Three-legged and happy?

October 16, 2023

We tend to feel pity for animals who've had a limb amputated. But should we? Our collaborator discusses the question with a veterinarian.

There's no disguising the fact that amputation is a major operation and an option to consider following a serious injury or one that won't heal—like a multiple-bone fracture or a crushed paw. It can also help prolong quality of life, for instance when an animal has been diagnosed with bone cancer. Amputation can give animals what's most important to them: a pain-free existence and the ability to be active and play. In the following interview Jim Berry, a veterinarian in Fredericton, New Brunswick and president of the International Veterinary Academy of Pain Management, addresses the prejudices and fears associated with amputation.

Pawsie: Is amputation painful?

Jim Berry, DVM: I'd be lying if I said that amputation, like any surgery, is without pain. But we can control amputational pain quite well: before, during and after the surgery. Available pain medication and pain-relief techniques are very good. Quite often when we do an amputation we want to get rid of the pain involved BEFORE the amputation.

When a veterinarian suggests amputation, what are the other options?

Quite often it's euthanasia. Or long and expensive treatments. When a leg is crushed or severely broken, you really don't have any other option except putting the animal into months, if not years of rehabilitation, surgeries, and pain control. With bone cancer, we are not going to cure the animal with amputation. But the animal can have 9 months or a year more to live, without pain.

You have to ask yourself what's best for the animal? According to animal welfare theory, animals live in the present. If, today, their leg is incredibly painful and is not useful because they can't put weight on it, that's what they experience. What amputation provides, from the animal's perspective, is a pain-free existence, which is better than living with pain.

What is it about amputation that makes people uncomfortable?

Let's not minimize it. Amputation is drastic surgery. And it becomes an option only after the pet has had a massive injury, which is upsetting in itself. When people hear the word “amputation”, they think: wheelchair, prosthesis, limitations. But animals are 4-legged and they do really well, for the most part, with 3 legs.

Following amputation, how long does rehabilitation take?

It depends on the case. If you amputate a hind limb, it tends to be quick: 1 month, sometimes less. For front limbs, it takes longer, especially for bigger dogs.

It also varies depending on the animal's health. For a healthy young dog who's been hit by a car, light rehab at home will be enough to get him going up and down the stairs again. Usually this type of dog will be able to walk a little just several hours after surgery. It's that fast!

For an older dog with arthritis, it's going to take a lot longer, maybe 2 months of rehabilitation. In big cities there are many rehabilitation centres with sophisticated equipment such as underwater treadmills. If you don't live in a city, your veterinarian can direct you to resources to help you with rehabilitation at home.

What about cats? Is rehabilitation an option?

Yes, but rehab for cats is different. Cats aren't usually trained. You have to play games or develop strategies to get your cat to retrieve food from different locations. And, with cats, you can also try massage or acupuncture treatments.

Is it true that animals with tails learn to walk more easily on 3 legs?

Yes. A long tail definitely helps with balance.

Are prosthetics sometimes used after an amputation?

In some cases. But it must be the right case, the right owner and the right animal. They don't work that well.

In conclusion, can an animal be happy with only 3 legs?

Absolutely. When it comes down to it, the animal was already 3-legged before the surgery, but 3-legged AND in pain.


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