Limb Amputation in Cats

Overview of Feline Limb Amputations

Limb amputation is a surgical procedure commonly performed in cats 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.

Cats function exceptionally well on three legs and are able to run, walk, and play without pain or discomfort. Cats 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 cats 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:

Veterinary Care of Cats Considering Amputation

Prior to general anesthesia your cat 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 cats are up and about the day following the amputation.

Home Care and Prevention

You may be concerned about how your cat 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 cats 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 cat 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. It is best (although not always possible) to keep cats indoors.

In-depth Information on Feline Amputation

Indications for Feline Amputation

Diagnostic Tests Before Amputation Surgery for Cats

If your cat has suffered severe limb trauma your veterinarian may recommend amputation after performing an orthopedic and neurological evaluation. Other organs such as the lung, heart, or bladder may also be injured, necessitating that your cat be stabilized prior to surgery to allow any life-threatening problems to be treated.

In cases of tumors, biopsy is usually performed initially to define the tumor type. This allows your veterinarian to plan the best treatment regime and to give you an idea of the prognosis.

Some limb tumors are so large that amputation is the only effective treatment option. Alternatively, x-rays of the limb may show severe bone destruction that has resulted in a fracture. In such cases there may be no option to amputation, but a biopsy may provide information regarding the prognosis.

Cats undergoing an amputation for a tumor should have blood work and a urinalysis performed to ensure that they are otherwise healthy. A series of chest x-rays may be performed to determine if there is evidence that the tumor has already spread to the lungs.

Biopsies can be taken by removing a small wedge or core of tissue or by using biopsy needles when a sample of abnormal bone is required. A pathologist will examine the tissue and the results should be available in a few days. When the biopsy contains bone, the sample will need to be de-calcified before it can be looked at with a microscope. This may take a few days to two weeks, depending on the nature of the sample.

Local lymph nodes on or around the affected limb will be evaluated for enlargement. In some cases, a needle may be inserted into the nodes to aspirate cells. Such aspirates can then be examined microscopically for evidence of tumor spread.

Treatment with Amputation Cats

Amputation will be preceded by the administration of pain-killers or analgesics, usually morphine derivative drugs. By administering them prior to surgery they serve to block pain receptors in the brain before the pain begins. They may be given in the form of an injection or administered via a patch that is placed on a shaved area of skin approximately 18 hours prior to the surgery. For hind leg amputations an epidural analgesic can be performed to reduce postoperative pain. Nerves will be cut during the procedure and these will be blocked with a local anesthetic to further reduce discomfort. Pain-killers will be continued after surgery to ensure a smooth, comfortable recovery. Oral analgesics or anti-inflammatory drugs may be sent home with your pet for a week or so after the procedure.

For forelimb amputations, the limb can be removed at the level of the humerus but removal of the scapula with the limb is more cosmetic.

With hind leg amputations, the level of the amputation will depend upon where the lesion is located. The most common location for amputations to be performed is at the upper third of the thigh bone (the femur). At this site, muscle that has been cut can be brought over the end of the bone to provide a smooth stump. If a tumor exists above or around the knee this level of amputation may be too close to the lesion, necessitating that the amputation be performed at the hip joint. If a tumor exists even higher up the leg, then not only the limb but a portion of the pelvis may need to be removed in order to help ensure complete removal of the tumor.

After forelimb amputations a soft padded bandage is usually placed over the surgical site. The bandage provides protection for the wound and thus makes the animal more comfortable. It also reduces swelling and fluid accumulation at the surgical site. For hind limb amputations bandages are seldom applied.

If the tumor involves the scapula, resection of the scapular bone may be performed. Up to 80 percent of the scapula can be removed without compromising limb function.

Occasionally, alternatives to amputation may be possible for treating certain tumors affecting the limbs. In the forelimb, osteosarcoma of the distal radius, which is the bone just above the wrist joint, may be treated by excision of the bone and replacement with a bone graft, which is fixed in place with a long metal plate and screws. This procedure is referred to as a limb-sparing surgery because it can result in a functional limb. However, this procedure does not affect the overall survival time for this type of cancer.
As in humans, cats can be fitted with a prosthesis following an amputation. For this procedure the amputation is performed lower down on the front leg (below the elbow) to leave an adequate stump for application of a carefully and specifically fitted prosthesis. Many cats function normally with a prosthesis; tolerating the artificial limb extremely well.

Follow-up Care for Cats After Amputation

Bone tumors are often painful and thus your cat may actually feel better soon after the limb is removed. Assisting a cat to get up and around after an amputation can be challenging. Most cats are able to ambulate after surgery without problems, but they may have some problems jumping on their favorite perches. Your cat may need some time to adapt to the limb being gone, but this is something it will usually learn on his own.

Generally it is easier for a cat to adapt to a hindleg amputation than a forelimb amputation, because cats bear more weight on their front legs than their rear legs.

Make sure that your cat remains indoors until the surgical site has healed and the stitches have been removed. Check the surgical incision daily for swelling, redness or discharge. Bruising around the incision is common and there may be some fluid accumulation in certain areas of the incision that require hot packing. To perform hot packing you may take a face cloth, run it under warm water that you can just tolerate, wring it dry and then apply it to the swollen area (not directly on the incision) for a few minutes, 2 to 3 times a day. The swelling should resolve within a few days to a week. Notify your veterinarian if you are planning to hot pack an area of the surgical site and have him/her check it if necessary.

Stitches or staples can be removed in 10-14 days.