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Less Is More: How to Keep Your Three-Legged Dog Healthy

Six tips to keep your tripod dog in tip-top shape.

by Dana Standish
April 23, 2012
Three-legged white dog at the beach
valeriyap/Adobe Stock

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While the sight of a dog with fewer than four legs can tug on your heartstrings, most pups with only three legs lead totally full lives. That’s not to say having an amputation, whether due to a traumatic injury or prolonged disease, doesn’t require some adjusting.

Some three-legged dogs do better than others, depending on their size (smaller dogs have it easier), age, and other physical problems. “The biggest challenge a dog faces when they lose a limb is that they have to relearn proprioception, which means they need to get a new idea of where their body is in space and how to balance,” says Sheila Wells, a hydrotherapist in Seattle.

Losing a front leg also poses a greater challenge than doing without one from the back. “The front leg accounts for approximately 70 percent of the dog’s strength and balance,” says Wells. “So front-leg amputees often have a more difficult time adjusting to their new state. The rear can follow, but the front has to lead.”

Whether a three-legged dog lost their limb due to trauma or disease, most often they will bounce back and adjust. As Wells points out, dogs don’t have the same stigma that we would have about losing a limb. “Some don’t ever notice their leg is missing,” she says. “Usually a leg that has been taken off has been painful for a long time and the dog is already used to not using that leg. When they get it removed, their whole demeanor changes because they can run around without being in pain. There’s no reason a three-legged dog has to be disabled.”

Here are six ways to keep your three-legged dog happy and healthy.

Look Out for Their Remaining Legs

The most important challenge for tripod-dog owners, says Wells, 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. Help them out by putting a sock or pad on the “elbow” of the remaining legs to prevent calluses and pressure sores. Keeping your dog on a healthy diet and helping them maintain a lower weight also helps by putting less pressure on their joints.

Make Sure They’re Moving

Staying active is key for a three-legged dog. That can include any exercise your dog loves—from games of fetch at the park to regular walks around the block—but hitting the pool or a pond is best because it puts less stress on their remaining joints. See if there’s a provider in your area that offers swim therapy.

Don’t Let Them Overdo It

Monitor your three-legged dog’s activity level and don’t let them go overboard. You’ll want to keep an extra close eye on your tripod dog going up and down stairs or moving on other uneven surfaces, especially when they’re just starting out post-amputation and getting used to their new normal.

Ease Those Achy Joints

After an accident left Mastiff/Husky mix Harvey with a badly broken right rear leg, their owners knew amputation was the best choice. They try to keep Harvey from overexercising so that they don't injure their remaining limbs, and they give them glucosamine for their joints. This, along with fish oils and other anti-inflammatory supplements, can do a lot for easing pressure on your dog’s remaining limbs.

Get In Gear

You may need to invest in a “wheelchair,” if necessary, to help with mobility or look into prosthetics. There are options if a dog is missing a foot or two—or maybe three or four and new advancements in prosthetics are made all the time. Martin Kaufmann of OrthoPets.com makes prosthetics and orthotics for both “two-legged and four-legged animals and any variation in the middle.” His goal is “to get the animal world up to speed with what we’re doing with humans.” He began his practice with animals four years ago, after a cousin’s Schnauzer suffered a stroke and lost use of their right front leg. Kaufmann began studying animal anatomy books and learned that the muscle and bone terminology in dogs is almost exactly what it is in humans. Now, 30 percent of his practice is making artificial limbs and braces for animals, mostly dogs. For front leg amputations, you’ll also want to use a car seat harness with wide chest bands.

Ask a Vet

Sudden scratching? Finicky food eater? Loose poop? Whatever pet health question is on your mind, our veterinary pros are here to help.

Call In the Experts

Along with talking with your regular vet, you’ll likely also want to connect with other providers who can help your three-legged dog with everything from assistive equipment to physical therapy. Check out these resources to help keep your dog in gear.

Animal Wellness and Rehabilitation Center: Located in Bellevue, WA, Tejinder Sodhi, DVM, CVC, offers holistic and naturopathic consultations for almost all disease conditions. Treatment options include acupuncture and chiropractic care for animals, physical therapy, Ayurvedic medicine, homeopathy, herbs, nutrition, and diet consultations. Dr. Sodhi is available for phone consultations; there is a charge for this service. Animal Wellness Center will make referrals to holistic veterinarians in your area.

Walkin’ Pets: Walkin’ Pets provides products, services and support for elderly, disabled, and handicapped pets. Their website features links to veterinarians and rehabilitation centers; articles pertaining to pet disability; a discussion board to support people who are caring for handicapped pets; and full descriptions of products available by mail order, such as carrying slings, wheeled carts, stay-dry beds, healthy food supplements, and more.

Wellsprings: Swim therapy and massage promote rehabilitation, and Wellsprings in Seattle, WA provides both to its canine clients. Licensed massage practitioner Sheila Wells works to build the dog’s confidence, increase range of motion, keep weight down, and increase circulation to the injured area. Wells is available for phone consultations and will provide referrals to those outside the Seattle area.

Doggon’ Wheels: Doggon’ Wheels makes custom wheelchairs for disabled pets. Their website includes a detailed description of their products, ordering information and testimonials from people who have used their products.

Eddie’s Wheels for Pets: Eddie’s features custom-made carts designed and built to your dog’s measurements and specific needs. In addition to the basic rear-wheel cart, they design and build carts for front-leg disability, counterbalanced carts for those with weak forelimbs, and carts for amputees. Check out their charming website to see photos of some of their clients, including a dog with a ski wheelchair.

K-9 Carts: K-9 Carts has been designing and building pet wheelchairs for 40 years. Their website includes a photo gallery, links to related organizations and tips on nursing care, as well as descriptions of their carts, harnesses, boots, therapeutic beds, and other products for the handicapped pet.

OrthoPets: Martin Kaufmann makes custom-fitted orthotic and prosthetic devices for dogs and other animals. By distributing the dog’s weight more evenly, a prosthetic device can help protect the three-legged dog’s remaining limbs from arthritis and other conditions. The website includes photos as well as FAQs and links to other sites.

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Dana Standish

Dana Standish lives in Seattle.