Tripawds dog Wyatt at Eureka.
Tripawds dog Wyatt at Eureka. Photography courtesy Tripawds.com.

How to Care for a Three-Legged Dog

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More veterinarians and dog parents are realizing dogs that lose a limb to cancer, injury or birth defects can survive — and even thrive — on three legs. What’s more, three-legged dogs show a resilience and determination that the rest of us can learn from.

If you’re facing the heart-wrenching decision of whether to amputate your dog’s leg, are considering adopting an amputee dog or come across a dog missing a leg or with a severely injured leg, here are some ways to give tripod dogs a leg up.

What to Do if Your Dog Needs an Amputation

Jerry, the dog who inspired Rene Agredano and her husband to start Tripawds.com.
Jerry, the dog who inspired Rene Agredano and her husband to start Tripawds.com. Photography courtesy Tripawds.com.

First, keep your pet’s best interests in mind. A dog with an injured or cancerous leg isn’t worried about looks or long-term impacts; he just wants to feel better. Once the painful limb has been removed, canine patients typically seem much more comfortable, says Dr. Coby Richter, surgeon at DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Portland, Ore. Most owners report that their tripod dog resumes his regular activities after one to two months.

“They can be happy on three legs,” says Rene Agredano, cofounder of Tripawds.com, an online community which provides information, resources and support to more than 14,000 members. “They adapt so much better than we do, if we were faced with the same type of physical challenge.” Agredano and her husband, Jim Nelson, initially started Tripawds.com as a blog to update friends and family when their late dog, Jerry, was diagnosed with bone cancer in 2006.

The Agredanos didn’t take the decision to amputate Jerry lightly. But after doing some research (including watching a video of a tripod Great Dane digging for gophers) they felt amputation offered Jerry the best way to enjoy the time he had left. Despite a four-month prognosis, Jerry lived for two more years. The trio spent that time traveling around the country in their RV.

Agredano urges owners not to lose hope. If the cost of surgery is a concern, the Tripawds Foundation (the organization’s charitable, nonprofit arm) offers an assistance program that will pay up to $500 toward the cost of an amputation to eligible applicants.

How to Help an Amputee Dog Recover

“Dogs may need help getting up and down for the first few days,” says Richter, the veterinary surgeon. “You can wrap a towel under their belly to hoist them up and provide a little extra support as they learn to move and take bathroom trips.”

Pave your tripod dog’s road to recovery with carpeting or other non-slick surfaces in your home where he can travel safely. Slick surfaces like wood can wreak havoc on a three-legged dog. Limit movement and supervise or crate your tripod dog until he gets his footing back.

Exercise is Extra Important for Tripod Dogs

Tripawds dog Eisen after a Williams Creek swim.
Tripawds dog Eisen after a Williams Creek swim. Photography courtesy Tripawds.com.

Making sure your dog maintains a healthy weight is crucial, since added weight strains his remaining limbs, and strengthening the core is key. Playing games with balance discs or wobble boards are great ways to strengthen your dog’s stomach muscles.

However, it’s also really important not to overdo it. Monitor your tripod dog carefully for signs of fatigue — if he sits down on a walk, he’s already gone too far. “One of the most common injuries in a tripod is a cruciate tear in the remaining back leg,” Agredano says. “To nurse a tripod through a cruciate tear recovery is very hard work. Whatever you can do to avoid that is super important.”

Another way to prevent additional injuries is by establishing a relationship with a veterinary rehabilitation therapist, who will show you how to protect and strengthen your tripod’s remaining limbs. To encourage rehabilitation, the Tripawds Foundation will pay up to $200 toward a dog’s first consultation with an accredited rehab therapist.

If that’s not possible, read up on ways to help your tripod recover (check out Loving Life on Three Legs or Three Legs and a Spare).

Considering Adopting a Tripod Dog?

Think about your daily routine and how a tripod would fit into it.

If you already have four-legged family members at home, you may need to walk your tripod separately. The four-legged dogs will have more endurance and want to go farther and longer. If you want a running buddy, consider getting a stroller.

“We just want people to be realistic,” Agredano says. “With very little effort, you can keep them happy and fit, and they’ll be really great companions.”

Amputee animals often get overlooked at the shelters. To inspire more people to adopt tripod dogs, the Tripawds Rescue Fund will reimburse owners up to $100 for the adoption fee if they adopt one from a 501c3 nonprofit shelter.

How to Help an Injured Dog

Tripawds dog Black Canyon in the snow.
A Tripawds dog in the snow. Photography courtesy Tripawds.com.

If you come across a dog with a potentially broken limb, think about your own safety first, advises Dr. Ladan Mohammad-Zadeh, a critical care specialist at DoveLewis Veterinary Emergency and Specialty Hospital in Portland.

Place a blanket under the dog’s broken limb for support and lift him carefully, keeping him restrained until he gets to the hospital, Mohammad-Zadeh says.

Tips for Three-Legged Dogs

  • Keep your human feelings in check when deciding whether or not to amputate. Most dogs adapt very quickly after surgery.
  • Stay positive. Your dog will take behavioral cues from you.
  • If the veterinarian says your dog is not a good candidate for surgery and suggests humane euthanasia, get a second opinion.
  • Create “no-slip zones” in your home where your dog frequently travels.
  • Make sure your dog maintains a healthy weight. Excess pounds can strain joints and put dogs at risk for injury or other health issues.
  • Monitor your tripod’s activity levels and watch for signs of fatigue.

Thumbnail: Photography courtesy Tripawds.com.

Read more about dog health care on Dogster.com:

34 thoughts on “How to Care for a Three-Legged Dog”

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  3. Donene Ferguson

    What an amazing article . My Tripaw-Yin was born with 3 legs, due to birth from a large litter of Shizt Shu- Yorkie. His brother Quadpaw-Yang helps him get over any limitations. When I was first introduced to them as little pups I couldn’t separate them and my husband had an instant bond with the Tripaw due his left side paralysis.

  4. Donene Ferguson

    What an amazing article . My Tripaw-Yin was born with 3 legs, due to birth from a large litter of Shizt Shu- Yorkie. His brother Quadpaw-Yang helps him get over any limitations. When I first introduced to them as little pups I couldn’t separate them and my husband had an instant bond with the Tripaw due his left side paralysis.

  5. About a month ago my dog stopped walking on her hind leg (was holding it up) took her to the vet several times and she said she thought it could be a torn ligament. Well she never did anything about it so I took her to a different vet in town. He decided that he wanted to do a xray and found that she had a weird break above her knee, but it wasnt a clean break across, more like a chunk. He’s most certain that it’s bone cancer and I took her back last week (she lost 5lbs in 3 weeks) he said we could amputate but it probably wouldn’t do her any good since she will be 9 in a few weeks. She’s on pain meds but I’m not sure what to do. Does anyone have tips for strengthening her good back leg while she still has the other but won’t use it?

    1. Hi Rachel, my dog had her front leg amputated just over a week ago due to sarcoma, she is nearly 10 and is doing amazingly well already. Don’t be told that your dog is too old at 9, could you take her somewhere else for a second opinion. Wish you well for the upsetting time ahead, good luck

    2. Monique S Balas Butler

      Hi Rachel,
      Thank you so much for commenting and sharing your story. I’m sorry to hear about your dog’s leg, but I’m glad to hear that you are seeking other opinions and trying to find ways to help her. The website https://tripawds.com/ may have some tips for you. They are a free, online user-supported community and would give you access to lots of other tripod owners who may have suggestions for you.
      I really hope that helps!
      Take care,
      Monique

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  7. Hi,
    My daughter, who is now a teenager, has had leg problems all her life, she has recently been hinting around adopting a puppy. She has expressed a lot of interest in a tripod puppy. Does anyone know where I could find one? Her sixteenth birthday is coming up and we have fully prepared to adopt a puppy and take care of him. We have plenty of room and my daughter is more than responsible enough to help. Any pointers on where to adopt a puppy will help. Thanks!

    1. belvoir admin

      Hi Saylor,
      You might want to contact Tripawds http://tripawds.com/ and see if they know any shelter or rescue groups that have tripod dogs. Best of luck on your adoption search!!

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  19. Hi Our Family Dog lost her back leg and had an operation last Saturday and She does not eat anything. We are really worried about her. Any help appreciated.

    1. Margaret Sedam

      While my tripod was recovering from her front leg amputation the vet basically said whatever you can find that they will eat you feed them. My girl did not eat dog food for quite a while. She did however love her chicken. Good luck I know I worried when she wasn’t eating

  20. We were blessed to find a good natured 3 legged dog who needed a home when we were looking for a successor to our last wonderful dog. She doesn’t seem to know that she is missing a leg except if her right ear itches. She has a hop when walking but it disappears when she is in a field with other dogs who want to run. She lives for rides to the park where she can chase a ball. I couldn’t have imagined walking past her on our search and she has done nothing but reward us with affection.

  21. Tripawds.com recommends physical therapy and balancing training to up their endurance. My cattle dog mix had a left front amputation due to a cancer diagnosis/pathological fracture. He doesn’t care much for walks, but lives for his frisbee. Swimming, with a doggie life vest, may be another activity to try. Keep an eye on how they are doing, allow for plenty of breaks. If the energy level is really an issue you may want to get a vet opinion in case there is another underlying cause for the low energy. They take their cues from you. Stay positive and encourage them.

  22. My tripod dog lost her left front leg due to a break when she was five months old. She gets around
    the yard well but does not care for her walks.
    How can I build up her strength? December will be her two year anniversary of the amputation and her activity level is low. She lost her puppy-hood to surgery and the amputation.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated

  23. I have a red heeler we got from someone that didn’t want him anymore that has a limp front leg. He uses it but he has gotten overweight and can’t walk for very long. I’m really worried about exercising him to much and on how to get him to lose weight. I have a Husky and the play good together but I can’t walk both at the same time. I’m aso interested in want in whathe type of med to help him.

  24. It’s truly amazing how resilient and quickly dogs adapt to there situations. I did an internship at a veterinarian hospital in Southern Maryland. One of the first operations that I assisted in was an amputation. That single moment has had a significant impact on my outlook on life. I recently had emergency surgery to overcome a life-threatening condition. After the surgery two of the doctors commented how upbeat and positive I was. I told them the story about the Beagle and watching him overcome the challenges of the amputation. It was truly amazing to watch this dog progress & share his love and act like nothing ever happened to him, and that’s the same way I tackled my situation My recovery time was a fraction of an average patient. We can all learn something from these amazing resilient creatures.

  25. Thank you for the great article. Recently my beautiful rescue Bella blew out her ACL and will have surgery next Thursday. I have watched in just a few short days how she has adapted to being a hopefully temporary tripod. We are hoping the surgery is successful and will do exactly what the doctor says. She has not lost a step and is able to keep up w/ our other dog Shane. Ive been trying to keep her rested but she does not want to stay down for long.

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