Limb Sparing in Dogs

Author: Christina Bach, MBE, LCSW, OSW-C
Last Reviewed: December 01, 2022

What is limb-sparing?

"Limb sparing" (also known as "limb salvage") is a surgery that is an alternative to amputation in some dogs being treated for bone tumors. Most dogs function very well with an amputation; perhaps because dogs are not burdened by the psychological aspects of missing a limb in the same way as humans. However, there are some dogs that have other orthopedic problems, such as severe arthritis, that might not do as well on three legs.

What is the goal of limb-sparing?

The goal of limb-sparing is to reduce pain or completely remove the diseased bone and surrounding tissues while still preserving the function of the remaining limb. The piece of diseased bone that is removed is replaced by a combination of healthy bone from a donor and bone graft from other parts of the patient's body. While much of the leg's function is preserved, there is decreased range of motion in the treated limb. This can result in limited activity for the dog.

Which dogs qualify for the procedure?

There are several different cancers that may affect the limbs. A thorough examination with the veterinary oncologist is required to determine if the tumor can be treated with limb-sparing. This evaluation consists of complete blood cell count, blood chemistries, and urinalysis, radiographs (X-rays) of the primary tumor site and the lungs, tumor biopsy, and often other tests such as CT, MRI, or bone scan to thoroughly evaluate the extent of the tumor.

Can limb-sparing be used with radiation and/or chemotherapy?

Following tumor excision, other types of treatments may be used to limit the risk of reoccurrence. Limb sparing is often performed in conjunction with chemotherapy and/or radiation. The biopsy results help determine which type of additional therapy may be required. Chemotherapy helps control the growth of any tumor cells that have spread beyond the primary tumor site to areas elsewhere in the body such as the lungs and other bones. Radiation therapy eliminates remaining cells around the initial tumor site.

What should be expected after limb-sparing surgery?

Surgery is usually well tolerated by most dogs. The surgery requires a five to seven-day hospitalization. After the surgery, your dog may be in a padded bandage or splint which will need to be checked periodically. Periodic x-rays of the limb are taken to evaluate the rate of healing at the surgery site. Chest x-rays may be taken to monitor for spread of the tumor.

While limb sparing can provide a good quality of life for a dog with bone cancer, it is important to realize that a complete cure is unlikely from this procedure. It is important that you understand all your treatment options -- the risks, benefits, common complications, costs, and time commitments. Is it important to discuss any questions and concerns with your veterinarian.

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