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The Pros and Cons of Partial Limb Amputation for Dogs and Cats

Is there a difference between a full versus partial limb amputation for dogs and cats? Some veterinarians say the entire limb should be removed because it helps with balance. Yet, other vets say that a partial amputation helps with balance and cushioning. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Today let’s look at the pros and cons of each amputation method.

Tripawd Jake
Jake had a full limb amputation for cancer.

Why Most Pets Have a Full Leg Amputation

The Cons of a Full Limb Amputation for Dogs and Cats

Partial Leg Amputation Wound Healing Problems

When a Full Leg Amputation is Best

What is the best kind of amputation, if it has to be done at all? Well, we hate to break it to you, but there’s pros and cons of partial limb amputation for dogs and cats. In a sense, both schools of thought are correct. Here’s why.

Why Most Pets Have a Full Leg Amputation

Veterinary medicine has historically leaned toward full leg amputations for pets with limb cancer, congenital limb difference, or trauma:

The most common location for removing a damaged or diseased limb in dogs and cats is up high where the limb meets the body. This is so that any remaining portion of the leg does not become a problem for the pet. Any portion of a limb that remains may become traumatized during daily activities or interfere with movement. — “Limb Amputation, “The American College of Veterinary Surgeons

This thinking developed many decades ago. It made sense. “If a dog still has most of a limb, they’ll still try to use it,” write the animal rehabilitation therapy experts at Australia’s Animal Rehab Klinik. In their article “The Reason Why You Don’t See Many Dogs with a Partial Limb Amputation,” they explain:

The reason is quite simply that it’s easier to look after a dog who’s missing an entire limb, rather than one who has a partial limb.

If a dog still has most of a limb, they’ll still try to use it. The perfect example is our little Sunday the rottweiler. You can see how she’s trying to use that left hind limb, and as she does so her spine and pelvis twist, she goes off balance and the times she does reach the floor with that leg she hasn’t got much protection on it. — Read More: Animal Rehab Klinik

Here is the video they refer to:

 

But now, times are changing thanks to the development of pet prosthetics. If we have a choice in the matter, we pet parents have more to consider when thinking about full versus partial leg amputation for dogs and cats.

The Cons of a Full Limb Amputation for Dogs and Cats

A 2019 pet prosthetics study points out the problem with a full leg amputation on dogs. The study is by our friends at Colorado State Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s Orthopedic Medical and Mobility Management team, Drs. Duerr, Wendland, and Seguin, who write:

Partial limb amputation is frequently performed in people so that a prosthesis may be used (3). Conversely, total limb amputation is considered the standard of care as a treatment for appendicular neoplasia, infection, trauma, and congenital defects affecting canine patients, even for distal limb pathology (4–10). This discrepancy in perspective and treatment approach is presumably due to bipedal vs. quadrupedal differences between people and dogs.

Download the CSU Pet Prosthetics Study
Download the CSU Pet Prosthetics Study

Full Leg Amputation Side Effects

The side effects of of a full leg amputation may not be seen until later in a pet’s life. For example, vet orthopedic and rehab experts tell us that three-legged pets have an unnatural gait that causes problems later on. Tripawds are more susceptible to osteoarthritis at a much earlier age than their counterparts. 

However, recent kinetic and kinematic analyses of dogs who received total limb amputations of thoracic or pelvic limbs revealed significant alterations to locomotive biomechanics when compared to quadrupedal dogs (4, 11, 12). Such gait alterations may have deleterious effects on long-term musculoskeletal health and lead to other quality of life issues (13). — “Retrospective Multi-Center Analysis of Canine Socket Prostheses for Partial Limbs”

A full leg amputee dog or cat also has basically no chance to use a prosthetic in the future. 

The Pros and Cons of a Partial Leg Amputation

partial or full leg amputation for dogs and cats
Sadie had a partial amputation with stump healing problems.

Any time a pet’s gait is as natural as possible, it’s a good thing. When amputation for a pet prosthetic is done with the guidance of experts, the Tripawd can enjoy better mobility, for much longer in life than without one. But a partial amputation must be done with a prosthetic in mind. 

Read all about Tripawds and Prosthetics.

For the best chance of prosthetics success, the leg should amputated in a way that leaves at least 50 percent of a residual limb. Two articulating joints are ideal too. And the amputation incision should be done in a way that promotes wound healing. 

Partial Leg Amputation Wound Healing Problems

Not all partial leg amputations on dogs and cats are done with prosthetics in mind. Sometimes it’s just the fastest and least expensive procedure a vet chooses. But then, there’s usually a price to pay. We often get messages or Discussion Forum posts about full versus partial amputations. Most of them are along the lines of what Sadie’s mom sent to us:

Hi I found your email from googling help for dog amputees and then found your Instagram. I have a tripod dog that I adopted post amputee so I do not know what happened to her but she has most of her leg (no foot) so her nub is almost touching the ground.

full or partial leg amputation dogs and cats
Sadie’s remaining stump had wound healing problems.

I am reaching out to see if you know of any nub protector sleeves or any device or wrap that other amputees have used to prevent scraping on the ground when she walks. It breaks my heart to see it bleed. She licks it when it does but she doesn’t seem to be in pain. Let me know if you know of anything that could help that will stay on! Here is a picture of her little leg. 

When a Full Leg Amputation is Best 

Unfortunately, not every Tripawd can use a prosthetic. If limb cancer is involved, the primary tumor must be far down the leg to leave a good prosthesis attachment point. This rules out a lot of dogs. And also, a partial leg amputation healing process takes longer. Complications can occur. As Bridget’s partial amputation story shows, partial amputations for pet prosthetics require more intensive wound care. 

Then there’s the time, and cost of pet prosthetics. Pet parents can expect to pay upwards of $1k for the first device, and additional ongoing maintenance costs over the life of the animal. And for the best chance of success, there’s the cost of rehabilitation therapy to help the Tripawd acclimate to the prosthetic. Overall, it’s a much more intensive process than amputation recovery.

Partial limb amputations and prosthetic (artificial limb) use in pets is a new treatment option for some patients. As with other procedures this is not a good option for all pets and all owners. Stump management and prosthetic use requires diligent daily care and attention. Some dogs may need several prosthetics over their lifetime. — “Limb Amputation, “The American College of Veterinary Surgeons

Moose
Moose enjoys an easy life on three legs.

For most pets, taking the entire leg, whether or not the scapula or hip is taken too, allows them to more quickly adapt to life on three legs. This is why so many vets have always done full amputations, even if only a paw was damaged. And it’s why most will probably continue to do so. At least, until artificial legs can be designed so they are useable with a full or partial limb amputation for dogs and cats. With the advances in pet prosthetics technology, who knows, that day might be right around the corner!

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