Veterinarians talk with pet families about many very difficult topics: failing kidneys, life-threatening injuries from automobile accidents, and the need for emergency surgery. But as an oncologist, one of the most difficult conversations is about limb amputation. This topic has been on my mind lately because of two challenging patients with somewhat unusual causes of amputation.
The two patients on my mind are a dog and a cat, hardly unusual, but the cause for amputation was. One of the most common reasons for amputation in a dog is a bone tumor, osteosarcoma. This dog had a non-healing wound on her toe, which turned out to be a melanoma that spread up her leg, causing swelling and pain. While amputation was not expected to cure the tumor, we thought it would dramatically improve her quality of life and reduce her need for bandage changes and hospital visits. My feline patient was already undergoing treatment for lymphoma when his leg fractured. Although the fracture could have been repaired, he would have been confined to a crate for healing, and lymphoma chemotherapy would have increased the risk of infection in the healing bone. Amputation gave him his best shot at recovery.
Veterinarians recommend amputation for a variety of reasons and in a variety of patients. Tumors are probably the most common cause for amputation, but there are others. Cats warming themselves in a car engine or dogs tangling with a motor vehicle may require amputation due to an irreparable fracture. A common reason for amputation in a bird or pocket pet is a severe infection, spread to the bone. Damage to the blood supply or the nerves of a leg is another cause of amputation. Oddly, some pets may look like they have undergone an amputation, but actually suffer from a birth defect resulting in missing limbs. The right owner, veterinarian and a 3-D printer can give these pets a full and fully mobile life.
The tough part about recommending an amputation is not the cause underlying the need for this drastic procedure. When a tumor needs removal, veterinarians know amputation removes the source of pain and prolongs survival. We humans are the problem. We worry about our pet’s loss of mobility, their changed appearance and in some cases, the cost of surgery. Talk with your veterinarian, because sometimes amputation can be the most cost effective treatment.
The ability of pets to compensate following amputation is stunning. In a survey of American pet owners following the amputation of their pet’s leg, nearly three-quarters saw no change in their pet’s recreational activities. Using MRI and gait analysis in dogs undergoing hind limb amputation, researchers in Germany
demonstrated that within 10 days of amputation, dogs experienced a rapid return to full mobility. No bone or muscle injury resulting from the absence of a leg was detected when dogs were evaluated 4 months following amputation. Pet families are resilient too when it comes to amputation in their favorite fur baby. In the Germany study and the American survey, pet families reported they would make the same amputation decision all over again if another pet required an amputation.
I couldn’t find much data on cat amputation, but given their light frame and lithe bodies, perhaps all information a cat owner needs before amputation is contained in this video of a cat who lost both front legs and now walks like a T-Rex.
So the answer to my initial question is a resounding yes, your pet can survive AND thrive after a limb amputation. To learn more about amputation from the viewpoint of pet families, visit the Tripawds website.