September 25, 2013
By Rachel Griess
Veterinarians often say that dogs are born with three legs and a spare, a description meant to assure fearful pet owners that life is good for "tripaws" after amputation surgery.
Colorado State University veterinarians perform more than 250 limb amputations each year, often to treat dogs with bone cancer, yet the majority of pet owners are at first opposed to the procedure – even though it typically reduces pain and extends life.
In a new approach to client education, the CSU Flint Animal Cancer Center has produced a series of videos that the university’s veterinarians are using to answer common questions about limb amputation and to comfort clients who are worried about the surgery and their pets’ subsequent quality of life.
“Our goal is not to convince a client to opt for a certain treatment,” said Dr. Nicole Ehrhart, director of the CSU Laboratory of Comparative Musculoskeletal Oncology and Traumatology at the Flint Animal Cancer Center. “We understand that many things factor into their decisions, but we want our clients to have the resources they need to make informed choices, not based on popular opinion and misconceptions about a procedure.”
CSU vets hope the videos add to one-on-one discussions and provide a model for best practices in client communication, particularly involving the daunting issue of limb amputation for dogs suffering from trauma, nerve damage, or cancer.
“Osteosarcoma is the most aggressive form of bone cancer and the most common one we see at our Veterinary Teaching Hospital,” Ehrhart said. “A dog may live up to three months with palliative treatments, meaning those that alleviate symptoms but do not cure disease. In comparison, amputation allows us to get rid of the primary cancer and prolong a dog’s life four-fold, up to and even surpassing a year.”
That is the case with Berkley, a 9-year-old Australian Shepherd-Blue Heeler mix, who recently passed the one-year anniversary of his amputation surgery, and is still fetching like a champ. His owners, John and Kelly Gaffney of Fort Collins, learned in June 2012 that their dog had osteosarcoma; they were faced with cherishing a final few months with their dog, or opting to remove his right-front leg in hopes of slowing the cancer’s progression.
“We realized that Berkley’s life was changed the day he got cancer. He would maybe live for a few months if we opted out of surgery,” Kelly Gaffney said. “There was no guarantee that he would live for a full year with the amputation. But we knew that, without surgery, there was a guarantee he would not live beyond a few months.”
Berkley is among the patients featured in the new CSU amputation videos. When he recently visited the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the three-legged pup showed little sign of slowing as he stood panting over his ball, waiting for another toss.
“It took Berkley a few months to acclimate to using different muscle groups, and he had to rest quite a bit at first. But then he was unstoppable,” Gaffney said. “Now he’s the same happy, energetic dog he was before the surgery.”
The new client-education videos illustrate what to expect for two weeks immediately before, during, and after limb amputation.
Gaffney said she and her husband decided to share their story with Berkley’s amputation in part because they realized many pet owners consider the surgery from a human perspective, projecting human thoughts, feelings, and abilities onto their pets.
Yet even with amputation of a front leg, where a dog carries much of its body weight, adaptation is fairly speedy and pain-free, Ehrhart said.
Ehrhart often presents information about client perspectives at veterinary meetings, and she said she hopes the CSU videos will help other practitioners and institutions consider new approaches to client education. An important aspect of the videos, she said, is their ability to offer client-to-client information.
“The videos are a wonderful resource to augment the discussions we have with our clients,” Ehrhart said. “With the click of the button, the client can immediately learn what to expect from people who have already gone through it. The quicker a client makes a decision they are comfortable with, the sooner we are able to help their pet.”
To view the videos, visit the website.