Three-Legged Dog
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.

No-Regrets Dog Owners

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.

Equally Satisfied Cat Owners

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.

The survey revealed that 89 percent of the felines had a normal quality of life following amputation. Although it did take longer for cats to bounce back from the procedure compared to dogs, with owners reporting an average time period of two to six weeks following surgery. When the owners were asked if they’d agree to have a limb amputated in another cat, 94 percent of them said that they would if it was necessary.

Physical and Emotional Support Post-Surgery

I would be a very happy oncologist if I never had to discuss amputation with a pet’s family again. But there is some encouraging work being done to help fit tri-paw pets with prosthetics.

Following the amputation of the diseased portion of bone, the prosthesis is inserted into the healthy section of bone, and then the skin and muscles are attached to the prosthesis. Once the pet’s leg bone heals directly into the implanted prosthesis, which takes about five to six weeks, an artificial foot is attached to the implanted component of the prosthesis.

If you find yourself faced with having to decide whether to amputate a pet’s limb, don’t be shy about relying on your veterinarian for help — as well as your family for emotional support.

There are also several online communities for tri-paw pet owners, including Tripawds and Canine Amputees, which can be invaluable resources.

Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a practicing veterinarian for 25 years, is board-certified in both oncology and internal medicine. She maintains her clinical practice at The Animal Medical Center in New York City, providing primary care to her long-term patients and specialty care to pets with cancer and blood disorders.