The special needs of three-legged dogs and cats

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

tripawds

Story at-a-glance -

  • Three-legged dogs and cats (tripods) are at higher risk than most pets of arthritis and other joint problems
  • To help your tripod remain physically comfortable and fully mobile throughout her life, provide her with ongoing physical therapy and other beneficial treatment modalities
  • It’s also essential that you keep her lean and well-conditioned by feeding an anti-inflammatory diet and providing daily exercise
  • A customized supplement protocol and regular wellness checkups are also extremely important in maintaining your pet’s overall health and quality of life

Three-legged dogs and cats are often affectionately referred to as “tripawds” by the humans who love and care for them. And while you may feel a little tug at your heart when you see an animal on three legs, the vast majority of these pets aren’t bothered in the least by their missing limb.

“For the most part, in dealing with three-legged pets, I have found that the only one that knows they have a missing limb is you,” says Los Angeles veterinarian and author Dr. Jeff Werber in an interview with PetMD.1

If you’re considering adopting a tripod dog or cat, you may be wondering if they require more care at home than a "normal" pet, and also whether you should anticipate more visits to your veterinarian (and higher vet bills).

Tripods are at high risk for arthritis and other joint problems

After a dog or cat’s leg has been amputated, the wound site is fully healed and the pet has completed a rehabilitation program, there’s no reason to expect you’ll need to visit your veterinarian any more often than you would with any other animal companion. However, as you might expect, tripods are at higher than average risk for arthritis and other joint problems.

Smaller pets typically have an easier time of it than larger breeds, simply because it’s more challenging to support a heavier body on three legs. But with that said, small dogs with long bodies and short legs like Dachshunds are prone to back problems, and the risk is significantly higher when there’s also a missing limb, which puts additional strain on the spine. Rear limb amputees usually have an easier time adjusting to their new bodies than front limb amputees.

How to help your pet remain comfortable and mobile throughout his life

To proactively protect your three-legged pet’s comfort and mobility after amputation, talk with an integrative veterinarian or rehabilitation specialist about appropriate beneficial treatment modalities such as daily stretching exercises, maintenance chiropractic, hydrotherapy (e.g., an underwater treadmill), massage, acupuncture, the Assisi loop and laser therapy.

If arthritis is already present, additional therapies, including prolotherapy, PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections and stem cell therapy may also be beneficial in some cases.

Many of these pets also benefit from extra-soft bedding to prevent callouses from developing while they sleep due to an uneven distribution of weight. And to ensure a tripod-friendly indoor environment, I recommend rubber-backed throw rugs and runners for hard floors to help your pet get traction and prevent injury. Covering slick stairs with carpet treads will also help boost your pet’s confidence.

To help him get up on the bed or a favorite chair or windowsill, consider steps or ramps. For pets who need additional help, there are wheelchairs, carts and strollers for both cats and dogs, along with prosthetics.

Keeping tripods lean and fit is an absolute must

While it’s important not to let any pet get overweight, this obviously goes double for tripods. These animals need to be kept lean and well-conditioned to preserve their joint health and mobility, as well as to prevent all the same obesity-related diseases pets on four legs acquire. Every ounce of extra weight puts additional strain on your dog or cat’s body.

Remember: Three-legged dogs and cats are predisposed to arthritis. Arthritis is an inflammatory condition, and excess body fat is a primary source of inflammation. The white fat that accumulates in overweight/obese pets produces inflammatory and proinflammatory hormones that amplify the pain of arthritis.

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Diet and exercise recommendations

All dogs and cats, especially those predisposed to inflammatory conditions such as arthritis, should be fed a moisture-rich, nutritionally optimal, species-appropriate diet that is naturally anti-inflammatory, consisting of real, whole foods, preferably raw, organic and non-GMO. It should include:

High-quality protein, including muscle meat, organs and bone (protein coming from animal sources should make up more than 80% of a cat’s diet)

Low to moderate levels of animal fat (depending on your pet’s activity level)

High levels of EPA and DHA (omega-3 essential fatty acids)

A few fresh cut, fibrous vegetables, pureed

No grains or starches

A whole food vitamin/mineral supplement that meets the additional E, zinc, iron, copper, manganese, iodine and vitamins E and D deficiencies often found in homemade diets OR enough of these hard-to-source foods in whole food forms, daily

Beneficial additions such as probiotics, digestive enzymes and super green foods

It’s extremely important to practice portion control at every meal, and you also need to know exactly how many calories your dog or cat should be eating per day. Use these calorie calculators to determine how many calories your pet should take in to lose weight or maintain his or her current weight.

Tripods can and should get consistent daily exercise for all the same reasons all pets require it, and also because it’s especially important for three-legged pets to maintain excellent muscle tone. Strong muscles help support joints in the back and remaining limbs. Obviously, the biomechanics of three-legged animals are permanently altered. Maintaining excellent core tone throughout life is imperative and building excellent muscle tone and ligament resiliency in the remaining limbs that support the body’s weight is critical.

I strongly recommend partnering with an animal rehab program if you have a three-legged pet. These professionals can provide innovative at-home exercise regimens as well as suggestions, tips and tricks for keeping physical fitness plans interesting and enjoyable for both of you.

Rehab professionals can identify changes in your pet’s frame, such as reductions in range of motion, joint fluid deficits, offloading of weight (compensations), muscle atrophy and discomfort at its onset, which means they can dramatically slow the progression of joint disease early on in these higher risk animals.

Your three-legged family member may tire more easily than pets with all their limbs, so it’s important to know the signs of fatigue and provide him with opportunities to rest on walks and during exercise and playtime.

Beneficial natural joint supplements

As always, I recommend working with an integrative veterinarian to develop a customized supplement protocol that should be instituted at the time of amputation. Don’t wait until your pet begins to show signs of pain or reduced range of motion.

Chondroprotective agents (CPAs) that protect the joints and slow the rate of cartilage degeneration are a must, and include glucosamine sulfate, collagen, MSM, eggshell membrane, perna mussel (green-lipped clam) and cetyl myristoleate. Adequan is a brand of injectable joint support that many people find beneficial.

Natural substances that can reduce or eliminate the need for painkillers in the early stages of arthritis include a high-quality omega-3 supplement (krill oil), ubiquinol, turmeric (or curcumin), supergreen foods (spirulina, astaxanthin), natural anti-inflammatory formulas (such as proteolytic enzymes, boswellia, a variety of and SOD), homeopathic remedies (Rhus tox, Bryonia and Arnica, for example) and Esterified Fatty Acid Complex (EFAC).

I have found CBD oil to be a very safe, long-term management strategy for chronic pain, and there are also Ayurvedic and Chinese herbs and nutraceuticals that can be very beneficial, depending on the animal’s specific symptoms. Remember to always use CPAs with any natural pain protocol (or you’re inadvertently allowing additional degeneration to occur).

I recommend bringing your three-legged pet for a wellness checkup with your rehab-savvy veterinarian or rehab professional at least twice a year to review the status of her health, and to check the range of motion in her joints, the muscle mass she’s either gaining or losing and to make adjustments to her protocol as necessary to ensure her quality of life is optimal.

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