Limb Amputation And Recovery In Cats

Limb amputation in cats




Affectionately referred to as tripod cats, leg amputation is surgical removal of the limb. Cats are such agile creatures, it is hard to imagine how a cat could possibly cope on three legs, but they manage easier than we often give them credit for.

There are several reasons amputation will be necessary for a cat. The most common are due to severe trauma, usually as a result of a traffic accident. Some cancers can affect the leg including bone cancer and VAS (vaccine associated cancer), which is a rare form of cancer which as the name would suggest, has been linked to some vaccines. In some countries, it is recommended the different vaccines be performed in the legs as if cancer does develop, the leg can be amputated. If cancer develops behind the neck, which is a common area for vaccines, removal of the tumour is much more difficult. Osteosarcomas and fibrosarcomas are two cancers which can develop in the leg. Less common causes may include birth defects, severe burns or frostbite, loss of function of the limb due to nerve damage, a severe infection which can not be controlled.

Amputations can be performed on forelegs or hind legs, it is much more common for an amputation to occur on the hind leg, although front legs can be amputated too.  It is rare for more than one leg to be amputated and a specialised cart will be required for your cat to move around if more than one leg is removed, cats can easily move around on three legs.

Ideally, the cat will not be overweight as amputation places more weight on the remaining legs. Diabetic cats and cats with arthritis can also have issues and pros and cons need to be weighed up prior to surgery in these cats.

How is an amputation carried out?

Prior to surgery, your veterinarian will want to perform some diagnostic tests.

  • General bloodwork such as complete blood count, biochemical profile and urinalysis will be taken to evaluate the overall health of your cat prior to surgery.

  • Biopsies may be carried out on any tumours found in the leg to determine the type.

  • If he has cancer, an x-ray will be taken of the leg as well as the chest to check for signs of the tumour spreading.

Limb amputation in catsUnlike dogs (and humans), almost all amputations involve the entire limb. In many cases dogs and humans have the availability of prosthetics to use after surgery, however this isn’t widely available to cats yet,  (although some cats have been given prosthetics). I suspect once prosthetics in cats become more mainstream, we will see more partial leg amputations. But at the moment, they’re mostly full. The most common type of amputation in the foreleg is ‘scapulothoracic disarticulation’, in which the entire leg is removed up to the shoulder (scapula). There are two types of amputation in the hind leg. Either amputation at the hip joint, or amputation at the upper third of the femur (thighbone), known as ‘high femur’, this surgery will leave a short stump behind.

Your cat will need to be fasted from the night before surgery, usually he will be brought in first thing.

  • He will be given an anesthesia to induce a deep sleep, once this has occurred, a trachea tube will be inserted and anesthesia will be maintained with gasses.




  • The hair on the leg and surrounding area will be shaved off, and cleaned with antiseptic solution. Don’t worry, the fur will grow back.

  • Drapes will be placed over the cat, with a small open area around the surgery area.

  • The veterinarian will perform the amputation, carefully avoiding blood vessels. One the limb has been removed, stitches will be used to close the surgery site.

  • A bandage will be applied if your cat has had his forelimb removed.

  • He will be given pain killers post surgery to relieve discomfort.

  • An Elizabethan collar will be placed around his neck to prevent him from damaging the surgical site while it heals.

Can a cat live a happy life missing a leg?

Limb amputation in catsCats are excellent at adapting, after they have recovered from the surgery, they will be able to come home, during the first few weeks they should be kept indoors while they recuperate. It doesn’t take most cats long to adjust to living with three legs. In most cases, they will be able to do nearly as much as they did before.

While many amputees continue to jump, they may be more hesitant to do so and/or not be quite as active as they were prior to the surgery. The rear legs are used to propel the cat in an upward direction, so naturally if a cat is missing a rear leg, he may not has quite the same amount of power to scale the same heights as he used to. The forelegs are used when the cat jumps down and act as shock absorbers and help to balance the cat.

What is the recovery like after a cat has had his leg amputated?

As with all cats, younger ones tend to recover quicker than older cats. Your cat should be up and about within 1-2 days of surgery. It generally takes between 2-4 weeks for your cat to make a full recovery. When your cat is discharged depends on his overall health, any other medical issues he may have and how quickly he bounces back after surgery. Obviously a cat who has been in a car accident may have other injuries he needs to recover from.

  • He will be sent home with painkillers and antibiotics, which should be administered as prescribed.

  • Your veterinarian may recommend exercises for your cat to help strenghten the remaining limbs.

  • If possible, keep your cat confined to one or two rooms in the very early days, you can gradually expand this area as he starts to feel better.

  • In the early days, your cat may find it difficult to get up onto his favourite bed (or lap). Provide him with ramps or steps to make it easier for him to access these spots. Alternatively, give him a bed with low sides that he can easily climb in to.

  • The Elizabethan collar will need to stay on until the site has properly healed. Your veterinarian may allow its removal while your cat eats. Stitches are removed around two weeks after surgery. By this time the wound should be nicely healed and the Elizabethan collar can be removed.

  • Your cat should be kept indoors for several weeks while he heals from his surgery and rough play should be avoided during this time.

  • Keep a close eye on the surgical site for signs of infection, this may include redness, swelling, discharge and a bad odour. If you are at all concerned, contact your veterinarian immediately.

  • Avoid over-exerting your cat. Discourage jumping.

  • Making sure the litter tray is in an easily accessible spot.

  • Providing a litter tray that is suitable for his needs, this may include one which has lower sides and an uncovered one. You may also consider cutting one side out of his litter tray.

  • Make sure your cat maintains a healthy weight, obesity puts too much pressure on the remaining limbs.

  • If your cat has had his leg amputated due to cancer, he may need to undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy post surgery.

Do cats experience phantom pains like humans?

Yes, it is possible for your cat to experience phantom pains. This is due to the nerve endings at the site of the amputation sending signals to the brain.

Summary:

With a little time and tender loving care, your cat should make a full recovery from his amputation surgery and bounce back quickly. His quality of life shouldn’t suffer because he has lost a leg. It is advisable that you keep your cat confined to indoors or a cat run for his own safety. While tripod cats generally have no problem running and jumping, they may not be quite as agile as they were previously, making them at greater risk to vehicles and predators. 

Images courtesy of Flickr

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