One of the last things you want to hear is that your cat needs a limb amputated, either because an accident left it damaged beyond repair or because of cancer found in a leg. But despite the fact that nobody wants to see a pet disfigured, cats tend to do remarkably well on three legs.
“The casual observer might not even notice that the cat is missing a limb,” says Tufts surgeon and the editor-in-chief of Catnip, John Berg, DVM. “In terms of his ability to walk, climb, and run around, a cat that has undergone an amputation will typically be able to do virtually all of the things he was able to do before the surgery.”
The operation takes about 45 minutes and is the same whether it’s a front or back leg. An incision is made where the limb joins the body. Then the large blood vessels are tied off to eliminate the possibility of excessive bleeding, and the entire limb is surgically excised.
“We don’t leave a stump,” Dr. Berg says. “It’s unnecessary dead weight and looks ugly, too. It’s not like there are prostheses available for cats, and even if there were, they wouldn’t be necessary.”
A cat will typically go home from the hospital just two days after the operation, and he will be able to walk around the house, use his litter box, and do virtually everything else that he has always done. Granted, he will be on oral pain medication for about a week after he arrives home, and you have to make sure he doesn’t chew at his incision, which might require use of an E-collar or other apparatus. (See Catnip article on E-collar alternatives in the February 2021 issue.) But otherwise, there’s nothing that needs to be done to facilitate a pet’s recovery. You don’t need special ramps or any other modifications to the home.
“Cats don’t get depressed about losing a limb, either, or feel bad about the way they look,” Dr. Berg comments. “For animals, it’s all about how well they are able to use their bodies and get around, and cats realize very quickly that having only three legs isn’t going to cramp their style. It’s for that reason that we never hesitate to amputate a limb when it will save a cat’s life.
“Often with dogs who have bone cancer in a leg, removing the leg will help for a while, but the cancer tends to spread to other parts of the body. With cats, there’s a much better chance that removing the limb is a forever solution.”
While a limb amputation is a safe operation, a veterinarian might be less inclined to perform the surgery on a geriatric cat that has already been diagnosed with another serious health problem, such as heart disease or chronic kidney disease.