Most of us have seen a three-legged dog running about looking happy and playing fetch without a care in the world. We may not have initially noticed that they only had three legs because they have adapted so well to life with a missing limb. The truth is that many dogs cope very well on three legs. Limb amputation is a common surgical procedure whereby part or all of a limb is removed. Amputation is performed to improve the quality of life of a pet when they are suffering from a painful disease or injury. Amputation of a limb doesn’t need to be the end of the world, it is often the beginning of a new, pain-free one.

Nevertheless, this is a difficult decision to make for your pet. Your vet will be there to answer your questions and support you throughout the process. Keep reading below to find out more about the reasons for limb amputation! We’ll also look at ways of assessing how your pet will cope with it, and how best to aid their recovery after surgery. 

Why is limb amputation performed?

Limb amputation is major surgery and the decision to perform it is not taken lightly. Your vet will only recommend amputation if they believe your dog will cope well with it and that it will improve their quality of life. Limb amputation is performed to give your pet a better life than they already have, by removing a source of pain and enabling them to move around without hindrance. 

There are many reasons why your vet may suggest amputation, which include the following:

  • Cancer – such as a bone tumour. This is a painful condition and may also spread to other body parts if not removed. 
  • Accidents or injuries – severe fractures or dislocations may not be repairable. They can also be a source of pain or disability for your pet. 
  • Nerve damage – a limb may not be able to function efficiently when a nerve is damaged. The injury may inhibit your pet’s movement or put your pet in danger as the limb may get trapped. 
  • Any painful condition that cannot be managed.

Making a difficult decision 

The decision whether to perform an amputation will depend on many different factors, including the age, size and breed of your dog. Older dogs may have other health concerns such as arthritis. This may make it difficult for your pet to support its weight on three legs. Smaller breed dogs will often adapt better than large or overweight dogs. 

The underlying reason for your pet’s amputation may alter your decision about whether this procedure is right for your pet. In some tumour cases, amputation is not a cure. Some pets may benefit from additional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy (treatments aimed at destroying cancerous cells). It is important to discuss your concerns with your vet so that you can make the right choice for your pet. 

Helping your dog adapt to life on three legs

Post-op recovery

It is important to follow the vet’s after-care instructions to reduce the risk of complications after your pet’s limb amputation surgery. This will involve strict rest and keeping them comfortable for the initial 10-14 days after surgery. Your pet will be given pain killers and any additional medication deemed necessary. You should monitor the wound daily for any bleeding, swelling or discharge and contact your vet should this happen.

It is important to prevent your pet from licking their wound by using an anti-licking device. Ensure your pet is well-rested to give it the best chance of a speedy recovery. Providing deep-padded bedding for your pet to lie on will allow them to rest comfortably. It is possible for pets to suffer from phantom limb pains after amputation, therefore, if you have any concerns during your pet’s recovery process, you should contact your vet for advice. (There are now medications that can help manage this pain if needed).


It will take your pet time to adapt to life on three legs. It is important not to rush their recovery. Don’t encourage your dog to do too much too soon, no matter how much they would like this. They may fall over and injure themselves whilst adapting to balancing on three legs. They will need to build muscle in their remaining limbs so ask your vet about controlled strength-building exercises. Your vet may recommend that you visit a veterinary physiotherapist.

Your pet won’t appear as fit as they previously did. Walking on three legs will take a lot more effort so it is important to be patient with their recovery. Short lead walks will take a lot more energy so some people consider alternative forms of exercises such as hydrotherapy (controlled swimming) to build up muscle and stamina. This will be fun and easier on their joints.

Keep a close eye on your pet’s weight, it will be more important than ever to ensure your pet is kept in ideal body condition. Weight gain makes it more difficult for your pet to cope on three legs. During the early stages of your pet’s recovery, they may be more prone to weight gain as they will be less active than their former four-legged self. 

Other adaptations 

Your dog is likely to find it more difficult getting about and may struggle to access their home comforts such as furniture or beds or even their food or water. Ramps and steps can be used around the house in order to help your best friend navigate their home in a safe manner and without the need to jump. You may need to re-think the layout of some of your home. Make it more user friendly to a three-legged dog. For example, replacing laminate flooring with rugs or carpets so that they do not slip or fall. 

Other household pets may be confused by the change in their companion and may initially be sad that they are unable to play with them. Therefore, re-introduce pets slowly to the patient and monitor them closely to ensure they are both kept safe. If you are worried about your dog’s adjustments or recovery, then contact your vet for further advice. 


Limb amputation is major surgery and one of the most difficult decisions to make for your pet. The procedure is used to alleviate pain and suffering from a variety of diseases and illnesses. Most dogs adapt extremely well to their new life on three legs. Your dog will need time to adapt initially but there are many things we can do to aid this process. Your vet will help support you both in making this decision for your pet and during the recovery period.