Veterinary students are often taught that dogs are three-legged animals with a spare. It might be surprising to some that the same adage is a suitable description for horses, too.

"In horses where conditions exist that prevent the use of traditional treatment methods for a severe injury or fracture, such as impaired circulatory status, infection, or fracture configuration, then amputation should be considered a viable option to euthanasia," said Ted P. Vlahos, DVM, MS, Dipl. ABVP, of Sheridan Equine Hospital PC, in Wyoming. Vlahos reviewed a retrospective study partial limb amputation cases at the 2010 American Association of Equine Practitioners Convention, held Dec. 4-8 in Baltimore, Md.

Believe it or not, veterinarians have been performing equine limb amputations successfully for more than 40 years and, according to Vlahos, these should not be considered abstract or controversial procedures.

Unlike a human amputee patient who remains non-weight-bearing until the stump has completely healed, a horse will bear weight on the stump and temporary prosthesis immediately after surgery. Careful case selection and proper surgical technique are essential for a positive outcome, however.

"Horses will need to have a temperament that allow sling recovery and repeated cast changes under general anesthesia. They will need to tolerate a temporary, rigid cast, and the owners need to be dedicated to long-term maintenance of the horse," Vlahos advised.

He and colleagues reviewed the medical records of 34 partial limb amputation cases between 1986 and 2010 in which surgeons used a "caudal flap" technique. Twenty-two (64.7%) survived at least six months. Of the survivors, seven were horses that had been salvaged for sentimental reasons, 13 were broodmares, and two were breeding stallions.

Once stump healing was complete, minimal post-surgical problems occurred. Veterinarians did not note any neuroma formation (i.e., abnormal growth of nerve tissue that can cause pain), and "phantom pain," an unexplained syndrome described in human amputee patients, did not occur.

Vlahos concluded, "Amputation in itself is not a difficult procedure. Most horses tolerate the procedure and aftercare extremely well and (this procedure) should be considered early in the course of managing a horse with a limb beyond repair."

About the Author

Stacey Oke, DVM, MSc

Stacey Oke, MSc, DVM, is a practicing veterinarian and freelance medical writer and editor. She is interested in both large and small animals, as well as complementary and alternative medicine. Since 2005, she's worked as a research consultant for nutritional supplement companies, assisted physicians and veterinarians in publishing research articles and textbooks, and written for a number of educational magazines and websites.

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