A dog toe amputation is just as scary as losing a leg, tail or eye. So when we learned that amputation recovery games expert Kix the Border Collie had to undergo a toe amputation because of a cactus needle infection, we wanted to share her experience with the community.
Here is her true story of a dog toe amputation, as told by Kix’s mom, Albuquerque dog trainer Steffi Trott of Spirit Dog Training.
The story of an unusual dog toe amputation
My dog Kix is a 5 year old Border Collie. She has been my constant shadow ever since she came to me as a 10 week old puppy. We do everything together – hiking, agility, and since I am a dog trainer, she also gets to tag along to work with me. She is the typical high-drive Border Collie: no fear, no pain, no quits!
One day in the beginning of December we went on our morning walk. Kix’s gait was just a little bit off. This happens every now and then – she can be really wild in agility training and daily life and I thought she probably just has a minor muscle strain. I took her home and planned to give her a week of rest.
By the afternoon of that day she had gotten considerably worse. Her outer toe on the right hind leg was swollen to about 3x the size of a normal toe and she was non-weight-bearing. I took her to the urgent care vet.
What is that weird swelling on her foot?
They x-rayed her there and told me she had a subluxation of the toe. This seemed odd as there was no apparent trauma and the injury had gotten worse during the day of rest at home. We were sent home with painkillers and antibiotics in case there was an infection.
48 hours later her toe was just as swollen and painful and now started to ooze. There was blood coming out the nail as well as clear liquid on the side of the toe. The hair had started to fall out. I took her back to a different vet who x-rayed her again and said there was no evidence of subluxation or any other injury. She thought it was a bacterial infection and gave us different antibiotics.
Kix declined fast. She seemed in so much pain. She went from being an off-the-walls Border Collie to not even lifting her head when someone came through the door. I was supposed to soak her foot in epsom salts several times a day. She would be shaking every time I did it. It broke my heart and I just did not know how to help her.
Did Kix Have a Weird Bone Cancer?
Seven days after the first onset of limping we visited a big specialty clinic. Because of Covid, we could not go in – in fact, she had to go to all of these appointments by herself so far! The specialty clinic ran a lot of tests and she was in there for 8 hours by herself, while I waited in the parking lot. It was a hard day for both of us.
They lanced, cleaned and bandaged the toe. They also sent x-rays to an orthopedic surgeon. He saw something horrible on them: bony lysis (bone destruction). This is often associated with cancer or could be the sign of a very bad infection. Either way, poor Kix had another hard step to take: The vets recommended an amputation of the toe.
My world was crashing down – within 10 days my sweet Kix had gone from a highly active hiking companion, wonderful teammate, best friend and skilled agility dog to a dog crippled by pain, scheduled for an amputation and with possible invasive cancer. I was incredibly worried about the implications of the bone destruction in her toe – if it was indeed cancer, she might not be with us much longer, a horrible thought for such a young dog!
Can Dogs Walk After a Toe Amputation?
Again, Covid made this difficult – it was hard to find a surgery appointment with a short wait. Some of the clinics only had openings a month out. At this point Kix was on an incredible amount of painkillers, her oozing and red toe had no hair left and looked like a foreign appendage. I called clinics in all surrounding states – Colorado, Texas, Arizona – and eventually we could schedule her within 2 days at a fellow agility competitor’s clinic 3.5hrs from us.
It was hard to let her go into the surgery. I kept wondering if I was making a wrong decision? Was this rushed? Was I really dropping off my dog who just 10 days ago was 100% fine, to have an amputation?
I felt a strange sense of guilt, knowing that she didn’t understand the reasoning behind the choice. In her mind I was dropping her off at yet another strange place, with people she didn’t know that touched her throbbing foot. My poor sweet Kix.
The Angry Toe is Gone, Let Her Toe Amputation Recovery Begin!
After the dog toe amputation surgery she was very, very tired (as was I – it was a long day of many hours of driving and waiting). Our bedroom is on the second floor, so I set up a bed for us on the living room floor. Kix slept great – she pretty much just slept for the first 48 hours – while I was lying awake checking if she was still breathing.
After the first days she improved rapidly. She seemed in a lot less pain pretty much right away. I knew we made the right decision to let go of that angry toe.
We had a lot of snowfall, ice and mud and this made taking her out to potty rather tricky. The foot was double bagged and I spent a considerable amount of time every day taping and untaping plastic covers to her poor leg.
The Diagnosis, Finally: a Cactus Fungus Infection!
While I was enjoying watching her feel better, a nagging doubt remained in my head: What was going to be the outcome of the analysis of that toe? It had been sent into the University of Texas. Was this just the beginning of a painful road of cancer treatment?
About 5 days after her surgery the vet called me with the best news ever. No cancer! Kix had in fact had an incredibly unlikely freak accident. The lab found plant material in her foot and fungus. Apparently a cactus spike had carried the fungus into her toe, where it had spread – untouched by the many antibiotics – and destroyed the bone. The bone damage was so profound that we could not have saved it even if the vets had given her anti-fungal medicine. We made the right choice – and Kix was going to be ok.
The relief was incredible. It was probably the happiest single moment of my life. Knowing that I was going to have my sweet Kix for many more years, healthy, happy – just with one toe less – was the best feeling in the world.
Border Collie Rehab Therapy Time!
Her stitches were removed after 2 weeks and then we started her rehab. Throughout this process as well we had to improvise with Covid and the restrictions that came with it!
The toe that was removed was luckily the “best” toe to lose – as an outer toe it was non-weight-bearing and as a hind feet toe it was less crucial than a front foot one. Dogs use their outer toes mostly for turning.
As we learned from our rehab specialist, the main focus of the rehab was to teach Kix to use her muscles well so that she would not get compensation injuries from not having the stabilizing toe.
Losing the toe itself was not a big change for her – but she had to relearn how to move safely and efficiently. It was a big bonus that both her rehab vet and specialist trainer predicted she would be able to return to agility!
Learning Exercises for Strengthening After a Dog Toe Amputation
Thankfully, we have the internet and Zoom. Kix’s rehab specialist sends us a written rehab plan every week, and watches us perform it over the internet. Then we work on it for a week and get the next plan. Her condition has already improved so much – by the time the stitches were removed it has been 4 weeks since she had had any kind of exercise to speak of. In the beginning lessons this was clear – especially all the exercises for hind end strength were very difficult for her.
Some of the tasks she was given we would only do for a single repetition in the beginning as her form would get worse with every repetition past the first one. Now she can already do multiple reps and sets and she loves her rehab!
She has different exercises that all target different muscle groups and skills. Every day we do some walking, some trotting, side stepping, backing up, weight shifting and a lot of different stand-sit-down variations on varying types of fitness equipment. As a dog trainer myself, I learned a lot from the rehab specialist during our lessons that will be useful for me in my work both with my own and my clients’ dogs.
Getting Back to Life After a Scary Time
This week Kix had a final surgery – while waking up from the dog toe amputation she must have chattered her teeth, because she fractures an upper canine. She went under again to have that removed. Now she is ready to not see any vet office from the inside for a long time! With as much bad luck as she had, we should be in for many years of great luck!
One little mean cactus spike sure brought us a lot of pain (for Kix) and tears (for me) – but now we are ready to go back to enjoying life together, with one toe and one tooth less!