Tripods: Three-Legged Dogs

What if your dog has to have a leg amputated because of illness or accident? Learn how “tripod” dogs cope, what you can expect for recovery, and how you can help him get along.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
4-minute read
Episode #164

I well remember a dog walker once saying to me, “Dogs just live for their walks.” And it’s true, most dogs love their outings – both long, ambling leash walks and high-energy off-leash hikes. They love trotting over to the source of that good scent they just caught. They love digging. They love chasing squirrels. So if your vet just told you your dog needs a leg amputated, you may be wondering how he’ll cope.

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Easy answer: Probably just fine.

How dogs lose their legs

Canine osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, is probably the most common reason why dogs lose their legs. Accidents of various kinds account for many of the rest. Osteosarcoma, it has to be said, is bad news, but try not to waste too much emotional energy on your dog’s lost leg. As a dog, Zippy doesn’t have body-image issues to contend with after an amputation, and for most otherwise healthy dogs the physical adjustment seems to come easily. The process may be a little slower for dogs who’ve lost a foreleg.

Dogs don’t have body-image issues after an amputation, and most otherwise healthy dogs seem to adjust without trouble.

The surgical site is going to look impressive, no two ways about it. Removal of a limb is a big-deal operation, with lots of stitches and a long, long scar. However, most dogs are up and walking without help within 12 to 24 hours after the surgery. Encourage your new tripod to get up and moving – that will not only help her heal but also get her the practice she needs to adjust her balance and gait. As I’ve mentioned in other contexts, modern vets know that good post-surgical pain control is associated with fewer complications and speedier recovery, so in taking your pain-controlled Dogalini for short walks you will not be torturing her!

Making your home tripod-friendly

Many three-legged dogs have no trouble with stairs, but supervise until you know your dog has re-learned how to negotiate them confidently and safely! If your stairs don’t already have nonslip surfacing, then add it to make going up and down safer and easier. For dogs that do need help with stairs, there are body harnesses with handles on the back that enable you to give an assist without picking the dog up.

You can also improvise a harness by cutting holes in a canvas shopping bag.

A new amputee may find smooth floors a challenge. You can put down some rugs (with nonskid pads, please!) or give Zippy’s paws a tacky coat with a product made to help dogs keep their footing on slick surfaces.

Caring for your tripod

Physical therapy, such as swimming and walking on uneven surfaces, can help a new tripod build up strength in his remaining limbs and improve his balance. Ask your vet whether it’s a good idea for your dog.

It seems like common sense that the smaller and lighter a dog is, the easier it’ll be for him to get around on three legs. Oddly enough, the vets say size doesn’t matter, or at least not much. Still, it can’t hurt to keep your three-legged dog lean.

At a time when many pets are underexercised, bored, and seriously overweight, it feels strange to warn against overexercise, but take care to avoid sprains and other injuries – your dog has no more extra legs!

There’s not much info available about what behavioral effects amputation might have. In a telephone survey of 44 guardians, some dogs reportedly had increased anxiety and decreased “dominance,” whatever that is. (At the time of the survey, 1999, the word “dominance” got thrown around a lot more casually than professionals would use it now.) Assuming that the anxiety was real and not a feeling the guardians projected onto their dogs, we still have no way of knowing whether it was related to amputation specifically or to the experience of major surgery in general or to something else entirely. Your best bet here: assume Zippy will do as well emotionally as physically.

Should your dog get a prosthetic?

There seems to be some controversy over whether prosthetics benefit amputee dogs. Everyone who has anything to say on the subject agrees that most tripods adjust quickly, but it’s harder to find solid information about the long-term effects of getting around on three legs. Advocates of canine prosthetics assert that over time tripody stresses the joints and can contribute to the development of osteoarthritis. A high-speed-camera study comparing hind-leg and foreleg amputations found that the loss of a foreleg produced greater changes in the dog’s gait, which suggests more stress on the muscles and joints too. 

Sadly, bone cancer spreads fast and has often metastasized by the time it’s diagnosed, so the question of a prosthesis may be moot if your dog’s leg was amputated as part of treatment for that disease.

Whatever the reason your dog is a tripod, discuss the options for prosthetics with your vet. You may even want to consult a specialist in veterinary rehabilitation medicine.

Other resources

Tripawds.com is a huge website and online community devoted to amputee dogs, with blogs, help topics, and a downloadable guide to rehab and care. They even have a YouTube channel, which I strongly recommend you look at to cheer yourself up if your dog’s amputation is upsetting you. For more general information about dogs with various handicaps, a starting point is Dogs with Disabilities.

However many legs your dog has, enjoy your walks with her.

About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).