A common reaction when people see a three-legged dog is sympathy. (“Poor thing…”) Another is admiration. (“What a brave pooch!”) Both are entirely understandable. For humans, amputation can involve complex psychological and emotional issues. For dogs? Less so. Dogs have no notion of body image, no mental image of what they are supposed to look like. What they care about falls into two major categories: One, whether they are in pain. Two, whether they can do things they love: go for walks, play with toys, eat yummy food, get belly rubs, snuggle on the couch, etc. Nature is kind to animals in this way. A pain-free, well-fed dog with a loving home doesn’t give a hoot that her daily walk happens in the characteristic tripod hop instead of a lope.
Amputee dogs, often called tripods, generally lose a limb either as a result of an accident or as a means to prevent cancer from spreading. In rarer cases, a congenital deformity makes the leg nonfunctional. The number one cause is canine osteosarcoma, or bone cancer, an aggressive disease that can rapidly spread into other parts of the dog’s body. Treatment for this kind of tumor is limited to surgical removal and chemotherapy, and the prognosis is often dire. Radical as it may sound, amputation is usually the best option. I remember after my dog Kai lost his back right leg he came running out to us from the vet office the VERY NEXT DAY like nothing happened. It was amazing!
Many tripods go on to live normal lifespans after surgery. Because dogs carry about 60 percent of their weight up front, losing a hind leg is easier than losing a front leg. But front-leg amputees adapt too. Even dogs with moderate arthritis can do well on three legs.
Also, guardians of amputee dogs can do a lot to make the transition easier. A tripod-friendly home has nonslip surfacing on stairs and smooth floors, and ramps for climbing up on sofas and into cars. A harness with a handle allows for helping the dog navigate difficult stairs, uneven ground, etc. And a whole range of fitness gear has been developed to help tripods strengthen their remaining limbs and improve their balance. For the rest of us, encountering tripods out and about? Love them up like nothing has changed, because, to them, nothing that really matters has.