Tips to Living With a Dog After an Amputation
Seeing a 2- or 3-legged dog tugs at our heartstrings, but you might be surprised to learn that many of these dogs are perfectly happy and quite adept at doing everything their 4-legged counterparts can. In fact, some even do more-like Hooker, an Australian Shepherd who lost her right front leg to osteosarcoma when she was 5 years old. Within a month she was back working (on 3 legs); she even started duck herding competitions and placed second in the nation in intermediate sheep herding. Or how about Dallas, the 1-year-old Chihuahua who made a big recovery? Dallas was turned into the San Jose Animal Shelter with a broken front leg that eventually required amputation, but that doesn’t slow him down. He hikes 4 miles a day, runs with his Border Collie siblings, and has begun training for future agility competitions.
Dogs who are born with a disability or acquire it early in life don’t know they’re different. At least, that’s what we assume-some experts think that dogs quickly adapt physically and mentally in part because there is no stigma against disabilities in canine society. Most dogs are motivated to continue a relatively active lifestyle even after an injury and amputation.
Dogs can lose a limb for any number of reasons, including human cruelty or accidents such as getting hit by a car or falling from a balcony. Many cancers including osteosarcoma require limb amputation as part of treatment. In addition, some puppies are born with neurological disorders or congenital disabilities which require surgical intervention, and others are inadvertently injured by their canine mama shortly after birth.
While many dogs negotiate life quite well with a missing limb, amazing feats of engineering and adaptive technologies can now restore a dog’s mobility to a remarkable degree. Just like Colonel Steve Austin, The Six-Million Dollar Man, we can rebuild him…we have the technology! Ok, so your dog won’t have Austin’s speed or bionic limbs as strong as a bulldozer, but engineering and veterinary sciences are revolutionizing prosthetics for pets.
The use of prostheses in veterinary medicine is not a new concept, but until recently the majority of devices were designed and fabricated by human rehabilitation professionals. In the last 10 to 15 years, veterinary technology has made huge advances in canine prostheses. For instance, over the last 10 years veterinarians and engineers at North Carolina State University have pioneered a process called osseointegration during which a prosthetic limb fuses with an animal’s bone. The permanent implant allows the prosthetic limb to attach without chafing or irritation, giving the limb a more natural range of motion and increasing the likelihood that the canine patient will treat and use the prosthetic like an original appendage.
The Benefits of Prosthetics For Your Dog
A prosthetic isn’t just cool to look at-it serves a functional purpose, too. While many dogs adapt well to missing or nonfunctioning limbs, their success depends a lot on which limb (or limbs) are damaged and how much is lost. Dogs bear 60% of their weight on both shoulders and typically distribute it between two legs. Those dogs missing a front limb often appear to get along well by learning to “tripod” with their remaining front leg and hind legs. However, doing so places the dog’s weight on a single limb and shoulder which can cause additional health problems. The truth is, your “tripod” dog may not be doing as great as you think.
Short-and long-term consequences associated with this so-called overcompensation include injury in remaining limbs, wrist (carpus) or ankle (tarsus) instability or collapse, chronic pain in the back and neck, weight gain, and, in some instances, premature death. Super-stoic dogs are masters at concealing their pain so their aches and agony are likely to go unnoticed by owners. By distributing weight equally to both sides of the body with a prosthetic, 95% of pain associated with overcompensation can be relieved. Subsequently, a dog is better able to exercise and have a healthier life when aided by a stand-in limb.
Whether or not a dog is eligible for a prosthetic limb depends on the level of injury and how much bone remains, a fact which has veterinarians rethinking how amputations are performed. In the past, amputation often involved removing the entire limb. However, modern prosthetics require that 40 to 50% of front or hind limbs must be present for proper attachment. Without sufficient bone, it’s not possible to provide a prosthetic limb. In these instances dogs may benefit from adaptive devices such as a light-weight wheelchair or rolling harness.
Rehabilitation for Dogs with Amputations
Like humans, dogs adapt pretty well to a prosthetic limb, with some dogs figuring it out quicker than others. Success rates improve greatly when dogs work with a certified veterinary rehabilitation person, which normally requires a minimum 6-month owner commitment. Rehabilitation includes training dogs to recognize the ground through the prosthetic, stepping up and over obstacles, sitting, lying down, and standing up, maneuvering stairs, getting in and out of vehicles safely, and managing different surfaces such as grass, gravel, sand, carpet, and hardwood.
What You Can Do if You Have a Canine Amputee
If you share your life with a canine amputee, plenty of options exist for you to help him. Gentle all-over massage, even if you have no formal training, may help him relax. Also, consider learning some Tellington TTouch® techniques. It’s quite simple to learn, and no doubt your dog will love it too! You may decide to go one step further, as Hooker’s owner Katie Van de Sandt did. She was so motivated to help her dog after her leg was amputated that she enrolled in massage therapy school and became a certified small animal massage practitioner; Katie now runs her own business.
Some dog lovers have also tried herbal and essential oils such as capsaicin, rosemary, dandelion, horsetail, and plantain to help to reduce inflammation, as well as aid in bone and joint issues. Don’t overlook less-traditional yet popular forms of rehabilitation including acupuncture, energy therapy, or Reiki, all of which require an experienced practitioner. Some of these treatments are controversial and not extensively studied.
Check with your veterinarian and discuss any treatment plans prior to using them on your dog.