By Mark Robinson of WalkinPets.com (published in Animal Wellness Magazine)

The devastating news that your best friend’s leg needs to be amputated is often met with fear and confusion. The fact is this fear is unnecessary. Three-legged animals can live long, happy, healthy lives with minimal adjustment to their lifestyle or to yours. Lovingly called “Tripods” most three-legged animals are not even considered “handicapped.” Often, the greatest barrier they must overcome is the attitude and the concerns of their caretakers.

It’s not like when a person loses their leg,” explains Susan Marino of Angel’s Gate Rescue. “Animals are extremely adaptable, and we’ve seen dogs and cats that make the adjustment immediately – within a few hours of the surgery”.

Causes of Amputation

The most common cause of amputation is bone cancer of the leg. Bone cancer is usually a very painful and debilitating disease. Fortunately, the animal can get a great deal of relief from the amputation and, even if the cancer has spread, can live a longer and healthier life without the diseased limb.

Other common causes include accident, abuse, untreated fractures that become septic, and neurological disorders, and congenital birth defects. Typically, an animal with a painful leg injury will become lethargic and depressed. Once the leg is removed, the pain is gone, and their relief is almost immediate. Over time a dog’s body will realign itself, adjusting naturally to life using it’s remaining limbs. 

Methods of Amputation – Should you consider a prosthetic replacement?

Engel in Walkin' Wheels Rear Wheelchair

The question of whether or not it is better to leave a stump or amputate cleanly at the shoulder or hip is often debated. If the animal is to be fitted with a prosthetic replacement leg, then a well-designed stump makes the attachment of the device to the animal easier. If the leg is not going to be replaced, it is often advised that the leg be taken at the hip or shoulder as a stump gets in the way and can be easily injured. In the case of cancer, it sometimes best to take the whole infected leg so as not to leave any cancerous tissue.

Dr. Martin Kaufmann, a leader in the field of canine orthotics and prosthetics explains, “If there is no medical reason to amputate the whole leg, then the decision of how much to amputate depends on the overall health of the animal and the attitude of the owner. A three-legged animal can live a long, happy, healthy life as long as his remaining legs continue to function”.

If the leg is amputated at the hip or shoulder, there is no good way to attach a prosthetic leg, and the replacement leg would be rigid and uncomfortable. In this case it might be best, based on a veterinarian’s advice, to leave it alone and let the dog adapt to life as a three-legged tripod dog. If his other legs are too weak to carry the extra weight, then a handicapped pet cart should be considered. If the bottom of the leg, below the knee (fibula or radius) is to be amputated then a prosthetic replacement can give the animal full functionality.

Prosthetic leg replacements can cost between $200 and $600 depending on the size of the dog and how much of the leg remains. Generally, animals adapt quickly with a delightful “AHA” moment when a dog, unsure of his new attachment, forgets and zooms off to meet a buddy. If considering a prosthetic, it is best to contact the maker of the prosthetic leg as soon as you know there is going to be an amputation.

Almost any animal; horses, sheep, goats, can be fitted with a prosthetic although “Cats,” says Dr. Kauffman, “are often extremely resistant to the idea of an attachment to their body.”

Exercise

Full Support Wheelchair

Typically, a three-legged animal, as well as their caretaker soon forget the missing limb altogether. They can run, jump, play, swim, climb stairs as well as anyone – sometimes better. They may need to make minor adjustments to their stance and to find their balance, but most dogs adjust quickly.

Care needs to be taken, especially at first. Possibly the greatest hazard to a new amputee dog is a slippery floor. Throw rugs, paw wax or Pet Boots can be a good answer. It is critical that the health of the remaining leg be watched carefully. In many cases, the dog is placing additional stress on the remaining “healthy” leg. If necessary a splint or brace can be used to provide additional joint support.

Since most of an animal’s weight is carried in the front end, a front leg amputation can be slightly more difficult for an animal. The weight of the head needs to be compensated for with balance and additional muscle. This is always the case with horses, who generally cannot compensate for a front leg amputation.

Weight

A three-legged dog must not become overweight! A balanced diet and regular exercise are key to maintaining the dog’s health. Excess weight puts a huge strain on the remaining leg and can cause further injury and lead to incapacitation later in life. Rear amputee dogs may benefit from additional hip support on their healthy leg. The combined compression and lift of a hip brace can help to alleviate hip pain and prevent injury.

Dog Wheelchair

walkin wheels dog wheelchair

In many cases, a Dog Wheelchair is not necessary for a three-legged dog although it can be a handy convenience. With the support of a wheelchair, It can prevent the dog from getting overtired on long walks. Typically, the dog’s caretaker will carry the dog wheelchair and observe closely for signs of tiredness. As soon as the dog slows down, he or she can be placed in the dog wheels for the walk home. In addition, the dog wheelchair can be used while the animal is losing weight and becoming accustomed to the amputation. Senior tripod dogs may develop arthritis or joint conditions caused by the added strain of the additional weight on their remaining limb, in this case a wheelchair can help to keep a dog active and mobile.

Learn More: Caring for a Tripod or Amputee Pet

Angel’s Story

Angel is a 7-year-old Australian Shepherd/Greyhound whose front was caught in a railway track-switching intersection. In freeing herself, she destroyed the lower part of her leg. Her owner was unable to afford a complete amputation and had Angel’s leg amputated at the knee. Six months later, she’s running, jumping, and following her Dad up and down stairs with ease. Angel is a happy tripod. With her increased activity, though, Angel is starting to have problems with her stump. She occasionally relies on it for balance and this often causes the sensitive skin to rub raw and become painful.

“We tried socks, and even a pet boot, but Angel won’t have it and chews it off every time. She’s an active dog who is smart and full of life” explains her Rockford, IL mom.

Angel needs either another surgery to remove the leg at the shoulder or a prosthetic to make her leg fully functional.

Adopting A Three-Legged Animal

Many completely healthy and loving tripods are sent to shelters only because of their perceived imperfections. It is important, though, when adopting one, to understand whether the animal will need special care.

The health of the remaining legs, especially the one opposite from the amputated leg, is important. If the leg appears weak, it may need extra support (such as a splint) or the dog may require a handicapped pet cart.

If any of the leg remains, the bottom of the stump needs to be healthy. Often the amputating Veterinarian will graft a pad, or excess muscle around the bone at the end of the stump for protection. In addition to a healthier leg, this will help with the attachment of a prosthetic, if desired.

Resources

WalkinPets.com – For elderly, disabled, and special needs pets; products, services, and support. HandicappedPets.Net – An extremely active message board for caretakers of handicapped pets where you can get help.