Deciding to amputate your pet’s leg can be difficult and emotional. At the Flint Animal Cancer Center, we understand your fears and provide support to each patient family throughout the process. Amputation is one of the best treatment options to control or eliminate certain types of cancer, and many patients undergo this surgery without complication each year, in fact, our surgeons perform hundreds of amputations each year. (Watch these videos for what to expect: Berkley, Piper.)

One of the primary concerns you may have regarding amputation is the uncertainty of how your pet will adapt to having only three legs, both mentally and physically. Although people may have complicated feelings about the loss of a limb, such as anger, shame, or even embarrassment, we have to remember that pets do not think like people. A pet with three legs interacts with other animals and people the same as a pet with four legs.

Physically, pets are usually up and walking around the day after surgery, and ready to go home. In fact, many pets walk as well as, if not better than they did before surgery. This is especially true if the pet has been painful and lame for a while. Once the troublesome leg is removed, most pets seem more than ready to return to their normal, active lifestyles. They can run and play as vigorously as they once did!

Leg amputation surgery in pets

If you decide to proceed with amputation, you will admit your pet into the hospital either the day before or the morning of surgery. The total length of anesthesia time is usually three to four hours. This is a major operation, and the serious complications rate is up to 5%, with a fatality rate of less than 1%.  If everything goes as expected, you should be able to take your pet home one or two days after surgery.

When you first see your pet after surgery, you will notice that a large area of hair around the surgery site has been clipped, resulting in an unfamiliar appearance. There will also be a couple of smaller areas on your pet’s legs where the hair has been shaved for catheter placement. Some bruising or swelling may be visible around the surgical site; this is to be expected and should disappear over the following week.  Your pet may be sent home with pain medication, anti-inflammatory medication, and occasionally antibiotics to help control pain and promote healing.

For additional information, consider watching one of our patient information videos.

At home with your pet after amputation surgery

Once at home, you can aid in your pet’s recovery by ensuring good post-operative care. Most important: Keep the surgery site clean and dry. If the incision becomes soiled, gently clean the area using a soft cloth and warm water. Avoid bathing and swimming until suture removal, usually 10 to 14 days after surgery.

Unfortunately, some pets lick or scratch at the sutures, especially when they are alone and at night. It’s essential to prevent this behavior as it can result in infection, improper wound healing, or another visit to the veterinarian to replace sutures. To stop your pet from irritating the incision, you can put a t-shirt on or an Elizabethan Collar.

Another way you can help your pet at home is by preventing him or her from walking on slippery surfaces or going up and down stairs. During the initial adjustment period, carpeting and grass provide the best footing. If avoiding stairs isn’t an option, you can carry your pet, or help support his or her weight by slipping a towel under the chest or abdomen. As your pet builds muscle and becomes more accustomed to getting around on three legs, slippery floors and stairs should not be a problem.

A primary indicator of how your pet is healing is his or her attitude and activity level.  Any sudden changes in attitude, behavior, or appetite may be cause for concern. No one knows your pet better than you do, so if you think anything is wrong, call your clinician.

Other considerations post-amputation surgery

If your pet is going to undergo chemotherapy, treatment will usually begin at the time of suture removal. Chemotherapy often results in a slow or irregular regrowth of hair, so it may be months before the hair around the surgery site, and any other clipped areas, grows back in. Also, some animals may become more susceptible to post-operative infection due to the reduced number of white blood cells that may occur with some forms of chemotherapy. Your clinician will let you know if this is a concern for your pet and will advise you accordingly.

Three legs and a spare

While the thought of amputation may be overwhelming, your decision will likely improve your pet’s quality of life and provide more time together. Before long, neither of you will notice the difference! To learn more about life after amputation, read Duke’s story.