How to Care for a Three-Legged Dog or Cat

Rescuing a dog or a cat is always a big commitment, but the stakes are even higher when it comes to adopting a pet with special needs—including dogs and cats with only three legs. Here is everything you need to know about caring for a three-legged dog or cat (also known as tripods or, if you're into puns, "tripawds").

Are dogs and cats ever born with only three legs?

Injured Cat, Three Legged Cat, Kitten Looking At Camera, Animal Injury
credit: Jena Ardell/Moment/GettyImages

While most three-legged dogs and cats are born with four legs and undergo amputations following an illness of injury, like humans, some dogs and cats are born without all four limbs. Unfortunately, just like with humans, we don't know for sure what causes some animals to be born without all four limbs.

Why do pets lose their legs?

There are a lot of things that can lead to a pet needing to have a leg amputated, but Canine osteosarcoma (which is science for bone cancer) might be the most common reason dogs lose their legs. The second most common cause? Accidents (and the resulting injuries).

Disabled dog three legs standing
credit: golfyinterlude/iStock/GettyImages

With cats, injuries from accidents, tumors, and birth defects are among the leading causes of amputations.

Can dogs and cats who lose a leg later in life learn to function?

Here's the good news: animals are very adaptable and four-legged animals (quadrupeds) are particularly resilient in the face of losing a limb. According to National Geographic, in fact, sometimes quadrupeds see losing a leg as "little more than a mild inconvenience." There are even plenty of examples of quadrupeds adapting to life with three legs in the wild, on their own.

Happy Tripod Boxer Mix with a Birthday Hat - The Amanda Collection
credit: amandafoundation.org/E+/GettyImages

Why? Because when four-legged animals lose a limb, they adapt a "tripod" stance (thus the nickname), which is achieved by positioning the unpaired leg towards the center of the body to distribute weight evenly among the remaining limbs. This is especially easy for cats, squirrels, foxes, and other animals with long tails, which can be used as counterbalances.

Do three-legged dogs and cats need prosthetics?

If you're struggling to picture a three-legged dog or cat with a prosthetic limb, that's because vets rarely recommend them. It might seem odd, given the advances in technology and increasing affordability of 3D printing, but it's not a technical or financial issue. The truth is, three-legged dogs and cats just really don't need prosthetics. Thanks to the natural coping mechanisms four-legged animals have for dealing with the loss of a limb, learning to function with a prosthetic would, in many cases, be more difficult and inhibiting than life on three limbs.

Handicapped dog
credit: IvonneW/iStock/GettyImages

Of course, if a dog or cat loses two legs or becomes partially paralyzed, prosthetics or other devices might play a huge role in improving their quality of life.

Happy paralyzed dog
credit: RomeoLu/iStock/GettyImages

Are dogs and cats sad if they lose a leg?

Obviously, it's safe to assume that dogs and cats would rather have all four legs than just three, if given the choice, but that doesn't mean that losing a leg will devastate them.

Smiling three-legged Boxer mix at a dog park. - The Amanda Collection
credit: amandafoundation.org/E+/GettyImages

Researchers from the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine published a study of the long-term effects of amputation on dogs and found that, in the long run, becoming an amputee doesn't seem to affect a dog's personality. In the study, 91 percent of owners said their dog showed no emotional changes after their amputation.

"There's no evidence to suggest that animals endure the same suffering that humans do after losing a limb," Rebecca McCloskey, curator of carnivores and primates for the Denver Zoo, explained to National Geographic. "As far as we can tell, they don't miss it at all."

How long does it take for dogs and cats to learn to function on three legs?

If a human loses leg, it's always life-changing and, oftentimes, adapting to that change can take years. For animals, getting used to the new normal is usually much faster.

Three legged friend
credit: taiskulish/iStock/GettyImages

"In general, animals are really quick to adapt to a change like that. Assuming the rest of their system is healthy, recovery happens quicker than you would think," McCloskey explained.

In the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine study on the long-term effects of amputation on dogs, researchers reported that 78 percent of owners said their dog recovered from and adapted to their amputation quicker and better than they expected.

It's important to note that which leg your pet loses will likely impact recovery time—it's generally easier for animals to adjust to losing one of their back legs than one of their front legs.

"It's easier on the animal if the leg [they lose] is one of the hind legs," McCloskey said. "There's a lot of power in those back legs, and the one remaining leg can handle that force and additional weight pretty easily."

What should I do if my pet just lost a leg?

If your pet has just joined the tripawd club, there are absolutely things you can do to help make their recovery and transition to three-legged life smoother. Here are some some simple do's and don't's to keep in mind if your pet is adjusting to the tripod life.

Three-legged Collie at Sunset
credit: James Player/iStock/GettyImages
  • DON'T: Carry your pet everywhere—they have to learn to walk on their own and if you carry them, they won't develop the strength and balance they need to function.
  • DO: Talk to your vet, not only about post-surgery care instructions, but about exercises you can do with your pet to help strengthen their remaining legs.
  • DON'T: Encourage jumping—even if your pet really wants to. Eventually, your pet will probably learn to do everything they did before their amputation, but they need to learn to walk before they run (or jump).
  • DO: Start with very short walks—your pet will get tired very quickly as they adjust to life with three legs.
  • DON'T: Let them sit around all the time. Even though you don't want to push your pet too hard by over-reaching for longer walks than they're ready for, you also don't want to let them become too sedentary. Weight gain is especially problematic for three-legged animals (more on that below).
  • DO: Tripod-proof your home. Remember when your pet was a baby and you had to puppy- or kitten-proof the place? You'll need to make sure your house is ready to accommodate your pet post-amputation. If you have hardwood floors, for example, put down (non-slip) rugs to give your pet added traction.
  • DON'T: Forget about pain management. You'll also want to ask your vet about pain management and have a plan in place before you bring your tripod pet home.
  • DO: Raise your pet's food and water bowls to make them easier to reach.
  • DON'T: Touch your pet's nub too roughly, because it can be really sensitive.
  • DO: Invest in extra-soft, extra-fluffy bedding to make sure your pet has a comfortable place to rest.
  • DON'T: Let your pet outside unsupervised—at least at first. Talk to your vet about when and if it's appropriate to do this, if your pet was an "outdoor" cat or dog before the amputation.
  • DO: Reward and praise your pet (particularly dogs) when they take on a new challenge or show confidence on three legs.
  • DON'T: Be too overprotective—your pet can and will adapt to their new reality and they need the space and time to figure out how to function on three legs.
  • DO: Be patient (that should be a no-brainer though, right?).

What special needs do three-legged dogs and cats have?

Even though dogs and cats are great at adapting to life on three legs, they do have some special needs that you'll need to consider. Best Friends Animal Society notes several for both cats and dogs.

For tripod cats:

Life with disadvantage
credit: Pekic/iStock/GettyImages
  • Know that your cat might need help grooming the area around the missing leg, at least at first. Most tripod cats will adjust and figure out how to fully groom themselves after a while though, so if you're adopting a cat that's been living on three legs for a while, this probably won't be an issue.
  • Place cushions around to soften your cat's landing if they love to jump, especially from high surfaces. It can be difficult for three-legged cats to land properly from higher jumps.
  • Invest in staggered or multi-level perches, so that your cat doesn't have to (and isn't as tempted to) attempt high vertical jumps, which can also be difficult on three legs.
  • Buy a bigger litter box—you want to make sure the box is big enough to accommodate any special maneuvers your cat has to make when it comes to going potty. You'll also want a litter box with high sides if your tripod cat isn't able to squat down to urinate.
  • If your cat is missing a back leg, get an arched grooming tool to help them get the hard-to-reach spots on their head.

For tripod dogs:

Three-legged Boxer Mix Playing with a Tennis Ball - The Amanda Collection
credit: amandafoundation.org/E+/GettyImages
  • Walk faster than you might usually—it's easier for three-legged dogs to hop along quickly than to amble slowly.
  • Pay extra attention to your dog's remaining paw pads, keeping the nails and hair trimmed to help your dog avoid slipping or snagging a nail on something.
  • Put down carpets or invest in non-slip dog socks to help your dog have better traction.
  • Provide soft, elevated surfaces for your dog to lie down on.
  • Buy toys that the dog can use with their remaining legs—which might mean tossing out balls or treat toys that require a lot of batting around if your dog is missing a front leg, for example.

Do three-legged dogs and cats have health issues?

While three-legged dogs and cats can live very healthy lives, they do have a few added health concerns that their four-legged counterparts don't have to worry about (or, at least, not as much).

three legs cat sleeping on white floor in the morning after eating
credit: thaloengsak/iStock/GettyImages

The biggest health concern for three-legged dogs and cats is obesity. Losing a limb can lead to reduced exercise, which can lead to weight gain. Obesity has a negative impact on any pet's health, but with tripods in particular, it can put a dangerous amount of pressure on the joints. Tripod dogs are at risk for elbow hygroma, a fluid-filled swelling around the elbow that can occur when there is too much weight on one elbow.

Osteoarthritis is another condition to which tripod pets may be more susceptible.

"Three-legged pets may be at increased risk of osteoarthritis and other joint problems as they age due to alterations in their posture and movement," veterinarian and published author Dr. Jennifer Coates told PetMD. "Thankfully, there's a lot that owners can do to prevent and/or manage conditions like these."

Dogs with short legs and long torsos, like Dachshunds, who lose a leg may experience back problems, since the loss of the limb can put undue strain on the animal's back.

Overall, however, caring for a tripod pet won't result in extra vet trips (or expenses) above and beyond what other pets need.

"There aren't notable veterinary expenses related to the care of a tripod pet," Dr. Jeff Werber, an Emmy Award-winning veterinarian and author based in Los Angeles, told PetMD. "The biggest issue is usually the client, not the pet. Tripod dogs and cats usually do very well."