Surgical site infections (SSI) are an uncommon, but significant, consequence of surgical interventions. There are very few studies investigating SSI risk in veterinary medicine, and even fewer in cattle, despite the fact that major surgeries are commonly conducted on livestock. Furthermore, the suboptimal conditions under which such surgeries are frequently performed on livestock could be considered an important risk factor for the development of SSIs. With increasing public concern over the contribution of veterinary-prescribed antimicrobials to the emergence of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in people, there is widespread scrutiny and criticism of antimicrobial use in livestock production medicine systems. While the causal link between antimicrobial resistance in livestock and people is heavily debated, it is clear that the prevalence of antimicrobial resistance, in any population, is closely correlated with the antimicrobial ‘consumption’ within that population. As the veterinary profession explores ways of addressing the emergence and selection of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria in food-producing animals, there is a need for veterinarians and producers to carefully consider all areas of antimicrobial use, and employ an evidence-based approach in designing appropriate clinical protocols. This paper aims to review current knowledge regarding the risk factors related to abdominal SSI in periparturient cows, and to encourage practitioners to judiciously evaluate both their standard operating procedures and their use of antimicrobials in these situations. In a second paper, to be published in a subsequent issue of Veterinary Record, these principles will be used to provide specific evidence-based recommendations for antimicrobial use in bovine abdominal surgery.