I’m not sure which is more difficult: making the decision whether or not to have your dog’s diseased or broken limb amputated, or picking him up from the veterinarian after amputation surgery. The responsibility of making such a weighty decision for your uncomprehending dog feels terrible. So does seeing him immediately after surgery – a huge swath of him shaved to the skin, stumbling as he figures out how to ambulate in a new way – the whole thing can be shocking.
But this is the important thing to know: It gets better. The incision heals, his hair grows back, and your dog gets around just fine. The pain of whatever had to be amputated – a terribly broken bone, severed nerves, or cancer – is now gone. Typically, after surgery, amputees perk up more by the day, making their owners realize that the dogs’ grouchiness or lack of enthusiasm was likely caused by tremendous pain prior to surgery. With the problematic limb gone, they feel better!
PRESERVE, DON’T OVERPROTECT
That doesn’t mean all of your troubles are over, however. The fact that amputees feel so much better can actually cause them to hurt themselves as they try to run, jump, and play with the energy and enthusiasm they had before the event that precipitated surgery – only now, they have one fewer limb to help them carry their weight and maintain their balance.
Those three remaining limbs require a bit more consideration and care, because a dog can’t really spare any more! (While there are dogs who cope with the loss of two limbs, and everything in this article is applicable to them, fortunately the need for this is rare.)
Don’t get me wrong: Three-legged dogs can still run, jump, and play; you just need to provide a little supervision and judgment, to ensure they don’t overdo it. Dogs are just not that good at anticipating potential consequences of their enthusiastic physical antics!
It’s up to you to determine whether it’s too icy or if that muddy field is too slippery for them to be playing chase games with another dog. Jumping should be kept to safe, modest heights and limited in number. If they were super-fit athletes before surgery, accustomed to accompanying their owners on long jogs or off-leash hikes, their mileage should be reduced a bit.
FEWER SUPPORTS MEANS THAT EACH ONE CARRIES MORE
When a dog loses a limb, each of his other limbs has to carry more of his weight. The burden increases the most for the remaining leg on the same end of the dog as the amputated limb.
Dogs carry about 60% of their weight on their front end. If you could compel a dog to stand with each foot on a separate scale, you’d find each front limb holding up about 30% of their body weight apiece, and each hind leg holding up about 20% of their body weight. So, do the math: If one front limb is removed, the remaining front leg has to hold up a whopping 60% of the dog’s body weight by itself! If a hind leg is removed, the remaining hind limb will need to carry about 40% of the dog’s weight.
This underscores the need to keep the dog’s weight under strict control; you don’t want any of the limbs to carry any more weight than they must. These dogs should always be kept thin.
Carrying an increased percentage of the dog’s weight as he ambulates is not the only increased burden for his remaining limbs. A single front leg has to catch all his weight for a moment every time he jumps down from a car or a couch. A single hind limb has to propel the dog forward with every stride. No matter which end of the dog is missing a limb, swimming will make the remaining leg on that end have to work much harder, too.
When, due to amputation, a dog becomes a tripod, his stance will naturally change in order to maintain balance and stability. Instead of standing with his feet arranged in a rectangle, with a foot in each corner, the limb that’s lacking a partner will start to shift toward the center of his body, so that his footprints form a triangle. This change in his stance can tweak the rest of his body – spine, neck, shoulders, and hips. For these reasons – an increased workload and a shifting stance – tripods will benefit from some specific accommodations and health interventions:
* Provide nonslip surfaces in the house. Slick floors, whether they are tile, hardwood, or laminate, are the bane of tripod dogs. Dogs who slip tend to flail and/or make quick movements to try to catch themselves – and it’s these frantic motions that are often responsible for torn muscles or ligaments. Wherever possible, provide a route with improved traction (with nonslip carpet runners or yoga mat material) for your dog through the most slippery rooms; you’ll find these will become his favorite paths. Don’t forget the stairs!
Traction socks or non-slip booties are an option for some dogs.
* Prevent your tripod from jumping down. If your dog is in the habit of leaping off your bed or couch, or routinely launching himself out of the car after a drive, you may be a bit skeptical about your ability to control this. But any veterinarian will tell you that the hard landing experienced in this sort of jump is one of the most destructive forces on your tripod’s body that there is. Working on a solution will be worth the effort!
When getting out of the car, block his exit and get hold of his leash. Guide him to the floor of the car, so he doesn’t jump off the much higher seat. If even the floor of your car is high, see if you can use a ramp, or lift him out of the car. In the house, provide him with “puppy stairs” (these are readily found in pet supply stores and online) or ramps, and teach him to use them with high-value reinforcements. He may still jump off the couch or bed when you’re not present to encourage the safer way, but you will have at least reduced the total number of hard landings he subjects his body to.
* Train him to walk on a loose leash. In our opinion, good leash skills are important for every dog, but they are critical for tripods. He already has to work harder to ambulate than a four-legged dog; if he is pulling against you the entire time, he’s working far too hard and in all the wrong ways. Consider a private lesson with a qualified, force-free training professional and practice! (For more information about training a dog to walk on a loose leash, see “Loose Leash Walking,” WDJ April 2017 and “Frustrated on Leash?” WDJ October 2019.)
* Bring a stroller on walks. If your dog becomes fatigued on walks, consider purchasing a dog stroller. After she rests for a bit, your dog may express an interest in getting out and walking again. This will help maintain the length of your exercise time, so your dog (and you!) don’t lose fitness by taking progressively shorter walks.
* Use joint-support supplements – right away. Again, because he has fewer legs over which to distribute his weight, the impact on his remaining joints will be greater than for a four-legged dog. This means he will be at higher risk of developing osteoarthritis.
Don’t wait for your dog to develop arthritis; at that point, providing pain relief is about all you can do. Joint supplements will help prevent, slow, or delay the development of arthritis, which is far better than waiting until the disease is established.
Adequan is the only FDA-approved disease-modifying osteoarthritis drug that has been proven to inhibit cartilage loss in a dog’s joints, thus helping prevent or stave off the development of osteoarthritis. It’s available only with a veterinarian’s prescription and administered as a series of intramuscular injections, twice weekly for up to four weeks. Usually, your vet will administer the first dose; if you think you’re able to inject the next doses, your vet will show you how. If not, most clinics will have a technician deliver the rest of your dog’s doses.
The array of oral over-the-counter dietary joint-health supplements on the market is overwhelming. These may contain glycosaminoglycans (GAGs) such as glucosamine and chondroitin. Herbal supplements containing turmeric, boswellia, and/or devil’s claw have been shown to reduce joint pain caused by osteoarthritis. Fish oil, which contains the omega-3 fatty acids docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects, as have green-lipped mussels. Ask your vet for product recommendations and therapeutic dosages for your dog.
* Provide physical therapy. The value of physical therapy for tripod dogs cannot be overstated. The goal is multi-pronged:
• To relieve pain from over-tight muscles
• To support and maintain joint range-of-motion
• To stimulate and improve circulation, which promotes healing and health
• To gently warm up and stretch muscles, ligaments, and tendons before and after exercise
• To detect soreness that might escalate into an injury if the dog’s exercise is not modified
• To improve the dog’s balance and muscle control
Even a single consultation with a veterinary physical therapist is valuable. These specialists can detect subtle gait or posture problems or adaptations that your dog has made following his amputation. They will then prescribe specific stretching and strengthening exercises and teach you how to do them with your dog. Some therapists also use massage, laser therapy, and exercises in therapy pools and underwater treadmills. Ask your veterinarian for a referral.
* Consider complementary therapies such as chiropractic and acupuncture. Both of these modalities can help relieve pain and keep the joints free and the muscles loose.
* Provide pain relief as needed. Your veterinarian is a critical partner in this essential task.
* Last but not least: You must check out tripawds.com. This exhaustive website is a clearinghouse for information about amputation (as well as the many health conditions that necessitate this surgery) and caring for three legged dogs (and cats). The site also hosts blogs and supportive discussion forums for owners. Perhaps the most valuable resource are the books and ebooks published by Tripawds, containing countless links and references for further information.
The Difficult Decision to Amputate Your Dog’s Leg