Amputation in Dogs & Cats
Amputation is the surgical removal of an extremity of the body. This may be as small as a toe or tip of the tail, or as large as a forelimb or hindlimb, depending on the underlying medical condition that led to an amputation.
Why do some pets need amputation?
There are many possible reasons for an amputation. Common examples include:
- An injury that can’t be repaired and could result in chronic pain (for example, a very severe fracture of the front leg with a car-related accident, or getting part of the tail caught in a door in such a way that the skin is removed or “degloved”).
- An injury that resulted in severe nerve damage, leading to a paralyzed and non-feeling limb (which could cause mobility issues and chronic infections if not amputated).
- A cancer that could be cured or quality of life improved with removal (Examples include osteosarcoma, a cancer of the leg bone, or a non-healing cancerous wound on the tip of the ear or toe).
The recommendation for amputation or another type of treatment will vary depending on your individual pet, the injury/condition in question, your pet’s overall health condition and quality of life, and other factors.
Can amputations be prevented?
For injury prevention, avoid letting your pet roam outside without a leash or a fence to keep them confined to your yard. A pet roaming free without supervision is a common way for injuries such as being hit by a car to happen.
That being said, accidents do happen even in the most loving and careful of households. That’s why they call them “accidents.”
So, if your furry friend suffers an accident, don’t beat yourself up — just seek the medical care they need, and be sure to give them plenty of love and attention. And remember, even if an amputation is needed, your pet can have a wonderful quality of life!
Cancer, unfortunately, often can’t be prevented. We don’t fully understand all the factors causing cancer in pets yet—but, many times there is a genetic component, making certain breeds more predisposed to certain types of cancers.
The best thing you can do is keep up with routine veterinary care.
Your vet can help diagnose diseases in their early stages (when there may be more treatment options) via a physical exam, and routine screening tests such as wellness bloodwork or x-rays.
Which diagnostic tests are needed?
Diagnosis will vary depending on the specific condition and the types of clinical signs your pet is showing.
For example, if your cat has the tip of their tail missing after an injury, the diagnosis is obvious, but testing such as bloodwork will still be done to ensure your cat is healthy enough for anesthesia.
On the other hand, if your large-breed dog is limping and has a painful knee, your vet will need to determine whether there is a ligament injury, a bone cancer, or some other cause. In addition to the physical exam, diagnostic tests like x-rays will be needed to accurately diagnose the condition and decide on an appropriate treatment plan.
What does the surgery entail?
Surgery involves removing the affected part of the body, whether that’s a single toe or a whole limb.
Before the procedure, your vet will discuss with you exactly what is being removed and why. And, they’ll talk about quality of life after amputation.
The night before the surgery, you’ll need to fast your pet. Then, the next day they’ll have the surgery and remain under observation afterward.
Your veterinary surgeon may recommend keeping your pet in the hospital for 1-2 days, for intravenous pain meds, monitoring, and restricted activity so they can heal. But, this recommendation will vary by individual pet.
What’s the amputation recovery look like?
When your pet comes home, they’ll probably receive:
- Pet-safe medications for pain relief and inflammation, and possibly antibiotics.
- An Elizabethan collar to prevent licking and chewing of the incision site.
- A bandage over the area.
Some bruising or swelling may be visible around the surgery site. This is normal.
Your furry friend will need to rest because too much activity too quickly can have a negative impact on healing. Some pets will want to play as soon as they’re feeling better, so it’s important to restrict your pet’s movement until your vet says it’s okay to resume their normal activities.
Your individual pet’s instructions may vary, so always follow your vet’s instructions exactly, and call your vet’s office with any questions or concerns.
What does life after amputation surgery look like?
A missing tail tip may not require much adjustment. Full leg amputations, on the other hand, may require some extra care.
That being said, it’s important to know that many amputees do VERY well on their three remaining limbs — especially younger pets, who may be able to run and play just as well as they did on four legs.
Pets with injuries or arthritis of the other limbs may have a longer or more difficult recovery period, but your vet will discuss all of this with you beforehand. And remember, your vet won’t recommend amputation unless it’s likely they’ll have a better quality of life after surgery than they did before.
How should I care for my pet after amputation?
For limb amputations, there may be a period of adjustment while your pet gets used to their “new normal.” During this time, your pet may have some trial and error to find their balance, so it’s best to avoid stairs if possible.
Assisting your pet’s walking with a sling (a towel or blanket placed underneath them, or a special harness with handles) to support their weight may also be helpful during this time. And, when in doubt, start small and work your way up to more activity and longer walks.
Also, talk to your vet about physical therapy, which may help your furry BFF during their recovery.
The good news is, once your pet gets used to the change, they can resume most or all of their favorite activities, and enjoy a great quality of life.