1 of 2
Farley, chillin' Photo: Jess Heath
2 of 2
Farley, watching Photo: Jess Heath
The fluffy white dog with the black eye patch stared up at me adoringly and thwacked his tail furiously against the x-ray table. A bylaw officer had brought him in; he’d been running loose, and was apparently injured.
“ I think this is your type of dog,” warned my colleague, Helen. “You better watch out.”
The x-rays revealed that his femur had been badly broken some time ago, and the damage was so severe that we could not repair his leg without multiple surgeries. We elected to amputate, and in the days surrounding his surgery and recovery it became apparent that he was exactly my type of dog.
Smitten, I adopted him and named him Farley.
I had only been out of veterinary school for a year at this point, and so while I previously had the opportunity to counsel people on amputation for their pets, this was my first intimate experience with a three-legged pet.
I wish I could say that Farley adapted to his new home and his three-legged life instantly, but it wasn’t the case. Farley was intimidated by the smooth laminated flooring in my house and couldn’t get around without towels and blankets placed everywhere to give him traction. Occasionally he would detour off the pathway of blankets and then slip and crash to the ground.
It was hard to watch how confused he was when his body didn’t work the way he expected, but every time he fell he would immediately get up, and I could tell he was determined to figure out how to make his new body work.
Farley has been an amazing testimony to adaptation. Since he’s become part of my family, he has become a three-legged powerhouse on the trails at Mt McIntyre and Grey Mountain. If he sees me take out my mountain bike or cross-country skis, he will run in circles by the front door and begin screaming (this is exactly as irritating as it sounds).
He can out-run some four-legged dogs; the only thing that Farley can’t do is scratch his right ear.
As amazing as I think Farley is, he’s not unique — I meet three-legged dogs and cats all the time that are having just as much fun and causing just as much trouble as their four-legged counterparts.
I still frequently have to counsel clients to consider amputation for their pet.
Osteosarcoma, cancer of the bone, is a common cancer of dogs and can be excruciatingly painful. Amputation of the affected leg is unfortunately not curative, but will provide tremendous pain relief for the remainder of the dog’s life. Other types of cancer, such as soft tissue sarcomas, can be cured if the affected limb is amputated. Amputation is also a reasonable option for pets that have suffered severe limb trauma if there is no way to salvage the limb, or if salvage options are prohibitively expensive.
Some dogs are unfortunately not good candidates for amputation — large breed dogs over 80 pounds will have a harder time adapting, as will dogs who have pre-existing neurological or orthopedic problems such as arthritis or ruptured cruciate ligaments.
In general, animals missing a hind limb seem to retain more function than animals missing a front limb. Because amputation means that each leg has to take on proportionally more weight, pets with amputated limbs are at a higher risk of developing arthritis, and overweight pets will need to go on an aggressive weight-loss program after surgery to protect the health of their joints.
Amputation is a heartbreaking choice to make for a beloved family member, but I am continually impressed at how well dogs and cats adapt to a missing limb, and I’ve become convinced that it is much better to have three pain-free legs than four legs and chronic pain.
When faced with this difficult decision, your veterinarian can help discuss what to expect and give you tips about how to help your pet in the first few weeks and months following surgery.
There is also an online support community for three-legged pets at www.tripawds.com.