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Keeping Your Three-Legged Dog Healthy
Three legs to stand on
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A really expensive car can go from zero to 60 in less than six seconds, but that car would have nothing on Harvey, a seven-month-old Mastiff/Husky mix, who went from being an $85 dog to a $2,000 dog in less than four hours. That’s how long it took Harvey to be adopted from the Tacoma Humane Society, perform a cursory inspection of his new home on the fourth floor of an apartment building in Seattle, race out onto the outside terrace to check out the dog house and vault over the surrounding hip wall. Harvey hit an awning, landed on the sidewalk and ended up in the emergency room with a badly broken right rear leg that later had to be amputated. “The vet said they usually try to pin the leg first,” says Lindsey Votava, who had fallen in love with Harvey on Petfinder.com, “but with the extent of Harvey’s injury it would have been like trying to put together a bag of potato chips.”

Votava and her husband, Leif Dalan, were clear that having Harvey’s leg amputated would give him the best chance of recovery. Trying to save the leg would have doubled their vet bill and meant they would have had to immobilize Harvey for up to eight weeks, which would have violated several of the laws of physics. “Harvey walked up the stairs after his surgery,” recalls Votava, and never missed a beat. He maintains a wicked Frisbee schedule at the dog park and does everything a four-legged dog does, except “he can’t scratch his ear.” They give him glucosamine for his joints and try to keep him from overexercising so that he doesn’t injure his remaining limbs. “We have to think for him,” Votava says. “That jumping off the roof was how he is. He’s a totally go, go, go kind of dog.”

It’s not unusual these days for a dog to lose a leg, generally for one of two reasons: they suffer some sort of accident or trauma, like Harvey’s, or they develop bone cancer or other bone disease. The latter is what happened to Bernie, an eight-year-old Rottweiler whose left front leg was amputated in January. Bernie was recovering nicely from surgery to her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) when her guardian, Tom Tilden, noticed she was limping and not bouncing back as quickly as he had expected. An X-ray showed bone cancer. “The first vet we consulted suggested giving her painkillers until the pain got to be too bad and then having her put down,” says Tilden. “We found another doctor.”

Bernie’s situation is completely different from Harvey’s. Harvey is lean and lost a rear leg while he was still a puppy; he was able to adjust immediately. Bernie is a stockier breed and lost a front leg relatively late in her life. “The front leg accounts for approximately 70 percent of the dog’s strength and balance,” says Sheila Wells, a hydrotherapist in Seattle who works with Bernie several times per week. “That is why front-leg amputees often have a more difficult time adjusting to their new state. The rear can follow but the front has to lead.”

Keeping the Tripod Dog Healthy

Wells, who has been operating her canine hydrotherapy studio, Wellsprings, since 1995, has a special fondness for three-legged dogs. When she was a child, her uncle had a Border Collie, Trixie, whose front leg had to be amputated after she got into a jam with a poisonous jellyfish in Sooke Harbour, British Columbia. “My uncle’s veterinarian told me, ‘Swim her,’” says Wells. Wells saw the benefits of this type of therapy, and a career was born. “Trixie lived another 10 years, during which she raced around like the wind.”

Wells says that in her experience, most three-legged dogs are “very highly functioning.” Some dogs do better than others, depending on their size (smaller dogs have an easier time), age and other physical problems. “The biggest challenge a dog faces when it loses a limb,” says Wells, “is that it has to relearn proprioception, which means it needs to get a new idea of where its body is in space and how to balance; it’s like the bubble in a level.” The most important challenge for tripod-dog owners, she says, is to protect the remaining limbs; often people will let the dog overdo it, and that ends up putting undue stress on the dog’s joints, which can lead to injuries and arthritis. She recommends that owners observe the following checklist to keep the three-legged dog healthy for as long as possible:

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