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I have a patient, Ajax, who lost his leg to cancer. Even though his owners found the tumor when it was very small, it was not a type that was responsive to chemotherapy or radiation. The tumor was attached to the bone, so no treatment other than amputation could eradicate the mass.
Ajax’s story has a happy ending — after nearly two years, there's no sign of the tumor — but suggesting to an owner that I amputate a pet's leg never makes for a happy day in my clinic.
An amputation discussion day is sad because most owners have no experience with a three-legged dog or cat, and they tend to project their own negative feelings about amputation onto their pets.
I never suggest this radical surgery lightly, and I only recommend it to control pain or prolong a life. Humans can't walk on one leg or function well with only one arm. But cats and dogs come with three legs and a spare.
Despite the initial shock that most pet owners experience when I suggest amputation as a possible treatment, research shows that most people don't regret their decision.
Two recent surveys — one of dog folk and one of cat people — assessed pet owner feedback following the procedure. Both types of owners reported a high level of satisfaction with their decision to amputate.
Additionally, a Dutch study of dog owners found a high degree of owner satisfaction with their pet’s recovery from the procedure. Like Ajax, most of these dogs underwent amputation because of a tumor, but about a third of them had irreparable fractures, nerve damage or severe infections.
Fortitude in the face of adversity is one of the most endearing canine qualities, and these dogs adapted to their tri-paw status in less than a month — many in only a week! The rapid recovery and excellent quality of life described in the study mirrors my own experiences in the clinic.
The only sad note from the study: Owners reported that “friends” accused them of being cruel, especially if the dog was a senior pet.
In my experience, felines undergo amputation less often than dogs, but they also adapt extremely well to being a tri-paw, since they are lithe and light on their feet.
A survey of British cat owners found that the typical cat amputee was a young male cat, and most amputations were of the hind leg because of fractures. When the amputation was performed as a result of a mass or tumor, the majority of cats were over the age of 4.
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