Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Most Dogs and Cats Do Well on Three Legs

Pet Column for the week of March 22, 2012

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Related site - Rehabilitation services at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

[Djano Domal is a happy tripod cat.]
“He approaches the world with an inspiring amount of resilience, adaptability, and creative problem-solving," says owner Debra Domal of her cat Django, who is missing his right front leg.

Office of Public Engagement
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Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way Rose
Information Specialist

Affectionately called “tripods,” many dogs and cats manage just fine with only three legs. Their owners, on the other hand, may be the ones who have concerns when faced with a medical decision about amputation.

“Owners are frequently concerned that their pet will experience pain and discomfort and may face mockery,” says Kim Knap, a veterinary technician and certified rehabilitation therapist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana.

Knap has worked with many pets that underwent leg amputation and has a first-hand view of their recovery and post-surgical quality of life.

Contrary to what many people believe, dogs have an innate ability to recover well from an amputation surgery. According to Knap, dogs place 60 percent to 70 percent of their weight on their front limbs and 30 percent to 40 percent on their back limbs. Amputees can shift their weight differently depending on the leg affected in order to make themselves more comfortable. For this reason, amputee animals adjust to having three limbs very well. While cat amputees are not as common, their light weight and body structure help them adjust very well.

Depending on the reason for the amputation, rehabilitation therapy can assist pets in learning how to get around on three legs. In a case where the animal suddenly loses limb function, such as a severe fracture, therapy can be extremely beneficial. Other times animals lose function gradually because of a progressive disease, and these animals typically adapt very well to three legs and may not benefit from therapy.

Many owners worry that their pet will not be able to return to favorite activities. As the pet gains confidence on its “new” legs, the owner usually grows more confident in the pet’s ability to live a full life.

Simple things, such as urinating and defecating, can be difficult in the beginning, but in time owner and pet begin to adapt and the simple and more difficult activities become easier. Knap encourages owners to recognize that any step is a big step for amputees. Many of these animals will go on to have no limitations to their activities whatsoever.

Empowering a tripod pet to live independently is the best thing owners can do. Knap also believes that by sharing the story of a three-legged pet to others at a dog park or in the neighborhood, owners can raise awareness about and acceptance of these “disabled” pets.

Tripod cat owner Debra Domal agrees.

“Our tripod, Django, had his entire front limb and shoulder amputated when he was just a few months old, and we adopted him shortly afterward,” says Domal. “At first we set up a separate space for him upstairs, behind a short gate, with food, water, litter box, blankets, and toys.

“One night as we were wondering if and when Django would be able to tackle the stairs and have full run of the house, we heard a noise, turned around, and there was Django in the kitchen standing in front of the ‘big kitty’ food and water bowls.

“I guess that was his way of telling us he wanted to be treated just like everyone else.

“From that point on, there’s been no stopping him. He can jump to the top of a 4-foot cat condo and wrestle with the older cats,” she says. “He approaches the world with an inspiring amount of resilience, adaptability, and creative problem-solving.”

If you have questions about three-legged pets, please consult your local veterinarian.