by Joané van Oudtshoorn, first published in We Love Pets SA.

We have all seen a dog running in the park from a distance and suddenly when he or she approaches, realised the astonishing fact that the dog is in fact missing a limb. It is amazing to think that they can just adapt and live a happy and active rest of their life.

We can learn so much from our beloved best friends when it comes to how to accept challenges. Unfortunately, not all amputees adapt as quicky and might need extra care and support as they learn how to balance, move, and carry out daily activities with only three limbs.

What if they struggle to adapt to their “new normal”?

It can be an emotional decision to make when your dog or cat needs an amputation, but there is hope and a lot of resources available these days. There are many professionals in the veterinary rehabilitation industry who can assist with specific treatments, exercises, home exercise programs, and suggestions. Veterinary physiotherapists, veterinary acupuncturists, and hydro therapists have all reported great results in treatment and rehabilitation for these patients.

Why would an animal’s limb be amputated?

An amputation is a surgical procedure where a pet’s limb is removed, often lifesaving. There may be a variety of reasons which may include a cancer diagnosis, severe trauma (i.e., a hit by car accident), fractures (i.e., multiple fractures), infections (i.e., severe bone infections), congenital deformities, or nerve damage, In special cases, an amputation may be modified to fit a prosthetic limb in patients who can’t tolerate walking on three legs, especially those who have other complications on one or more of their remaining limbs. Patients learning to walk again with a prosthetic limb or orthotic placement will benefit greatly from physical therapy to ensure optimal use.

Post surgery and adjustment period

Once your dog has had an amputation, they will need to learn how to find their new center of gravity, how to walk, change speed and direction, and most importantly how to function in the best possible way. In the beginning, they may struggle with the simplest tasks, i.e., how to sit and get up. Typically, post-operative recovery from an amputation is approximately two weeks until the incision site is healed. Thereafter and during the first days and weeks, a qualified veterinary rehab practitioner or physiotherapist will be able to assist in pain management, wound healing, home recommendations, retraining movement, improving function, and providing supportive devices.

The biggest concern

A dog with only three limbs will be placing excess weight on the remaining limbs as well as drastically changing the way it moves from the way its body was designed. The contralateral forelimb will be under constant stress and will be carrying increased weight. These factors mean that your dog will be at a greater risk of injuring one of the remaining legs, develop arthritis in the remaining legs, as well as develop compensatory patterns.

How can hydrotherapy support your amputee?

Water has many wonderful qualities, that make it a perfect environment for amputees to perform exercise in without stressing their joints and weight on their limbs further. The most important quality is buoyancy – if the dog is swimming there is no extra weight on its limbs or joints and the water provides support for their limbs. Physiotherapists or hydro therapists often perform certain exercises in an underwater treadmill, for the patient to be supported by the water and activate appropriate muscles. For rehabilitation purposes, the water is also lukewarm to warm, and this helps to relax muscle tension, decrease pain, and provide an increase in blood flow during exercise. The benefits of hydrotherapy will target the areas predisposed to osteoarthritis. Thus, your dog will be improving the health of each of his joints without putting any stress on them.

The physiotherapist or hydro therapist will be able to help your dog through swimming to strengthen the muscles of the remaining limbs, improve fitness and body condition and improve overall functionality. Your dog will be building and retraining movement patterns that will be beneficial for him in his everyday life, while he will be reducing the movement patterns that have negative effects on his body. Not only will your dog get fitter and stronger, but your dog is going to be having a whole lot of fun along the way!

The qualified therapist will also be able to recognize any signs that your dog may not be doing as well as he should be and will refer you back to your veterinarian to make sure that your dog has the highest quality of success, he can possibly have during every phase of recovery.

The difference between a fore- and hindlimb amputation

Quadrupeds, like dogs and cats, carry their weight on four limbs, making it easier for them to adjust to an amputation than it is for people. carrying all their weight on only two limbs (bipedal). However, the four limbs do not carry their body weight evenly. Dogs carry 60% of their body weight on their forelimbs and 40% of their body weight on their hindlimbs.

The limbs also have different functions, the hindlimbs are important for forward propulsion and generating power. The forelimbs are important for changing directions, balancing, and braking.

These points highlight the fact that dogs generally adjust better and can return to their function sooner with a hindlimb amputation. In recovery from forelimb amputation, they might take a little longer and require more help while they must adapt to their new balance.

Amputees & Hydrotherapy

A happy, healthy life following amputation

There are always other factors to consider (age, breed, health) if your pet is faced with an amputation or similar procedure, but the outlook for having a happy three-legged companion is often quite good to excellent for an active and healthy quality of life! Talk with your veterinarian about your options and ask for a referral to a veterinary rehabilitation practitioner (acupuncture, physiotherapist, or hydro therapist).