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Legless Lenny

October 10, 2012

Two weeks ago my beautiful young lurcher dog broke his back leg running through the woods. Just how he did it I don’t know, but he emerged from the woods holding his left back leg up with it swinging slightly. I knew then that it wasn’t good. He’d either dislocated his hip or broken his leg high up. I sat on the ground and proceeded to examine him. I checked his toes, the bones in his foot, his ankle joint, his knee, his hip and finally his thigh bone (femur). I held either end of this bone and immediately felt that it was broken in two. It was obvious that this was very serious. Such a break is difficult to mend in a human and often requires weeks of traction; something that is out of the question with a dog who does not have the capacity to deal with incapacity. After consulting the vet who was adamant that strapping the leg to the body would not work, there were only two options. To pin or plate the bone which would require a prolonged period of healing with no guarantee of great success and may leave the dog with a gammy leg, or to amputate the leg. The cost alone of an operation to try and save the leg prohibited that path, so unless I put the dog to sleep, which I did consider, the only thing to do was to amputate. He had his leg removed the following day and came home.

Lenny the Lurcher

There are aspects of this affair that I would like to explore here. Firstly there is the life and well being of the animal. As a dog owner it is always difficult to know what to do for the best. We are responsible for the animal and have a duty to do right by them, but there is no definitive right or wrong. With humans there is the Hippocratic Oath to preserve life at almost any cost, but with animals there always comes a point when it is fairer to end their life than to preserve it and we do at times have a duty to kill the animal. Even if money was no option, an operation to save the leg may not have been the best way forward. An animal is a conscious creature, but only a human is conscious of his own consciousness. A human will accept the trauma of the moment knowing there is light at the end of the tunnel, but an animal cannot see what the future may bring and lives in the moment, knowing only the pain and suffering that the long recovery from such an operation entails. With an amputation the healing is quick and the dog can get on with life, albeit with three legs. After two weeks, the extensive bruising is gone, the tenderness is gone, the join in the skin is well healed and the fur is growing back. I hope I made the right decision.

I have seen a number of dogs over the years with only three legs and have often thought that I would not allow a dog of mine to live in such a condition. Front legs are more important to the mobility of a dog than back legs and had it been a front leg that couldn’t be saved then I would have put him to sleep. Had it been my husky and not my lurcher that broke her leg then I would have had her put to sleep, but a lurcher is a very different dog. My first dogs were Border Collies (sheepdogs) and the bond you have with such a dog is through their ‘subservience’. That in a way is the middle ground, while a husky is one end of the spectrum. Of all the dogs I have known, a husky is the closest to their wild cousin, the wolf, and the bond I have with her comes from her true pack nature. It is a relationship built upon respect rather than subservience and although it is possibly the strongest bond I have ever had with a dog, the animal is somehow distant and aloof. The gentle nature of my lurcher is the opposite end of the spectrum. The bond with him is through his ‘insecurity’. This dog is closer to my heart than a dog has ever been; not out of favouritism, but because of the nature of the bond. His insecurity brings him in close. A three legged husky would be a burden to herself and to me, but my lurcher can continue to be the dog he has always been to me. He will always be close to my heart and will serve me well with three legs.

Now we come to the dogs ability to cope physically with his loss. A heavy blundering dog would not deal well with the loss of a limb, but a light agile lurcher is ideally suited to coping with three legs. We were only a hundred yards from home when the accident happened, but he walked home with a broken leg even if he was very slow. He walked out of the vets following the operation and has got on with life ever since. To start with he wanted to act on my every move, as before, but each time he got up to follow me he suddenly realised he couldn’t walk properly. He was also nursing a extremely swollen and bruised stump which didn’t make it easy to adapt to the loss of a limb. The twist in his spine as he tried to position his only back leg to support him, while walking, was severe and I began to question what I was putting him through. After a week he appeared to become resigned to his condition and began to decline to follow me. He would come outside but then wanted to lie down more than go anywhere. He was showing sense and self preservation, but at the same time I couldn’t let him give up and I encouraged a sensible amount of activity each day. Now after two weeks his spirits are starting to lift again and he’s moving around with greater ease.

It’s interesting how a dog adapts to the loss of a limb. A dog has three basic gaits, walk, trot and gallop. He has not got back into running at full gallop just yet, but I have seen a similar type of dog, with three legs, run so fast that it was not obvious that the dog had anything wrong with it. Funnily enough, the faster a dog runs the less a missing back leg matters. It is while walking that the disability is most obvious. When a dog walks they move one foot at a time, leaving three feet on the ground at any one time, so always providing a tripod of support. With a missing back leg the dog has to alter the process of walking. He can quite easily balance on one front and one back leg, so moving the front legs is not a problem. However, moving the back leg leaves him only the two front legs to balance on which is not really feasible so he has to make a definite hop. The centre of gravity in a dog is always nearer to the front legs than the back and so there is always more weight taken through the front feet. In order to make it easer to facilitate the necessary hop, the dog extends and lowers his head to bring the centre of gravity even further forward, lessening the weight through the back foot and making that hop as easy as possible, while producing a walking motion where the head bobs up and down. I have read that in walking only 40% of the energy required for movement is provided by muscular action and the remaining 60% is ascribed to the conservation of energy of the body pendulum. Unfortunately, this body pendulum effect will no longer work so efficiently and it is quite obvious that it is taking more muscular action to move the back leg. To start with the bobbing of the head and the positive hop looked very awkward, but he is soon getting the hang of it and his walking motion is rapidly smoothing out and now with only negligible twist in the spine.

Once he speeds up he breaks into a trot. My husky has a pace gait rather than a trot with lateral pairs of legs (front and back leg on the same side) moving together, but the lurcher trots with diagonal pairs of legs moving together. Obviously he only has one diagonal pair left, so he trots by moving the front right leg on its own followed by the front left and back right leg together. The extending and lowering of the head to move the centre of gravity forward is less pronounced in trot and instead the dog seems to compensate by taking greater advantage of the elastic energy stored in the legs with this gait. There is much more of a spring in his step and he uses this to create a higher vertical movement of the pelvis so that it takes longer for his rear end to fall back down and in so doing he misses out the step that should have been taken by the other back leg. This will inevitably put greater stress on the remaining back leg, but there is little weight to his back end and hopefully this will not trouble him. Already he is trotting at much the same speed as before and although there will always be that higher lift of the pelvis he is achieving a very smooth action that remarkably appears to take little extra effort than when he had four legs.

I hope that as he continues to settle into his new found way of being, he will, in his own good time, run once again in a gallop. In this gait both front legs move together followed by the back legs and the whole body is incorporated in the motion. Often one leg in each pair is slightly in front of the other, but even so, the missing back leg should make little difference to his ability to run. The remaining back leg will strengthen to compensate.

When I see him running flat out across the fields and tussling with my husky, then I will no for sure that I made the right call.

One comment

  1. Wonderful !
    love Fanny



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