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.
Overview of Canine Limb Amputation
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 to cure 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.
Dexter: A Post-Surgery Success Story
Dogs function exceptionally well on three legs and are able to run, walk, and play without pain or discomfort.
Dexter is an excellent example of a dog who overcame his limb amputation and can run, play, and walk just like a human! He’s a quick learner and adapted to walking on his hind legs following amputation surgery. Unfortunately, this Brittany had a limb amputated after being hit by a truck as a puppy. Despite that, this dog lives his best life every day, starring in Ouray, Colorado’s local parades and proving that losing a limb isn’t an obstacle at all. This Instagram-famous dog shows humans how to adapt to the unexpected and is an inspiration to us all.
Veterinary Care for Dogs with Amputation
Prior to general anesthesia your dog may have blood drawn to evaluate for underlying or concurrent health problems. Chest X-rays are often 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 for Limb Amputation for Dogs
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.
Indications for Limb Amputation
- One of the most common indications for a limb amputation in dogs is treatment of osteosarcoma, which is the most frequently diagnosed canine bone tumor. This tumor tends to occur in large and giant breed dogs. It may occur in young dogs (12 to 18 months of age), but is more common in older animals. The most common locations are just above the carpus (wrist), the proximal humerus (just below the shoulder joint), and around the bones of the knee joint. Amputation is an excellent way to control the local disease, which is the actual tumor on the limb. Unfortunately, this is a malignant tumor and it has almost always spread elsewhere by the time an amputation is performed.
- Soft tissue sarcomas are another type of tumor that can develop on the limbs. These tumors are malignant, but tend to be slow to spread to other parts of the body. They are locally aggressive (that is, they damage and invade the structures at their location). If they occur on a limb, it is often difficult to get rid of the tumor in its entirety while maintaining muscles, tendons, nerves, ligaments, and bone needed for normal limb function. Thus, amputation may be the surgical procedure of choice.
- In addition to surgery, radiation therapy or combinations of radiation/chemotherapy may be appropriate for certain limb tumors. Treatment options can be discussed with your veterinarian or with a surgical or oncological specialist.
- As in humans, even when money is not an issue, amputation may be the treatment of choice for limb trauma where nerve supply or blood supply is severely damaged or bone and soft tissue injury is beyond what can be repaired by modern surgical techniques. Damage to the nerves that supply the limb, for example, following trauma that results in pelvic fractures, may be irreversible, resulting in a non-functional limb that drags. This may result in abrasions of the paw through failure of the animal to pick up the leg properly. Amputation may be indicated in such cases.
If your pet 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 dog 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 for amputation, but a biopsy may provide information regarding the prognosis.
Dogs 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.
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, dogs 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 dogs function normally with a prosthesis; tolerating the artificial limb extremely well.
Home Care and Recovery After Dog Limb Amputation
Bone tumors are often painful and your pet may actually feel better soon after the limb is removed. The ability of a dog to get up and move around the day after surgery often depends on the amount of limb function prior to the procedure. Many dogs with bone tumors will not have used the leg for some time and are therefore well adapted to life on three legs. The tumor becomes extremely painful in its own right whether the leg is used or not.
Amputation takes away the painful tumor and these pets are already used to the change in gait the surgery produces and, therefore, their recovery is often surprisingly quick. If the tumor is not producing a significant lameness, if a dog is overweight, has other orthopedic problems such as hip dysplasia, or is an old pet, getting up and around after surgery may be more difficult and more support and encouragement may be needed.
Generally, it is easier for a pet to adapt to a hind leg amputation than a forelimb amputation, because most dogs bear more weight on their front legs than their rear legs.
Make sure that your dog 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 packs. To apply a hot pack, take a face cloth, run it under very 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 on applying a hot pack to the surgical site and have them check it if necessary.
Stitches or staples can be removed in 10 to 14 days.
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