Amputations are Really Hard

 You have probably seen many three-legged dogs and cats over the years. Removal of a pet’s leg or tail, even an eye, is not that unusual in veterinary medicine. You see, catastrophic injuries are rather common in animals due to their poor judgment and their inarguably low status in society. Panic-stricken dogs run into and out of busy streets, heat-seeking cats crawl up into car engines. Pets leap out of speeding vehicles and remain inside burning buildings. They don’t wear seat belts. And after a dispute with an armed human being, the animal never gets to tell his side of the story. Repairing severe injuries is usually expensive and often complicated. Recovery times can be very lengthy. The vast majority of pet owners have to pay those expenses out of pocket and handle the at-home nursing care without assistance. It’s not infrequent that the math just ends in subtraction of a limb.

Amputations are not really that difficult to perform, compared to many of the repairs that would be needed to restore a leg to full function. This surgery can often be carried out in your primary care vet hospital. It’s not the procedure itself that poses a challenge, as much as the conversation that precedes it. Many pet owners find it really painful and foreign to imagine their beloved friend with one less leg, or even to accept the shortening of a damaged tail. They are not ready to visualize their pet in a way that seems so profoundly different.

Broken bones have traditionally been viewed as a rather superficial injury (and perhaps that’s true for most human youngsters), but the majority of our pets aren’t youngsters any more. It comes as a surprise for many pet owners that fractures sometimes require a specialist and don’t always heal. It’s even harder to understand when the injury isn’t obvious to the naked eye. Ligament damage may render a leg useless while, externally, it looks nearly normal. Nerve damage is virtually invisible, yet a paralyzed limb with no sensation does very poorly over the long term. The leg is subjected to continual trauma by dragging, licking, and chewing, and those wounds remain open for months. A limb with nerve damage will just become more and more of a liability until it absolutely must be amputated.

It’s an especially bitter pill to swallow when there was no traumatic injury leading up to the amputation. Even if it’s small, an aggressive cancer will eventually spread to the rest of the patient’s body and take his life if the tumor and its surroundings aren’t removed. The entire leg usually needs to go, because prosthetics for dogs and cats are hard to come by.

All of this makes the amputation conversation a really traumatic one. A major shift in perspective is often needed in order to see that the pet will be better off after this procedure. If we can get through that, the surgery will go just fine, producing a patient that is healthy, mobile, and—most importantly—happier without his damaged limb.

Dr. M.S. Regan