When Is Amputation Necessary?

Amputation is a difficult decision, but in some cases it can be the best course of action for your pet’s health.

Most animals adapt well to amputation. By: cygnus921
Most animals adapt well to amputation. By: cygnus921

Amputation of limbs in pets, although a life-changing event, isn’t nearly as debilitating as you probably think.

It’s not usual that some of our patients stand up and walk as soon as anesthesia has worn off. Pets don’t have any preconceived ideas about how they look. All they know is that all of a sudden, they are much more comfortable and without the dead weight.

There are multiple medical conditions that require amputation.

Reasons for Amputation

One of the most common reasons is bone cancer, such as osteosarcoma. Amputation followed by chemotherapy is considered the gold standard treatment.

Occasionally, a tumor in or under the skin of the leg grows to such proportions that removing it entirely becomes impossible. Amputation may be required.

This is a good reminder that removing a tumor — whether benign or malignant (cancerous) — is easier and less traumatic to remove when it is still small.

Thankfully, most broken bones, joint dislocations and skin wounds are fixable. When they are not, when trauma is so severe or repair is too costly for the pet’s caretaker, the most reasonable option might be amputation. Injuries can occur for a multitude of reasons: getting hit by a car, fights, falls, getting stuck, severe wounds and many more.

Birth Defects and Bone Injuries

Occasionally, amputation is required because of a birth defect.

For example, cats and dogs can be born missing a bone in a leg. This causes the leg to be crooked. When the little one tries to put weight on it, it can cause skin sores. In such cases, amputation is the wisest course of action.

Bone fractures and joint dislocations in the newborn can sometimes occur during birth, especially when it is not straightforward. These injuries are virtually impossible to repair, which can lead to leg deformities. Again, amputation is often the most logical treatment once the offspring is old enough.

What to Expect

If you choose amputation for your pet, there are a few things about the surgery itself that you should keep in mind.

Amputation does not mean removing the affected area of the limb only. It requires removing the limb entirely. This is because if we left part of the leg, the pet might try to use the stump, which would cause skin sores. In turn, these open wounds could lead to infection.

One decision your vet will need to make for a front leg amputation is whether or not to remove the shoulder blade. In some cases we don’t have a choice — such as if the shoulder joint or the shoulder blade is affected by the disease. In other cases, it’s elective.

Without being too graphic, let’s just say that once the muscles on top of the shoulder blade shrink or atrophy, over time the area becomes skin against bone and it is rather unsightly. The main detriment of removing the shoulder blade is a longer and more invasive surgery. So this is something you may want to discuss with your family vet or surgeon.

Below is a video diary of a Golden Retriever whose leg was amputated. It shows what you might expect in the weeks after an amputation:

Overall, pet amputees recover very well. Most do not experience mobility difficulties, even geriatric patients with history of arthritis. We have only talked about pets who require one leg amputated. Yet there are some rare pets who had 2 legs amputated — and amazingly, they can walk as well.

Ultimately, amputees have increased movement and decreased discomfort. They may be losing a limb, but they are gaining a new lease on life.

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian. AJ Debiasse, a technician, contributed.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ

View posts by Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ
Dr. Phil Zeltzman, DVM, DACVS, CVJ, is a traveling, board-certified veterinary surgeon in the Allentown, Pennsylvania area. He is a certified veterinary journalist, an award-winning author and a prolific speaker. He co-wrote Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, about weight loss in dogs and humans. He also writes a free weekly newsletter, available at DrPhilZeltzman.com.

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