Affectionately referred to as tripod cats, leg amputation is the surgical removal of the limb. Cats are such agile creatures, it is hard to imagine how a cat could cope on three legs, but they manage easier than we often give them credit for.
The most common cause of amputations in cats 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 that 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 both the forelegs or hind legs. Hind limb amputation is twice as common as forelimb amputation. 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 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.
- The veterinarian will administer a general anesthetic to induce deep sleep and insert a tracheal tube to maintain anesthesia with gasses.
- The hair on the leg and surrounding area will be shaved off and cleaned with an antiseptic solution.
- Drapes are placed over the cat, with a small open area around the surgery site.
- The forelimb will be removed up to the shoulder (scapulothoracic disarticulation), or the hindlimb up to the hip joint (coxofemoral disarticulation).
- 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 need to be worn to prevent the cat 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.
Younger cats tend to recover quicker than older cats, but most cats should be up and about within 1-2 days of surgery and 2-4 weeks for a 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.
Exercise should be limited until the sutures are removed at 14 days.
How to care for a cat after a limb amputation
- The cat will be discharged with painkillers and antibiotics, administer as prescribed.
- Confine the cat to one room or a dog crate during recovery.
The Elizabethan collar will need to stay on until the site has properly healed. Your veterinarian may allow its removal while the cat eats. Stitches are removed 14 days post-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.
- 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 the cat. Discourage jumping.
- Make sure the litter tray is in an easily accessible spot.
- Provide a litter tray that is suitable for the cat’s 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 the cat maintains a healthy weight; obesity puts too much pressure on the remaining limbs.
- If your cat has had a leg amputated due to cancer, chemotherapy or radiotherapy may be required post-surgery.
Do cats experience phantom pains like humans?
Amputee cats can experience phantom pains after limb amputation, 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 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.
Frequently asked questions
How long does it take a cat to recover from a limb amputation? The cat should be able to walk a small distance within a day and will be fully recovered within 2-3 weeks.
How long does the surgery last? A limb amputation takes between one and two hours to perform.
How long will the cat be hospitalised? Most cats are hospitalised for 5-7 days post-surgery.
How much does a leg amputation cost? The cost to amputate a leg can vary depending on the underlying cause and if the surgery is an emergency or scheduled but typically costs between $1,500 to $2,000.