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When is Amputation the Right Decision?

Amputation of a pet’s leg is one of the most drastic decisions an owner can make. There are many reasons for amputation including irreparable trauma, infection, paralysis, severe arthritis, chronic pain or even cancer.  In some cases, such as trauma or bacterial infection, removal of the leg cures the patient. In the case of bone tumours, an amputation is done to relieve pain and extend quality of life but rarely cures underlining cancer. Owners frequently reject the option of amputation because it is seen as too extreme and they worry their pet will not be able to adapt with only three legs. This is a very legitimate concern, and the decision to amputate should not be made lightly.

The truth is dogs and cats can function extremely well after amputation. In fact, most are just as mobile after surgery as they ever were; especially in the case of prolonged pain and discomfort. Although there is an adjustment period, many can live a happy, active life. There’s no doubt that amputees have to recover from their surgery and it may take several days, even weeks to learn how to balance on their three legs. However, over time they will successfully navigate the house, enjoy running along the beach and getting in and out of the car (sometimes a little help is appreciated) just like they used to. In many cases, the affected limb was non-functional, to begin with, and they already had to adapt to the use of just three legs. In these cases, the transition from 4 legs to 3 can be quite easy.  Unfortunately for some patients, specifically obese, giant breed dogs or those with restrictions to the functioning of their other limbs, could have much greater difficulty adapting and may not be suitable candidates for amputation.  The decision to amputate and your pet’s ability to adapt can also depend on which leg is affected.  For large breed dogs or dogs with broad shoulders that carry most of their weight up front, losing a front leg can be much harder to lose vs. the loss of a hind leg.  It can be especially difficult for the older, arthritic pet. In these cases, pain control, rehabilitation, an adapted environment and eventually humane euthanasia are sometimes the only option.

Three legs or four, our companions can still love life just the same and in some cases even more. There are many success stories out there so do your research. Browse on-line, talk to your family veterinarian or reach out to a friend or relative who has owned a pet with an amputated limb. If you are still struggling with the right choice for your pet, you may want to consider a trial amputation. Yep, that’s right; all that it involves is bandaging the affected limb up against the body for a couple of days to see how well your pet will function. Although they will be a little clumsy at first, keep in mind the extra bulk and weight will no longer be there post-amputation, and you will be amazed at just how quickly your pet can adapt.

Written by Van Isle Veterinary Hospital

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