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Limb Amputation in Dogs

By: Dr. Nicholas Trout

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Limb amputation is a surgical procedure commonly performed in dogs to remove a diseased or injured limb, either front or rear. Although there are reported cases where multiple amputations have been performed on the same pet, amputating more than one limb is extremely uncommon.

Dogs function exceptionally well on three legs and are able to run, walk, and play without pain or discomfort. Dogs do not suffer the psychological distress of losing a limb the same way a human does. The primary purpose of the limb is in movement. Because dogs do not need to perform fine motor skills they easily adapt to having only three legs.

Amputation can be performed on animals of all ages and breeds. Some older animals may take a little longer to adapt to life on three legs, depending on the underlying reason for the amputation.

Amputation may be recommended to treat:

  • Limb tumors. The tumor may be of bone origin or may arise from the surrounding soft tissues. Large or invasive tumors may not be amenable to simple excision; therefore, removing the entire limb may be the only good way of curing the disease at that location.

  • Severe trauma. Amputation may be recommended when there are multiple fractures and extensive trauma to the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the limbs.

  • When primary repair is too costly. Amputation may be recommended in cases of fractured or traumatized limbs as a less expensive option to treating a complicated medical or surgical problem.

    Veterinary Care

    Prior to general anesthesia your pet may have blood drawn to evaluate for underlying or concurrent health problems. Chest X-rays are often be taken when tumors are present to determine if there is evidence that the tumor has spread to the lungs.

    If a tumor is suspected, X-rays are taken of the limb and typically a biopsy will be obtained to confirm the diagnosis prior to amputation. In certain parts of the country some fungal bone lesions can mimic tumors on X-rays and therefore a bone biopsy is prudent before such a radical surgical procedure is performed.

    Pain-killers (analgesics) are important both before, during and after amputation; your veterinarian will try to ensure your pet's comfort throughout the procedure.

    The majority of dogs are up and about the day following the amputation. Some assistance may be necessary to help get larger dogs outside, particularly if they are overweight or were not lame before surgery.

    Home Care and Prevention

    You may be concerned about how your dog will look or ambulate after an amputation. If possible, have your veterinarian put you in contact with other pet owners who have had the same concerns, but had the surgery performed nonetheless. Such owners can assure you that dogs typically do extremely well on three legs. It may also be helpful to see slides or photographs of what front leg amputations and hind leg amputations look like after surgery.

    After surgery there will be an incision that needs to be assessed daily for swelling, redness or discharge. Contact your veterinarian if you have questions or concerns. Stitches or staples need to be removed in 10-14 days. Do not allow your pet to lick or chew at the surgical site. An Elizabethan collar may be necessary to prevent this from occurring.

    There is little that you can do to prevent your pet from developing a tumor that might necessitate amputation. However, if trauma is the cause, steps can be taken to avoid it from occurring in the first place. Ensuring that your dog remains on a leash and providing adequate fencing will reduce the chance of your pet getting hit by a car.

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