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  • Tiffany Downing, RVT

Tri-pawds: Recovering from Leg Amputation


dog with front limb amputation

Amputations are never a pleasant option and obviously we’d all prefer to keep our legs but, there are situations where this is the best option for a patient to live longer or more comfortably. We often see dogs that required amputation due to trauma, cancer, or congenital defects and each of these situations need unique approaches for optimal recovery. Generally speaking, most dogs do quite well post-operatively, but all of them can benefit from rehabilitation therapy. While dogs still have the 3 remaining legs, they’re not much different from human amputees in that there are significant changes to how they do even the most basic things and it is of utmost importance to keep the functioning legs at their best.


Dogs with congenital defects have spent their entire life up until amputation compensating for the affected limb. While their body still has to make up for this limb, its also had time to build muscle in the functional limbs and to adjust balance to remain upright and mobile. Dogs in this situation often arrive at amputation when prosthetics are not appropriate or not financially possible and the leg has become more of a hindrance than a help. The musculature of the affected limb is often atrophied and depending if and how the dog uses the limb, wounds and infection are a chronic problem. These patients usually recover from amputation quite well since they’re already accustomed to relying on their stronger legs and now they are free from the dead weight and chronic wounds associated with the deformed leg. Rehab helps these cases keep the three remaining legs as strong and sound as possible, as they are likely to have compensatory repercussions like arthritis or muscle fatigue from having to make up for the lost leg.


Dogs that lose a limb due to trauma are a bit more complicated. Up until that point, they have been fully mobile with all four legs but now they’re suddenly depending on three to get the same job done. There is usually little to no preparation for these patients and it is crucial to get them into rehab therapy as soon as they are healed enough to participate. Therapy for these patients usually entails teaching them how to correctly stand and walk as well as overall strengthening while soothing the now overworked muscles and joints. Just like us, poor posture can significantly affect how the body feels and operates


pit bull with rear limb amputation

Dogs that lose a limb to cancer are often at the greatest disadvantage. Not only are they suddenly having to depend on three legs, but more often than not, they are senior pets with decreased muscle mass, likely arthritis, and overall poorer body condition from cancer and/or chemo as well as any other medical conditions they might have developed over their lifetime. Again, getting them into rehab right away can give them a better chance, but these patients have the longest road ahead of them. Goals are similar to the other cases in that we are focused on building muscle and soothing the overworked remaining legs, but special care is given to ensure these patients aren’t over-exerted. Too much too soon can quickly wear them out and make their creaky joints even more painful.


For all amputees, the leg in need of amputation is a significant variable. Dogs carry approximately 70% of their weight on their front legs, so patients that require a front limb amputation are most at risk for compensatory injury. However, since dogs come in all shapes and sizes, sometimes the leg in question isn’t the problem. For example, heavier bodied dogs like English Bulldogs or longer bodied dogs like Dachshunds can have a particularly difficult time recovering from an amputation, and even more so if it’s a front leg. Dogs that are long and heavier bodied, like a Bassett Hound, are essentially twice as disadvantaged. Cases like this can be ethically challenging for all involved and thorough consideration for Quality of Life post-operatively is a must.


Whether there is time to prepare for amputation or not, weight management is the other huge variable for how these patients recover. Your dog’s skeletal and muscular systems are only built to carry and propel their lean weight. Now we’ve removed a leg and the remaining three are operating at 133% of their normal workload so any additional weight is even more of a burden than it would be for a normal dog. Factor in front vs rear limb and if there are any other comorbidities like arthritis, and your dog could be set up for failure. Even a perfectly healthy, younger dog that undergoes a leg amputation will be putting extra wear and tear on their remaining legs, so as your Tri-pawd ages, it will become even more important to manage their weight, treat their pain, and keep them as strong as possible.


Dog with rear limb amputation

For our amputee patients, we focus on making sure they are at a healthy weight, that any sources of pain are well managed, and that the remaining legs are well equipped to take on the extra strain of Tripawd life. Changes to their home environment are in order as well. Stairs and slick floors are especially dangerous for your pup, especially in the early stages of recovery. Extra supportive foam beds, textured flooring (like rugs or yoga mats), ramps, and using a harness instead of a collar are all small things that can greatly increase their comfort level and ability to get around.


If your dog recently underwent or is about to undergo leg amputation, give us a call today to discuss how a customized rehab plan can help them recover better, faster. Many Tri-pawds go on to live fulfilling lives with their families and yours can too!

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