Wound healing may sometimes be long process, and the older your pup is, the longer it can take.
During the time when a wound is present, there are many risks of infection.
The healing process is more or less the same in pretty much all living creatures. At the most basic level, biology works the same way, regardless of whether you're a person, a dog, or a cat.
In this blog post I discuss how wound healing works in dogs, and what you should watch out for at each stage. I’ve also added a great educational video 📽️ on how to easily make your own E-Collar for your dog at home and for free. This is a must watch!
As usual my blog is packed with research-backed 📚 knowledge. For pet parents looking for reliable, unbiased and fact-based dog care guides, I have sprinkled some additional great ones throughout the post.
When a wound happens, whether it's a tiny scrape or cut after a hike, or a something larger, the first body reaction is inflammation.
"Very generally speaking, inflammation is the body’s immune system’s response to an irritant. The irritant might be a germ, but it could also be a foreign object, such as a splinter..." – NIH.gov
As you may know, inflammation is often considered a bad thing in humans. We talk about chronic inflammation, the pain it causes, the damage it does to our immune systems, and more.
However, there's a difference between chronic inflammation and acute inflammation, like what happens around a wound.
Inflammation is bad for a body in the long term, but in the short term, it helps to stimulate healing. It does this in a few ways:
It warms up the area, which increases the ambient temperature above what many pathogens can easily survive. Fun fact: this is what a fever is doing! When your whole body gets inflamed, it's a protective measure against pathogens that love body or slightly lower temperatures.
It widens blood vessels and promotes blood flow. Blood helps wash out a wound, as well as funneling nutrients and molecules like collagen, vitamins, and blood cells to the affected area, to help clot it, cover it in a scab, and build the scaffold on which new tissue can grow.
It becomes tender and painful. While this might not seem like a good thing, it's a way that the body helps disincentivize activity in that area. If it hurts to move, you won't move in a way that tears open or further damages the wound, right?
Localized inflammation is the body’s immune system rushing to repair the wound, and that’s a good thing. With that said, there are all kinds of things that can go wrong with this first stage of the healing process, because it isn't always 100% effective.
Bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens are more than happy to try to evolve to survive the immune system, infecting a wound even though the body is fighting it off as best it can.
If your pup is older and/or has existing health issues, their immune system won’t be as strong in fighting off those invaders.
If your dog has a significant wound – whether it's unintentional, like stepping on something sharp, or intentional, like a surgery – you need to watch out for complications immediately afterward.
Swelling, redness, and warmth are all normal symptoms during this stage and do not indicate a problem. However, keep an eye out for symptoms that indicate an issue such as:
A high fever. Dogs usually run hot, with a base body temperature of 101 or 102. A fever of up to 102 or so is normal during wound healing, but a higher temperature is dangerous, so keep an eye out for a high fever and be ready to bring them to the vet.
Excessive bleeding. Wounds obviously bleed, but they should clot up quickly. If they keep bleeding, it can be a sign that the wound reopened, hindering healing. If bleeding simply never stopped to begin with, it can be a sign of a clotting problem, and medical intervention is necessary.
Red streaks around the wound. Some redness localized at the edges of the wound is normal, but streaks moving away is a sign of a type of infection called lymphangitis. Fun fact: the "-itis" in a disease name just means "inflammation of the"; in this case, it's inflammation of the lymph channels.
Bad smells. It's common for pups to occasionally have odd and bad smells, but a particularly pungent and foul odor coming from a wound can indicate an infection; it's the byproduct of bacteria growing, generally, or rotting tissue in the case of extreme infections.
All of this is just the first stage of wound healing! There's more to go.
Debridement is a medical term that means the removal of damaged or dead tissue (or foreign objects) from a wound. One of the most common examples is a burn; burned tissue is dead and can't heal, so it needs to be removed.
However, in larger burns, a large swath of skin can't safely be removed (it's a huge infection risk), so only parts of it are debrided at a time to allow for partial healing in an iterative process.
Debridement happens naturally, too. In fact, that's what pus is, in a wound. Various bodily processes gather up bacteria, foreign objects like dirt and dust, and dead cells, funnel them all into one nasty channel, and leak them out.
By removing that gross, invasive, and dead pile of stuff, it leaves the wound cleaner and more able to heal safely.
Debridement is usually automatic and selective. That is, it only removes dead cells and invasive nasties, and not any healthy living tissue.
“Autolytic debridement (also known as autolysis) is carried out by your dog's white blood cells to soften hardened tissues. The process usually takes place within the first three to five days. As a selective form of debridement, it spares the healthy cells and targets only the dead ones.”- Licksleeve.com
However, sometimes the body gets it wrong, and your doggo's wound might start to blacken around the edges.
This means debridement is going badly, and the body is trying to get rid of tissue that would otherwise be fine. This necrotic tissue may need medical or surgical attention, so at this point you should give your vet a call.
Word of caution: Unless advised by your veterinarian, you don't want to do any debridement yourself.
In certain cases, with large wounds, surgical sites, and large burns, bandage changes, draining of the wound, and manual debridement may be necessary.
In cases like this your vet will likely want to see you back to check the progress of healing and will take care of all of these steps while you’re in the office. Your vet may also want to keep your pup if more frequent care is required.
There are a couple of reasons for this.
The first is because it's much better to use sterile tools and an environment safe from pathogens to do a debridement.
It's also painful and irritating, and you don't want your dog to associate you with those feelings; better for a vet to do it when it needs to happen.
Vets also have access to local anesthetics and other tools to help make it an easier process. On top of all of that, getting eyes on it helps vets recognize if there are issues before they become large problems.
Healing Stage 3: Repair
The first two stages of healing are primarily focused on cleaning out the wound. Once the wound is clean, repair of the affected tissues can occur.
In the case of a simple surgical wound, this is pretty easy. Two sides of an incision are stitched together, and the two surfaces can heal together before the stitches are removed.
This process involves the body building scaffolding out of collagen and other molecules, then filling in that scaffold with the skin, muscle tissue, and other flesh that needs to go there that was cut during the surgery.
Sometimes, particularly in injuries, a wound doesn't have a nice clean cut to seal up. Bite wounds, burns, and large abrasions can all fall under this category.
In these cases, this stage will likely take a little longer.
First, granular tissue grows in the area. This is that scaffolding, but it's more elaborate and creates new blood vessels to bring blood flow (and thus, the other molecules necessary for healing) into the area.
Once this is done, the body starts to contract the edges of the wound together. This happens in a combination of pulling the surrounding tissue in and growing new tissue around the edges of the area. This is why wounds like sores can look puckered and feel taught; they are!
Finally, new skin grows to cover the affected area. Once this finishes healing, the whole wound will be a little tight and probably a little sensitive for a while, but will otherwise be healthy and healed.
During this healing stage, keep an eye out for yellow or green pus oozing from the wound as it’s likely an indication of an infection.
You’ll also want to pay particularly close attention if the wound is located on the foot or at a major joint. With lots of movement the wound could reopen.
Healing Stage 4: Maturation
The maturation of a wound is the time after the wound heals but before it "sets."
Scars soften and fade over time, wounds flatten out as the scaffolding used to heal them is absorbed, and muscles that were torn or severed grow back together. However, this is never a 100% process.
Scars don't fully go away, and an affected area never returns to 100% strength. If the injury is more severe, you need to monitor your fur baby for at least six months to make sure they aren't irritating the area and that their activities don't tear a scar back open.
Fortunately, in this stage, the risk of infection is generally non-existent.
The skin is sealed back up, and everything is healed; it just needs time to smooth itself out.
How to Help a Wound Heal Free from Infection
Infection is the single biggest risk of an open wound.
An infection can turn a small surgery or wound into a life-threatening ordeal. So, as a pet parent, your biggest job is going to be helping a wound heal without a risk of infection, but how can you do that?
First and foremost, make sure you follow any and all instructions from your vet. If it’s post-surgery or a wound that brought you to the vet for assessment, it’s important to follow their guidance even if your pup seems to be back to normal.
Some instructions may include an oral antibiotic, or a medication that has to be applied to the wound.
Antibiotics are important; they help kill off bacteria and allow your dog's body to work a little harder on healing and a little less hard on fighting off bacteria.
You may be instructed to clean a wound before applying an ointment; be careful not to reopen a wound when you do so.
“DO NOT use soaps, shampoos, rubbing alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, herbal preparations, tea tree oil, or any other product to clean an open wound, unless specifically instructed to do so by your veterinarian. Some of these products are toxic if taken internally, while others can delay healing.” - VCA Animal Hospitals
If you’re told to avoid letting the wound get wet, take special precautions if you go out in the rain, and ditch the bath until the wound has had some time to heal.
While wounds are painful, you'll want to be careful with painkillers. Most injuries that are treated at home won’t require any pain medication, and after a procedure your vet will provide you with a prescription if they think it’s necessary.
With that said, if you think your dog is experiencing a lot of discomfort, talk to your vet about what options are available to help. Never medicate your fur baby on your own.
The cone of shame, or an e-collar exists to prevent your fur baby from nibbling at or licking a wound. Their natural inclination is to lick at and bite at a wound because it may itch and hurt, and those licking actions are soothing. But, as we all know, a dog's mouth isn't exactly a sterile environment.
Those hind claws can also do some damage if the wound is in scratching distance. And if they pull out stitches and reopen a wound, or just get bacteria into it, it can be devastating.
A cone isn't always the best choice, though. There are a variety of mobility restrictions that can help keep a wound safe.
Alternatives may include inflatable donut collars, that don't restrict your fur baby's vision but make it impossible for them to reach their wound.
You can also make your own at home. Watch the short video below about how to make a very comfortable E-Collar for your dog.
DIY E-Collars for Dogs – by P.E.T.S Clinic | 2:12 Min Video
Whatever method you choose, keep an eye on your fur baby to make sure they're not finding a way around it – a determined doggo can get pretty creative!
Finally, always make sure to keep an eye on the wound. Any sign of blackened skin, any sign of infection, or any delays in healing can be worth bringing up to your vet.
In some cases, you may just be an overly concerned pet parent, and everything is healing fine. In other cases, you may be the first to notice a warning sign of something that can be caught and treated before it becomes a problem. When in doubt, talk to your vet.
In closing, important to bear in mind here is that would healing time will vary for several reasons. Extent of the wound, location, age and health of your pup all play a role.
Focus less on the days that are passing and more on how the wound is looking. If you’re not seeing any warning signs, you likely just need to be patient.
Do you have any questions about any of the healing stages, or would you like any further clarification on any particular one? If so, please don't hesitate to drop a comment down below! I'm always more than happy to answer your questions to the best of my ability!
One more thing, if you are feeling like getting a little special something for your fur baby that is unique, made right here in the USA, 100% pup and cat safe, USDA certified organic and brought to you by a US company, check out Toe Beansonline pet supplies store!
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K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).