No Bones About It: Expert Says Pets Can Adapt After Amputation
Kids in the neighborhood called him “Tripod” because he hobbled around on three legs, but he was still one lucky pooch. The dog had been diagnosed with bone cancer and his veterinarian decided that a hind leg had to be amputated. At the age of six, after living most of his life on four paws, Tripod was quick to adapt to life on three legs.
Amputation may be a life-saving procedure for animals that only minimally impacts their comfort and quality of life, says Dr. Sharon Kerwin, a small animal orthopedic surgeon at Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. And Kerwin knows firsthand.
Kerwin is a proud owner of a three-legged cat that amazes her with its ability to jump on and off counters, run quickly, and still get into all kinds of mischief. “It is nice to have personal experience and the ability to say, yes my own pet is an amputee and it really has a great quality of life,” she says.
Cancer is the most common reason for amputations in pets. Sometimes cancer is present in a leg and the only way to save the animal is to amputate, which may eliminate the cancer fully or just extend the life of the pet. Nerve damage or a severely broken limb can also result in amputation, Kerwin notes.
Both the veterinarian and the pet owner must consider several aspects before an amputation is performed.
“People should have a clear understanding of why the surgery is being performed and what can be expected afterwards,” says Kerwin. “One of the biggest issues people worry about is the psychological impact on their pet.”
An amputation of a limb is different for a dog or cat than for a human, so it may be difficult for owners to understand how their pet will feel or act. “We have found that amputations do not seem to slow animals down or even bother them too much. Since dogs and cats are four-legged animals, they can get along really well on three legs,” says Kerwin. “Most animals will tolerate an amputation extremely well and have a really good quality of life afterwards.”
Kerwin says most animals that have had amputations have probably already learned to walk on three legs and owners may not realize this. Often, the animal may be relieved to have the painful leg removed and may feel even better after the amputation than it did before surgery.
Another aspect to consider is the long-term effect of an amputation, Kewin adds. An early amputation may be more beneficial for your pet than for it to go through multiple painful surgeries to save the leg.
One of the most important factors in after-surgery care and transition to a three-legged life for your pet is pain management.
“Ensuring your pet goes home with appropriate pain medication is essential to recovery. Keeping your pet comfortable is the key,” says Kerwin. Medication is usually taken for a week or so after the surgery, she says.
In addition, after bringing your pet home, you can help your animal friend adapt more quickly by providing good food, and lots of rest and care. “Make sure you supervise your pet especially when you first get home because it can slip and fall on a slick floor,” advises Kerwin.
Even though pets adapt amazingly well to an amputation, sometimes situations can be difficult due to owner expectations.
Animals that were used for performance, hunting, or other higher levels of activity may have some athletic limitations after an amputation. However, the impact of amputation on the life of a house pet is usually minimal.
Kerwin says that as a life-saving or pain reducing alternative to cancer or severe injury, amputation may just give your pet a “leg up” in regaining its health and mobility.