It can start with fairly benign signs: a slight limp, a swollen gland, a small lump that doesn't go away. Then, what should be a routine visit to the vet for an exam and X-rays turns into a nightmare: the "C" word - cancer - is the culprit.
Amputation is often the treatment of choice
Hearing this kind of devastating news is tough enough. Sorting through treatment options is often equally challenging. Pet owners may be shocked to learn that for some types of cancer, amputation is the treatment of choice.
At the University of Minnesota's Veterinary Medical Center (VMC), www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc, oncologist Dr. Mike Henson spends his days confirming cancer diagnoses, discussing treatment options and constructing the most effective treatment plans in hopes of providing comfort - and sometimes a cure - for animals with cancer. He recommends amputation several times per month, but "never without a compelling reason." The nature of the disease is key, he says, and while he always presents owners with multiple treatment options (including palliative, or comfort, care), some clients are surprised to learn that amputation is one of the most effective means for reducing pain and sometimes curing certain forms of cancer.
Improved quality of life
When asked about common responses to the suggestion of amputation, Dr. Henson says that he frequently hears from pet owners, "I don't want to put my dog or cat through that!"- a conclusion drawn from multiple concerns, including the fear of imposing suffering upon their animals. Dr. Henson acknowledges that amputation has the potential to cause a spike in acute pain immediately following surgery, but this pain is usually managed with medications and lasts only a few days for most patients. Left untreated, many cancers guarantee continual (and often hidden) aching pain, with spikes of more severe pain as the tumor grows.
The long-term prognosis for animal amputees, affectionately called "tripods" at the VMC's Animal Cancer Center, varies by diagnosis. However, Dr. Henson emphasizes that most patients' pain is significantly reduced after amputation. In fact, many clients report that amputation brings the pet they know and love back to life because their chronic pain has been relieved.
Will my pet be able to walk, run and climb normally post-amputation?
According to Dr. Henson, the answer is almost always yes. Animals with painful conditions are better able to concentrate on balance (instead of pain) when a diseased limb is removed. Plus, pets scarcely seem to miss the limb - even if they are large breeds. A quick glance around the VMC's Animal Cancer Center supports this notion, as photos of "tripods" chasing squirrels, hunting with their people and sitting atop high window perches abound.
Will my pet adapt to the way his body has changed?
People considering amputation for their pet are often quite worried that their animal will be behaviorally and emotionally challenged by the removal of a limb. In reality, and unlike human beings, animals are not emotionally attached to their body parts. One of the reasons we love animals is their ability to be in the moment, focusing on the quality of their experience. This tendency makes them remarkably resilient. "One of the great things about dogs," Dr. Henson says, "is that when presented with adversity, they overcome."
What will recovery demand of my pet and me?
Pet owners are often shocked to find that the majority of animal amputees are walking one day after surgery and fully healed within two weeks. While the surgery itself is invasive and painful, post-surgical care focuses on managing that pain and keeping the patient quiet in order to facilitate healing. Beyond keeping them quiet, people with amputee pets also need to monitor the surgical site and assist the pet with rising and walking immediately following surgery.
Does the end justify the means?
Each person will answer this question differently. While amputation often lengthens survival time for some conditions, the total quality of life determines whether the means are justified. With our own bodies, we make medical choices based on the ideal of long-term gain. With our pets, it is not just about the length of time we have with them, but their ability to enjoy that time to its fullest. That enjoyment is priceless - and is sometimes worth an arm or a leg.
Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW is a therapist and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc/clientsupport.html, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central.
View pictures of Jerry and other "tripods" in action at www.tripawds.com .