We can’t always save the leg, but we can almost always save the pet. Amputation is a sensible and humane option in some cases — these guys do fine with 3 legs.
This week, I got a nice message from a client with one of these happy, hopping 3-legged bunnies. The client’s bunny, Gremlin, won “Best Pet 2017” at our local rabbit breeders’ association show just 2 months after his amputation!
Gremlin’s story is typical, although Gremmy did even better with his amputation than expected for a 3-pound, middle-aged bunny. He also went through a few traumatic events and put his loving family and myself through the decision-making ringer before his amputation.
Gremlin was frolicking about the house when his mom heard a crash-thud. She rushed to find him huddled in a corner, picked him up and woefully observed his tiny little rear leg dangling.
His X-rays showed a complete fracture of the tibia near the hock (ankle). The vet recommended a referral orthopedic surgery. This option was not only very expensive but came with a lot of follow-up care and a questionable outcome. It was agreed to try a splint, with the strong caveat that it might not work.
Gremlin came to see me 7 days later to check the splint. But upon removing it, it was not a pretty sight. The leg was infected and pieces of bone were sticking through the skin. The splint had slipped and was actually causing more damage than the original fracture had.
Time for Surgery
Now there was no choice but to try and fix the leg with pins and an external apparatus — or amputate the limb. Gremlin’s family decided that the leg should be fixed.
Long story short, surgery did not go well. The end piece of bone was unstable, and the area was infected. The family and I then decided Gremlin would heal faster and avoid a devastating bone infection if I amputated the leg. And so I did.
Gremlin awoke from surgery bright and alert. He went home the next morning, eating greens and hay and looking like nothing ever happened. And 2 months later, he won “Best Pet” in a rabbit competition!
Why So Many Fractured Legs?
Amputation is a fairly common option when little critters break their legs; they can hurt their limbs easily and healing can be complicated.
Trauma is the most common reason for a fractured leg. Little legs get caught in cages, toys and exercise wheels. Improper restraint, rough play or dropping one of these little guys can result in a fracture.
Infection or Cancer
Small critters are prone to foot infections (pododermatitis) or foot trauma that becomes severely infected. Some don’t respond to prolonged treatment, leaving the animal in pain. Amputation returns them to pain-free walking.
Bone and some soft-tissue tumors affecting a limb require amputation. Prognosis may be very guarded, even with amputation. The client must understand that amputation may only prolong life for a few weeks or months.
If a malformed limb hinders the ability to walk, the animal will do better with an amputation.
Splints and Surgical Options Vs. Amputation
When do we try to surgically fix a fracture or amputate?
Severity of the Fracture
If a leg is shattered or the fracture is in a bad place, using bone pins and plates with or without cumbersome external splints may or may not work. Even in expert hands, surgical and post-op complications can occur.
Trying to save a limb with orthopedic surgeries and veterinary rechecks is usually more expensive than an amputation. An orthopedic small mammal specialist is often needed.
Exercise restriction and stabilizing a limb until a fracture is healed isn’t easy with these little critters. Potentially, internal pins move, external splints get caught on things or slip and infection occurs underneath the splint. The animal can gnaw on the healing limb.
Post-op care for an amputation is more straightforward.
Watch this bunny get around just 1 day after his amputation surgery:
Tri-Legged Mammals Rule
Many folks express shock when I first mention amputation. This is natural.
I comfort them with the fact that small mammals do very well tri-legged, returning to their regular lifestyle quickly and free of pain. If Gremlin is any indication, they can even enter the show ring and bring home prizes.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed June 7, 2017.