How to help physically challenged pets adjust and thrive

Savanna was born to run. The retired racing greyhound loved going on daily walks … until the day she fell over for no apparent reason. A veterinary exam, X-rays and an MRI brought home the awful truth: Savanna had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer.

The recommended treatment was amputation of her right hind leg and chemotherapy. Savanna was my dog, and choosing amputation for a 10-year-old former racer was one of the most difficult decisions my husband and I ever made. Have you ever faced the decision to have a pet’s limb amputated or eye removed, or wondered whether it was the right thing to keep a pet alive who had suffered a paralyzing injury?

Pet owners who have faced these quandaries, myself included, are often surprised and delighted at how well their animals adjust to their new physical circumstances. Young or old, they usually adapt remarkably well to getting around on three legs, life without sight or rolling on wheels.

While people may flinch at the thought of amputation or enucleation (eye removal), that’s because we compare it to how we would feel about losing a limb or an eye. Our pets, fortunately, don’t have any preconceived notions about their ability to get around on fewer than four legs or how they’ll manage without one or both eyes. They adapt rapidly, shifting their center of gravity, making greater use of their senses of smell and hearing (not to mention those sensitive whiskers) and just generally getting on with life.

You can, however, take steps to help your pet recover and learn how to get around. The key is to see him not as damaged goods, but as a regular dog or cat who simply needs a little help from his friends.

▪  Amputation: Young dogs or cats may be up and around the same day or the next day following surgery, but older animals, such as my Savanna, may have a longer recovery time. Talk to your veterinarian about the best medications for pain relief. He’ll recover more quickly if he’s not hurting. For a large dog, get a body harness with a handle that will allow you to help him stand up and move around until he gets his groove back. If you have uncarpeted floors, lay down nonskid rugs for ease of walking. Keep his weight down to avoid putting stress on his joints. Visit for more information.

▪  Blindness: The main factor in adjustment is how quickly vision is lost. A pet who loses vision slowly or at a very early age generally copes well, but one who loses vision rapidly or later in life may take two or three weeks to adjust. Walk blind dogs on leash and talk to them as you go so they always know where you are. Keep to the same route so they can use their sense of smell to recognize where they are. At home, feed blind pets in the same place every day. If they get disoriented, take them to the food bowl. It’s a landmark that can help them regain their orientation.

▪  Paralysis: When a dog becomes paralyzed, consider whether the condition is painful and whether the pain can be relieved. If the dog is not in pain, he can likely adapt well to life on wheels. Make household changes such as blocking stairs so he doesn’t tumble down them as he’s racing around.

Veterinarian Robin Downing fondly recalls Frankie, a pug-mix who had been paralyzed after breaking his back. She anticipated that he would need several weeks to adapt to his wheelchair. “We put him in the chair the very first time, and he wouldn’t let me get him out of it,” she says.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books. The two are affiliated with