Sit. Stay. Nip. Tuck.: 'Cosmetic' surgery helps pets overcome serious medical issues

photo When Melodie Smith's English bulldog, Buster, was 4 months old, he had canine rhinoplasty which greatly helped his breathing. "After the surgery he (Buster) didn't snore and quit struggling to breathe when he was playing," said Smith.
photo Pekingese can have problems with constricted airways.
photo Dog breeds like Shar-Peis have fleshy folds of skin that can become infected.
photo Pugs can have problems with constricted airways.
photo Excessive skin over the eyes of bloodhounds can cause vision problems.

Dogs. We groom them, clean their teeth, dress them in designer outfits like furry starlets prepping for a trot down the red carpet. (Well, some of us do.)

But eye tucks and nose jobs? Yep, they're out there. The idea might raise eyebrows but, for the most part, canine nip-and-tuck procedures aren't about making Fido look better. They're about keeping him healthy.

"If you were giving a bloodhound a face lift because he wants the folds out of his face, I would laugh, too, but these procedures are not cosmetic," says Randy Hammon, the co-director of Northgate Animal Hospital in Hixson. "It's not like an elective procedure. It's medically necessary."

These procedures aren't the familiar tail docking or ear trimming used on several breeds. Veterinarians most often use "cosmetic" surgery to correct issues such as constricted airways in flat-nosed -- or brachycephalic -- dog breeds such as pugs, bulldogs and Pekingese. Or they remove some of the fleshy folds that can become infected on the skins of Shar-Peis and basset hounds. Or they do eye jobs to repair inward-rolling eyelids that can scratch the cornea and lead to eye ulcers.

Even when her English bulldog, Buster, was just a pup, Chattanoogan Melodie Smith says she could tell that he was destined for a nose job.

"He would reverse sneeze and it would sound like he was gasping,"

says Smith, a former veterinary technician. "I could tell just by looking at his nose and how big the holes were that it was going to get worse before it got better."

Most veterinarians suggest combining surgeries to minimize the amount of time an animal spends under anesthetic. So when Buster was 4 months old, Smith took him to Animal Clinic East on Gunbarrel Road for a rhinoplasty and to be neutered.

"He got done at the front end and the back end at the same time," she says, laughing.

Dr. James Craven began by cutting small amounts of skin from Buster's nostrils and finished up with absorbable sutures, a procedure he says

he performs an average of once a week. Start to finish, it takes about 10 minutes, but the improvement to a dog's quality of life can be tremendous, he says.

Within hours of waking up after surgery, Buster was tearing around the backyard with nary a gasp to be heard, Smith says.

Flat-faced felines such as Persian and Himalayans suffer from similar breathing problems and also go under the knife or, in the case of Northgate Animal Hospital, a CO2 laser, just like that used in plastic surgery for humans.

Left untreated, the conditions addressed by cosmetic procedures can result in serious complications later in life.

The deep skin folds around the nose, eyes and tail in breeds such as Shar-Peis, bassets and pugs trap dirt and moisture, which can lead to uncomfortable irritation or serious infections that can spread. Surgeons can address the problem by removing some of the excess or infected skin.

Inward-rolled, or entropion, eyelids are another common issue. Because the eyelid and lashes are inverted, they rub against the eyeball, leading to constant weeping, inflammation and pain. Eventually, it can cause ulceration or even blindness. By removing a bit of skin around its perimeter, surgeons can restore the eye's normal contour and alleviate the animal's discomfort.

It's not all nip and tuck, though. A 2011 study by the British Small Animal Veterinary Association showed that liposuction was an effective, less-debilitating alternative to conventional surgery for removing small- to medium-size lipomas -- benign, fatty tumors that are common on older pets.

Craven and Hammon say the severity of the problem and complexity of the procedure dictate cost, but most surgeries are between a few hundred and $1,000. Nevertheless, if an animal has many issues, the costs of canine cosmetic surgeries -- just like their human equivalent -- can add up.

In 2012, London's The Daily Mail reported that a British couple had spent $13,000 over the course of two years to correct issues with excessive skin growth on their bloodhound's body, including flaps over his eyes that left him effectively blinded.

Usually, medical cosmetic surgeries leave the animal's appearance unchanged, veterinarians say, but some owners seek out a surgeon in order to beautify their pet. While they say they see benefit to performing "cosmetic" procedures on animals when doing so serves a medical purpose, Craven and Hammon balk at surgery performed purely to change a dog's appearance.

When a surgeon acts on these desires, however, the consequences occasionally can be tragic. In February, a Chinese dog breeder sued a Beijing animal hospital for $140,000 after his Tibetan mastiff died from a heart attack while undergoing a face lift.

Tibetan mastiffs are considered a trophy breed in China, and the owner, identified only as Yu, told the Global Times newspaper that he thought the surgery to remove wrinkles on the dog's forehead would make it more appealing as a breeder.

Some purely cosmetic procedures pose less risk to the animal, but veterinarians say they still hesitate to recommend them to pet owners. But that hasn't stopped plenty of people from opting for an artificial means of bucking up their neutered pet. Since 1995, more than 500,000 dogs and cats have been implanted with prosthetic testicles called Neuticles, according to the company's self-reported statistics.

Neuticle implants are offered in a range of sizes, which the company bills as being "equally superior," but Craven says he usually does his best to dissuade owners who request them.

"It may make the owner feel better, but it doesn't help the pet," he explains. "If you put a Neuticle in a dog, and if there's even a chance of infection, why risk it?"

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.