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Abdominal exploratory surgery (ex-lap) is a very useful tool in veterinary medicine and can be used for diagnostic and therapeutic purposes in cats and dogs.

What is an Abdominal Exploratory Surgery?

Essentially, an abdominal exploratory surgery is a diagnostic and sometimes therapeutic procedure where a veterinarian visually examines the abdominal organs and other structures to look for abnormalities. When abnormalities are observed, a veterinarian may be able to surgically address some of these problems, such as removing a foreign body obstruction or a mass, or take samples of tissues for biopsies. This procedure is major abdominal surgery and is performed under general anaesthesia, with proper pain management.

Why Might an Exploratory Surgery Be Needed?

One of the more common causes of exploratory surgeries in pets is to address a foreign body obstruction or blockage in the gastrointestinal tract. When a pet ingests a foreign substance, it can become lodged in the stomach or intestines, which is often life-threatening. X-rays, a barium study or an abdominal ultrasound may show that an obstruction is present, but are often not conclusive. In these cases, an exploratory surgery is the only definitive diagnostic test. During the surgery, a veterinarian is also able to remove obstructions, thereby treating the underlying problem.

Abdominal exploratory surgeries may also be performed to evaluate the extent of some abdominal masses, look at the thickness of the intestines and associated lymph nodes, and evaluate the appearance and structure of the abdominal organs. During this procedure, it is common for a veterinarian to take a biopsy sample of organs, lymph nodes or masses, as many cancerous or inflammatory processes cannot be diagnosed with the naked eye. It often takes several days to weeks for the results of the biopsy samples to be available.

What Does the Surgical Recovery Entail?

For most pets, the recovery from this procedure is straightforward and most are back to their normal routines within a week or two. Pain medication is an important part of the recovery process and is generally given for several days at home. A pet may have staples or sutures (stitches) on the outside of the skin that typically need to be removed 10 to 14 days after surgery, or may have sutures under the skin that dissolve over time. While the skin incision is healing, a pet will need to wear appropriate protection to prevent them from licking the wound, i.e., an Elizabethan collar (E-collar) or surgical body suit. If a pet licks at their wound, they run the risk of opening the incision or causing it to become infected.  Some pets may require a special diet as they recover.