Vicky Payne looks at the options for tripawd dogs.

Dogs can be incredibly adaptable, and often cope very well on three legs.

“Most three-legged dogs end up missing a limb due to an accident or illness…”

Sometimes amputation is the best solution.

Recently, I travelled to Brighton to watch Jeff Wayne’s musical version of ‘War of the Worlds’ on stage. I’ve seen every tour since 2007, and I don’t mind ‘showing my geek’.

I bring this up because the Martians get around in huge, three-legged fighting machines. The original album artwork brought these mighty metal warlords to life in a way that gave me nightmares for most of my childhood, but when it came to animating them, the designers had something of a challenge because there are no naturally three-legged animals to base the movement on, which brings me to this month’s topic… three-legged dogs.

It is rare for a dog to be born with a limb deficiency, though it can happen. Most three-legged dogs end up missing a limb due to an accident or illness for which amputation is the best, or only, course of action available to the vet and owner.


Choosing limb amputation can be very difficult for owners as often there isn’t much time to research, or ask the owners of recovered tripawds how they feel. A study in 2015 asked owners about their experiences of limb amputation. More than 90 per cent said their dog’s attitude to life had not changed, and 88 per cent reported a complete or near complete return to their previous quality of life. Eighty six per cent said they would make the same decision again. However, the study did find that the outcome was less favourable if dogs were overweight before or after their surgery. Weight is important as losing a limb means that the other three legs have to support more weight. This effect is particularly noticeable if a front leg is removed as the front legs carry 30 per cent of the body weight each in a four-legged dog. Not only does the remaining front leg take more weight, but the opposite back leg does too.

Losing a leg can present challenges, particularly with weight bearing.

Hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, and acupuncture may benefit tripawd dogs.

“…losing a limb means that the other three legs have to support more weight.”

Dogs are amazingly adaptable and, especially if their leg has been painful for some time, they very quickly learn to walk on three legs. However, the altered gait of a tripawd dog does mean they are at risk of back and neck pain, as well as over-using muscles in their other legs. Post-operative physio, hydrotherapy, and acupuncture can all help keep three-legged dogs comfortable and mobile. Regular pain checks are advisable to allow early detection and treatment of muscle injuries and osteoarthritis.

One of my favourite patients was a lovely black Labrador who had a hind leg amputated after she became caught up in a fence for several days. Using acupuncture and changes to her walking regime, we were able to keep her mobile into her old age.

If your dog does need an amputation you may need to make some adaptations to your home. Non-slips floors are essential, but cheap rugs will do the trick. I recommend using a harness to walk tripawd dogs so you can give them extra support if needed and leave their neck free to move. Choose a design that gives maximum mobility and won’t slip off. Beds should be easy to access, and you might need to train your dog to use a car ramp.

Fractures and cancer

Amputation may be considered after a serious fracture, where fixing the leg will be difficult or too expensive. One such case that springs to mind was a little terrier who lived on a travellers’ site. He was run over while courting an in-season Jack Russell and came in with a badly broken back leg. His owners did not have the money to take him to an orthopaedic specialist, so we amputated the leg. Not only did he go home the same day, but he managed to mate with the Jack Russell before he had his stitches removed!

The other main reason for limb amputation is cancer. Bone tumours can be very painful, and though life expectancy after the amputation may be as short as six months without additional chemotherapy, many owners feel that the additional pain-free months are worth the few weeks of post-op recovery.

Prosthetic limbs

Advances in veterinary surgery mean that there are now alternatives to limb amputation in some cases. For some cancers, there are limb-sparing surgeries where implants bridge the gap until new bone grows in. When the problem is in the lower limb, the dog may be suitable for a bone-anchored implant, which allows a custom-made prosthetic foot to be ‘plugged in’. I saw this technique used for a cat who lost both back feet in a lawnmower accident, and he certainly seemed content with his new feet.

There have also been great advances in wearable prosthetics, with the availability of 3D printing. Companies are offering a range of replacement limbs with wheels, rubber feet, and even Paralympic-style running blades! Obviously, none of these will perfectly replace the missing limb, and some dogs may find the harnesses too bulky, preferring to run and play on three legs, but it is great to see more options out there.