Tripod Dog Life

Tripod border collie mix dog missing back leg is playing in the water. On the left she is younger and has an electric blue and pink lifejacket on and a large stick in her mouth while she is running through the water. The second picture of her to the right is a more recent picture so she has more grey on her face but still has a happy open mouth expression with bright eyes and a wagging tail while standing in lake water.

From Four-Legged to Three-Legged: How to Care for Dogs with an Amputation

There is no reason why a pet with an amputation cannot live a long, happy, and healthy life—period! The idea of your canine friend needing a limb or part of a limb removed might be scary to think about. I was there too when I adopted Kalina, but the reality is that dogs are extremely adaptable.

Whether the amputation is needed because of cancer, a wound complication, severe trauma, or a birth defect, generally the prognosis is very good for returning to a high level of function for the dog’s age. Kalina’s reason was severe trauma, nerve damage, and infection, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell by her spunk! She had an extreme case with sad reasons, but she wasn’t going to let anything stop her!

Types of Amputations– Amputations may be recommended for either a front or hind limb, and as partial or complete. In the case of a complete amputation, which is most common, the affected limb is removed high up where the limb attaches to the body.

In partial amputations, only a segment of the limb is removed, leaving a stump that requires daily care to ensure proper skin protection. Prosthetics are usually recommended in this case as the remaining portion of the limb may become injured during daily activities or impede normal movement.

The generally accepted criteria for a successful prosthetic is still having 40-50% of the radius/ulna (if it is the front limb) or 40-50% of the tibia/fibula still present (if it is the hind limb). Being able to choose between partial and complete may be an option; talk to your veterinarian to see which will be best for your dog. If cancer is the reason for amputation, the need for curative margins may make leaving enough for a prosthetic a less appropriate option for long-term health.

What to Expect

Most dogs are discharged within a few days, and often the day of the surgery. They are sent home with pain medication and sometimes antibiotics. To prevent interference with the incision site, it’s recommended that dogs should wear a Post Surgery Safety-Collar (“cone of shame” as some call it) for 10–14 days. Kalina struggled with staying calm and not getting at her incision. She even learned to scratch out staples USING her Plastic Post Surgery-collar, so we had to have a lot of enrichment and closely supervised Surgery-collar off time. It was important for her mental health during healing.

Once at home, they should be kept in a comfortable and safe environment for the first 24 to 48 hours without access to stairs or slippery floors. We bought cheap and borrowed rugs because my apartment at the time was all slick flooring.

Remember that your dog need to feel comfortable and be gaining confidence during this time. Kalina came home with medications and crate rest restrictions, and not long after her being home and acting restless then in distress, I was calling her veterinarian back (I was a vet student at the time).

She needed a different kind of medication- the “craziness” I was seeing was Kalina suffering with post surgical nerve pain! As soon as the new medication (gabapentin) kicked in her system, she relaxed and had a comfy recovery after that. It was a relief to be able to see her finally sleep comfortably. Always let your vet know what is going on at home if you have questions because your vet wants your pup to have a smooth recovery too! If I hadn’t advocated for Kalina immediately, she would have injured herself, had much worse wind up pain, and possibly developed long term permanent side effects!

A sling can be used to assist your pet with rising and maintaining balance, but rigorous activity should be avoided for about four weeks or longer, depending on the dog’s general health and prior level of activity. Kalina needed assistance the first week with potty time balance. You can modify a towel as a sling in some cases, like we had to with limited access to supplies on the island of St. Kitts.

Your dog should be receiving physical rehab with stretches, massage, and a therapeutic exercise program designed to improve balance and strength for better standing and walking on three legs, or using a prosthetic (if applicable).

Normal mobility is more easily immediately achievable for hind limb amputees versus front limb amputees as the latter must make a larger adjustment to their gait. But both gaits are severely affected. Either way, most dogs will be able to get back to normal mobility; some just need more time than others.

How a Veterinary Rehab Therapist Can Help

A certified canine rehabilitation therapist (CCRT) is specially trained in how to optimize movement and minimize pain for dogs. This applies not only to your dog’s functioning within weeks after surgery but also to your dog’s health for life! A canine rehab therapist can teach you several things, including the following:

  • How to help your dog perform home exercises to maintain balance, mobility, and strength
  • How to properly inspect and care for the skin in the case of partial limb amputations
  • How to perform gentle massage techniques for overworked muscles to keep your pup as comfortable as possible, especially on more active days

And these are just a few of the numerous ways in which they can help your dog adapt to and live their best life!

Thanks to the Tripawds Foundation and donations, The Maggie Moo Fund For Tripawd Rehab was established in 2015 and still helps new amputees connect with Certified Rehabilitation Therapists by reimbursing up to $200 of your first rehab appointment for your dog after surgery. Tulsa Animal Rehab & Wellness can help you with this process if you would like assistance. Click Here for the Tripawds Foundation website with the details. Tripawds Foundation is a great free resource to check out. And you can also email with any questions!

Special Equipment

Using a harness to help your dog get around, such as when getting in and out of a car or going up and down stairs, may be helpful in the first few weeks after surgery, and possibly longer depending on his or her age and general health. For high-quality harnesses that are made for lifting and assisting with the dog’s comfort in mind, be sure to check out Ruffwear and Help ‘Em Up harness systems.

Kalina has both brands of harnesses for different reasons. We started with Ruffwear when she had her amputation surgery, and now that she is a senior she has the Help ‘Em Up harness with the anti-rotational strap that we got…but with her improving so much with physical rehab, we haven’t actually used or needed the Help ‘Em Up yet, yay!

I do not have an affiliation with either company, but I am excited to try out Ruffwear’s new harness called the Flagline harness if we decide to upgrade from her Web Master and Double Back Full Body harness that she has been enjoying using for over 7 years. The Flagline does not support the hind end like the Help ‘Em Up, but it will be better for our hikes where she just needs a little help over trees or boulders because of the better sternal support and much easier to put on than her original harnesses. Ruffwear is also Kalina’s lifejacket brand and is used by many rehab professionals.

While it is uncommon, some dogs who undergo amputations have or develop severe arthritis or another condition that affects mobility may require the use of a doggy wheelchair. Similar to walkers for humans, doggy wheelchairs can provide much-needed balance support to make daily walks less of a chore and more enjoyable.

adventure safe and smart- Having a harness that supports lifting can be helpful for any dog on the trail, but can be especially supportive for dogs missing a front of back leg! Picture of a RUFFWEAR Flagline Harness that is a new favorite especially for front limb tripods. Kalina, a senior border collie hind limb amputee is laying comfortably at a crag with a RUFFWEAR harness on.

If you are looking to purchase gear for your tripod, please consider purchasing through this link that benefits the 501c3 Tripawds Foundation. Not only do they provide free support to tripod parents, but they also reimburse initial tripod rehab therapy visits-

A limb amputation for your pup will require a bit of an adjustment for both you and your pup, but by no means does the fun have to stop just because of a change to one leg, or even two. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a certified canine rehab therapist, especially to stay on top of other musculoskeletal issues as with an amputation the joints of the remaining limbs must compensate for the extra load, which can lead to chronic issues if not addressed early on. (Hint: Keeping your dog’s weight under control will help to prevent accelerated wear and tear on the joints as well as starting veterinary recommended joint supplements now!)

The best thing you can do for your pup with an amputation is to keep a positive attitude and know that an active life is plenty possible. Dogs adapt pretty quickly—we could learn a lot from them. I know I have on this journey with Kalina- she is actually why I became certified in canine rehab therapy!