Limb amputation is a viable option for many health conditions that occur in pets, but just the mere thought of amputation is often too much for many owners to consider. But before you reject amputation outright, read on.
Originally, my thought was to give you some tips on how to help your pet cope with an amputation, but then I had a realization – through my years of practice and the dozens of amputations I have performed, not once have I been all that concerned about how the pet will do. The pet parents, on the other hand...well, that’s a different story.
When to amputate a pet's leg
Amputations are commonly performed in both cats and dogs. Injuries, such as those sustained from being hit by a car, and cancer are both common reasons for the recommendation of limb amputation. But any condition that causes chronic severe pain in a limb can be cause enough to suggest amputation as a way to actually increase your pet’s quality of life.
Many owners initially bristle at the suggestion of amputation, thinking that their pet can’t possibly be happy on three legs. But this can’t be further from the truth! If your pet has a painful condition, it’s likely that he’s not even using the affected limb all that much anyway. Imagine being able to just remove the source of chronic pain for your pet! That’s what amputation can do.
What to consider
Dogs and cats are extremely adaptable. Stories abound of pets carrying on their normal lives with three limbs, and some of them even do well with just two! Working dogs, herding dogs, and dogs who just like running with their owners can all go back to “normal” after healing from surgery, and cats also act like it’s no big deal to be a tripod.
If your veterinarian has recommended limb amputation for your pet, it is because of a painful condition or in a situation where a tumor cannot be removed surgically. Regardless of the reason, the recommendation is not made lightly. It is made to save your pet’s life or significantly increase the quality of his life.
Consider the alternative for your pet in this situation: continued chronic pain, potential metastasis of cancer, or euthanasia due to poor quality of life. These options just don’t sound fair when a perfectly humane amputation can be performed to give your dog or cat his or her life back. Whether the affected limb is a hind limb or a front limb, your pet will still be able to live a full, happy life and perform most (if not all) of the same activities he did with four limbs, with the added bonus of being pain-free!
How to help pets adapt after an amputation
If I’ve helped you cope with the decision to proceed with amputation, I can now give you a few tips to help your pet cope with life on three legs (although I doubt he or she will need any help at all).
First, remember that your pet just had major surgery, so plan on a few days of recovery, just as you would with any surgery. It will help if you can be home with your pet for the first few days, but it’s not a necessity.
It may take a couple of days or even a few weeks for your pet to learn the new balancing act of life on three legs, but as I said before if your pet was experiencing pain in the amputated limb, it’s likely that he wasn’t bearing much weight before the operation. Still, you may want to stick to carpeted areas of the house so that traction isn’t a complicating factor for the first few days at home.
Be sure to follow your veterinarian’s post-operative instructions, and be diligent in both giving pain medications and checking the surgical incision for signs of infection.
Long term care
In the long term, keep your pet at a healthy weight. Extra weight will only add to the stress the remaining limbs have to bear and will contribute to pain from osteoarthritis. If your pet is carrying a few extra pounds, talk to your veterinarian about how to best address it.
But really, your pet will do great! I have yet to see one who hasn’t. In fact, pet parents have commented that they wished they had pursued it sooner because their pets were so much more comfortable.
If you still have reservations, ask your veterinarian for the names and phone numbers of pet owners who have been in your shoes. Maybe you can arrange to visit their pets to see just how happy they are!
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