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 is 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). This is a rare cancer with an incidence of 1 in 1,000 to 1 in 10,000 vaccinated cats. Osteosarcomas and fibrosarcomas are two cancers which can develop in the leg.
Other indications common causes may include birth defects, severe burns, frostbite, loss of function of the limb due to nerve damage and severe infection which is not responsive to therapy.
Amputations can be performed on forelegs or hind legs. It is much more common for an amputation to occur on the hind leg. 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 before surgery in these cats.
Before surgery, your veterinarian will want to perform some diagnostic tests.
- Baseline tests which will include biochemical profile, complete blood count, and urinalysis to evaluate the overall health of your cat before surgery.
- Biopsies of tumours.
- 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.
Unlike 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 fast from the night before surgery; usually, he will be scheduled to arrive first thing.
- He will be given an anesthesia to induce deep sleep, once this has occurred, a tracheal tube will be inserted, and anesthesia is maintained with gasses.
- The hair on the leg and surrounding area will be shaved off and cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
- 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. The forelimb will be removed up to the shoulder (scapulothoracic disarticulation), or the hindlimb up to the hip joint. Stitches will close the surgery site.
- If a forelimb was amputated, a bandage will be placed over the surgery site.
- Painkillers will be administered 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?
Cats are excellent at adapting after they have recovered from the surgery, they will be able to come home; during the first few weeks keep 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 than they were in the past.
The rear legs propel the cat in an upward direction, natural; if the cat has lost a leg, he will not have the same amount of power. 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. The length of hospitalisation depends on overall health, any other medical issues they may have and how fast recovery is. A cat who has been in a car accident may have other injuries he needs to recover from.
- The cat will be discharged with painkillers and antibiotics, administer as prescribed.
- Confine your cat to one or two rooms while he recovers.
- Provide him with ramps or steps to make it easier for him to access these beds. Alternatively, give him a bed with low sides that he can easily climb into.
- 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.
- Keep the cat inside for several weeks while in recovery. Avoid rough play at 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, due to the nerve endings at the site of the amputation sending signals to the brain.
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 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.
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