vehicle.
Recovery after surgery
Anesthesia interferes with an animal’s ability to regulate his or her own body temperature. It’s therefore very important that CCP staff and volunteers help program cats stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. The space used for post-surgery recovery should be dry and temperature-controlled (approximately 70°F). Most clinic and shelter environments meet this requirement, as do most homes. Garages and basements can be used, assuming the correct temperature can be maintained (which can be a challenge in hot or cold weather). Ensure that the space is quiet and free of fumes, that there are no open windows or doors (in the event a cat escapes from a trap) and that no other animals have access to the recovering cats.
CAUTION: Cats can die of hypothermia or heat stroke during post-surgery recovery. Remember this simple rule-of-thumb: If it’s too hot or cold for you, then it’s too hot or cold for the cats. Be careful about leaving cats in traps on the ground or floor, as these surfaces can be much hotter or colder than the air temperature. If possible, keep the cats raised above the ground or floor, even if it’s only on long pieces of lumber.
The following guidelines are intended to help CCP staff and volunteers (including caregivers, trappers and anybody else who will be involved) understand and oversee the post-surgery recovery process, ensuring that program cats will be returned safely to their outdoor homes:
- The stitches used by the veterinary staff are dissolvable, so they do not need to be removed. The entire recovery process, therefore, takes place while the cats are in their traps.
- The first phase of recovery should take place at the veterinary clinic. Cats should not be turned over to CCP staff and volunteers or to caregivers until they at least regain consciousness. Cats must be sternal (i.e., in an upright position lying on his/her chest) with their heads up and eyes open.
- Some cats take longer to recover than others. Never return a cat before he’s fully recovered from surgery and anesthesia.
- Keep the traps covered to reduce the cats’ stress. Never open the trap doors or allow the cats out of the trap. Do not stick your fingers into the trap, or attempt to handle cats for any reason.
- The cats will be groggy as they come out of the anesthesia, but they should become more alert and active as times passes. The disorientation they experience can cause them to overreact to normal stimulation and behave in unpredictable ways. Keep recovering cats away from other animals (especially dogs) and children.
- Cats can hallucinate as the anesthesia wears off, which means they can become annoyed at the slightest sound, light or touch. They might growl, claw at invisible objects and generally act unpredictably for up to 10 hours post-surgery. Again, keeping them in a quiet, dark place (bathroom, closet, basement, etc.) is best. Cats are independent animals and generally come out of the anesthesia without any human intervention.
- For the most part, leave recovering cats alone but check in every hour or two to monitor their progress. Watch for signs of distress, such as vomiting, bleeding, labored breathing or grogginess more than 24 hours after surgery. If you observe any of these symptoms, seek veterinary assistance immediately.
- The stages of recovery a cat will typically experience include unconsciousness, shivering, thrashing, “drunkenness,” awakening and, finally, focusing.
- It’s recommended that cats are held for 24 hours after surgery. However, cats can sometimes be returned 12–24 hours after surgery, as long as they are fully conscious and alert. Lactating mothers, in particular, should be returned as soon as possible. They will immediately locate their kittens and continue nursing.
Generally speaking, the post-surgery process is pretty uneventful. As with all surgical procedures, though, it’s possible that complications can arise. CCP staff and volunteers should therefore be aware of the following situations:
- Occasionally, a cat will shake his head while waking up from anesthesia, opening up the ear-tipped area and causing some blood to splatter. This is typically only a small amount, though, and tends to stop quickly.
- It is rare that a program cat is picked up from the clinic before regaining consciousness, but sometimes it can be necessary. In such instances, additional monitoring is required. If an unconscious cat vomits, her head should be turned to prevent choking. This can be accomplished by gently tipping the trap to the side. Be careful not to harm the cat by jostling her too much.
- If a longer recovery period is needed (following spay complications, dental surgery, etc.), you can use a “feral cat den” (available from Neighborhood Cats, Tomahawk and others) placed in a larger cage or crate. This allows the cat to have a safe place to hide and also provides a measure of safety for CCP staff and volunteers. The den’s sliding acrylic door will line up with the trap’s rear door for easy transfer. Once the cat is inside, the den is placed in a large cage or crate, along with a litter box, food and water. The cat goes in and out of the den via the circular opening on the side. A pivoting door is used to cover the opening when cleaning or feeding.
Although it’s standard practice for Best Friends’ CCPs to return cats within 24 hours of surgery, we recognize that some programs hold cats in their traps for several days after surgery. (Note: The additional time increases a cat’s stress level, sometimes with serious health consequences. It’s therefore generally best to return cats as soon as they’ve recovered from anesthesia.) Proper care is very important in such circumstances, to minimize stress on the cats and the likelihood that they will become ill.
When feeding and cleaning, always use at least one trap divider. This will prevent the cat from escaping and also ensure your safety. For an added measure of safety, use two dividers (sometimes called forks), each one threaded horizontally through the trap. Some trap dividers have a small hook on the end of one “prong” that’s used to secure the divider in place. (Dropping the dividers in through the top of the trap might not prevent the cats from pushing past.)
Approximately six to eight hours after surgery, an adult cat will regain consciousness. Once his eyes no longer have a glazed-over appearance and he’s sitting upright, you can offer him a small amount of canned food (e.g., three ounces for adults, one-and-a-half ounces for kittens). Canned food is recommended because of its high water content. If cats are being held for 24 hours or less, there’s no need to provide water separately. For kittens six months or younger, there’s no need to wait eight hours; instead, feed them as soon as they regain consciousness (monitoring for any vomiting) and again eight to twelve hours later.
Cleaning the cages means replacing soiled or shredded newspapers as necessary.
To encourage the cat to move to one end of the trap for feeding or cleaning, lift the trap cover from the end of the trap you’re cleaning or using for feeding. (The rear door generally provides easier access, but there will likely be times when you need to access the trap through the front door.) Most unsocialized cats will prefer the covered end, allowing you to work in the uncovered end once the trap dividers are securely in place. However, some cats will see the uncovered end of the trap as an escape route and move to that end. Either way, you’ll know which end of the trap the cat prefers, and can lift the appropriate end of the trap cover to give yourself the necessary workspace. You might have to use one of the dividers to gently nudge the cat. As an alternative, you can try blowing on the cat. Never use your hands to poke or push the cat.
If multiple caregivers will be providing in-trap care, it’s a good idea to create a log for each cat (see appendix). This will help caregivers to coordinate efforts and monitor any health concerns, both before and after surgery.
Appendix: Example of In-Trap Care Log
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