We created this guide to help people whose cats need leg amputation surgery and those who are interested in adopting three legged cats. If you click on the product links in this guide, we may make a commission that goes towards three legged cat advocacy and rescue.
Help! My Cat Needs Leg Amputation Surgery!
If your cat needs a leg amputation, we’re so sorry to hear that! Most cats recover extremely well, and quickly, from amputation surgery. We’ve heard it described as cats having three legs and a spare.
Tripod cats can live a full and healthy life, with minimal adjustments needed outside of the initial recovery period. This guide covers important information about the recovery process and tips on helping your amputee cat live their best life.
I Want to Adopt a Three Legged Cat
Are you interested in adopting a tripod cat? Congratulations and welcome to #TeamTripod!
These three legged felines appreciate that you’re willing to rescue a special needs cat. While they get around a little bit differently than most cats, you don’t have to change things up too much to make your home comfortable for your new tripod family member.
The recommendations throughout this guide are designed to help you improve your three legged cat’s quality of life.
DISCLAIMER: We are not medical professionals and none of the information in this guide is medical advice. Please consult with a licensed veterinarian if you have questions about your cat’s amputation surgery or recovery. Ths information in this guide is simply recommendations and observations from a 14 year background of being a tripod parent, a three legged cat foster, and the founder of an amputee cat support group.
Why Do Cats Need Leg Amputations?
Severe injuries to the leg and bone fractures may lead to a situation where it’s better for the leg to be removed than to be saved. The initial injury itself may cause this, or complications associated with it, such as infection, could result in a need for an amputation. Some of the most common injuries that result in amputation include getting caught in a trap, getting hit by a car, getting attacked by a larger animal and falling from high places.
Some cats are born with defects in their legs. They may have legs that are unusable or require amputation early on. You can often identify these cats by the unusual stubs left behind. For example, my trikitty Tripod had a stump that went down to the knee, rather than the leg being taken off at the hip.
One type of feline cancer, called Osteosarcoma, causes tumors in the affected limb and it’s the most common type associated with amputee cats. Depending on the aggressiveness of the cancer, amputation of the limb may be the treatment recommended by the vet.
Did your three legged cat recently have their amputation surgery? Cats are awe inspiring in how quickly they adapt to their new circumstances. Many cats are getting around just fine before their sutures are removed, which is typically at the two week mark.
Your tripod needs a small and quiet room, cat playpen or large crate to start the recovery process. Your main goal is to limit their activity so they don’t injure themselves or pull stitches. The area should contain their food, water, bedding and litter box.
Recovery Location Options
A bathroom works really well for limiting their movement and reducing the number of high surfaces they could jump or climb to. Another option is a doggy playpen with a zip mesh top, which is what I use for my tripawd fosters. It has the advantage of allowing you to check in easily on your kitty without disturbing them while resting, which you can’t do if you have to open the bathroom door to visit them.
There are a lot of sizes and brands out there. I got one from Groupon that is 48×48, which gives me plenty of space to set up resting, eating and bathroom zones. Plus, it’s an octagon shape, so the cone doesn’t have any corners to get caught on.
The vet will give you a complete list of instructions for handling their aftercare.
The type of medication that your three legged cat may end up on depends on the extent of their injuries, their pain levels and other factors. I’m not a medical professional, so I just want to give a general overview of the potential medication that your tripod cat may take.
Please note that this is an overview of many common veterinary medications – your veterinarian will not be prescribing every single one of these to your three legged cat. If you have questions about your cat’s specific medical situation, please consult your veterinarian or the amputation surgeon. We are not medical professionals and this is not medical advice.
This is a long-lasting anti-inflammatory/pain killer. You typically give this once per day, and usually only in the period immediately following the surgery.
This comes in injectable form (that the vet will give them) and oral form. It’s a pretty powerful painkiller that will help with pain management in the days/weeks following the surgery.
I can’t say enough good things about Gabapentin. This is a human medication that is also used off-label for cats as part of pain management following an amputation, as well as a highly effective treatment for phantom limb syndrome. The ideal treatment plan that I’ve seen involves giving a kitty Gabapentin before and immediately after the amputation. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding the need for amputation rarely afford that kind of pre-treatment. This typically comes in liquid form.
This is an antibiotic that is used to fight infections following the surgery. It typically comes in a liquid form.
Some of the medications that your three legged cat takes can upset their system. Probiotics can help address this issue and return their digestive system back to normal. They come in treat, powder, and pill form.
Following an amputation, your cat’s immune system is working on healing the incision and providing support in other areas of the body. It’s possible for opportunistic secondary infections, such as Upper Respiratory Infections, to set in during the post-surgery period. This is more likely for cats who are recovering in a shelter environment than those in private residencies / foster homes. It typically comes in tablet form.
Feline physical therapy is available if you’d like to get ongoing support for your three legged cat. The physical therapist can provide you with exercises to keep your tripawd strong and lessen the strain that losing a leg puts on the rest of the body. They can also use equipment and other techniques in-office to help support your sweet kitty. If you’re near the Catonsville, MD area (right outside of West Baltimore), I recommend Paradise Animal Hospital’s animal rehab programs.
Tripod Cat Equipment and Post-Surgery Product Recommendations
Don’t feel obligated to run out and buy all of this equipment before you feel that you’re setup for your tripod family member. These items help improve their quality of life and make things easier for them.
Cat cooling/heating pad – This helps keep inflammation down and can help soothe kitties who are running fevers after surgery.
Disposable litter boxes – You can cut these litter boxes up to accommodate the mobility needs of your recovering tripod. The boxes that come with the 24 can packs of cat food work well, as do the tops of copy paper boxes. Another option is to get a little box ramp, such as the one offered by Kitty Box Ramp, which makes it easy for a new tripod to access their box.
Pellet cat litter – A new tripod is going to struggle with the litter box and figuring out how to go to the bathroom. Pellet litter does not stick to their paws or incision, which reduces the chances that they get an infection due to falling over in the box or another issue. I recommend Yesterday’s News.
Self-heating thermal mat – This is a warm cat mat that has the same material as an emergency blanket embedded inside the fuzzy covering. Kitties love curling up in a warm place, and it’s got a fun crinkle sound that attracts them too.
Kennel Heating Mat – For an electric version of the Snuggle Safe Disk, more or less. I usually put this under the post-surgical playpen (mentioned below) to provide a source of consistent heat.
Heartbeat Toy – This is a stuffed animal that has an electric heartbeat. It acts as a soothing toy for the trikitty, especially if they’re a kitten or young cat.
Cat/Dog Playpen or Crate – I LOVE having a pet playpen with a zip mesh top for kitties to recover in. It confines their movements even better than putting them into a bathroom, which makes it less likely that they will attempt to jump up on anything that they shouldn’t be. It also helps contain the messes as they learn how to operate the litter box with three legs.
Unscented Baby Wipes / Pet Grooming Wipes – You can’t give them a bath while the incision is healing, but they are most likely going to get messy and, if coned, be unable to clean themselves properly. Unscented baby wipes (I use the Amazon Basics brand) helps you keep them clean.
Elevated food / water bowl – It’s easier for the trikitty to keep their balance, plus if they’re in a cone, they have an easier time eating and drinking from it.
Soft e-collar – The e-collar (cone) provided by the vet is often hard and difficult for the cat to work with. You can find a number of aftermarket e-collars at pet stores and Amazon. Kong makes a soft e-collar that’s particularly well-received.
Onesie – In some cases, you can cover up the incision with a 0-3 month old baby onesie. This option is highly recommended if your trikitty is a good candidate for it. Specifically, they should not bite at the fabric over the incision area or become highly anxious due to it being on. It’s easier to use onesies with front leg tripawds than rear leg, but both are possible. Tutorials on Youtube are available.
Surgical sock – Some vets can switch front leg trikitties into a surgical sock for the healing process. This is a fitted fabric tube that covers the incision. It does make it somewhat difficult to check on the incision.
Thundershirt – I recently discovered that when you put a Thundershirt on sideways, it’s excellent for covering up front limb amputation incisions. The Thundershirt also functions as an anti-anxiety device for your cat. The gentle pressure can calm down the sweet kitty following their surgery.
Surveillance camera – A spare webcam, security camera, laptop, tablet or smartphone keeps your eyes on the kitty during this difficult time. You can track their pooping and peeing, observe how they’re adjusting and give them the space they need to rest.
Cat stairs: You can buy pet stairs or make your own out of various cardboard boxes.
Litter Boxes for Three Legged Cats
What we generally recommended for three-legged cats is one of the following options:
A high sided, open litter box that has a relatively low front entry: Specifically, what we like and use for our resident tripods is Nature’s Miracle High Sided Litter Box (or the corner variation).
A litter box with stairs. Specifically, what I use is the Booda Dome. That one has the advantage of being covered with a section for a filter, if you don’t want a lot of litter kicked around the room
Low-sided restaurant bussing box, underbed storage box, or similar low sided plastic storage container. You do get a lot of litter kicked around, but these are inexpensive, easy to alter if you need a lower entry point, and are readily available.
Small animal litter boxes intended for ferrets, rabbits and similar can be useful as well since they have very low entry points, but I haven’t personally used this option.
Litter boxes for senior cats are also easy for tripod cats to manage.
I generally don’t recommend closed litter boxes with doors for tripod kitties, since that’s an extra bit of force that they need to use to get in.
I DO recommend getting some sort of a litter mat, especially for the first few months, as three legged cats can track a bit more than a four legged cat.
Front-leg tripods do tend to have some issues with digging in the litter box. My resident tripods are front-leg amputees, and he tries but he doesn’t always quite get things covered since he has to hop up and paw back. It sure looks adorable though.
The high sided litter box is the biggest help since he can lean up against it for balance.
A dust-free litter is also useful since front leg tripods definitely try to scratch and dig more since they have to work harder for their results.
Toys and Scratching Posts for Amputee Cats
Some of the favorite toys, scratching posts, and other enrichment items for our three legged cats include:
- Plastic springs
- Cork birds (disclosure, these are toys that we make and sell for fundraising)
- Ground chase wand
- Ping pong ball
- Flutter ring
- Oh ring
- Toy mouse
- Cat dancer Cat Charmer
- Concealed motion toy
- Felt cat toy
- Yeowwwl catnip kicker
- Mylar crinkle balls
- Cat crazies
- Trixie Fun Board
In general, here are some things we noticed about toy selection. Ground chase toys tend to work out better than air teasers, although the latter is very helpful for strengthening the core muscles of front-leg tripods. Similarly, ground or slightly ramped scratching posts work really well. I’ve found that ground scratcher loungers are particularly well received. Watch the types of surfaces that your three legged cat wants to scratch and match the type of scratcher to this behavior.
Springs are the gateway toy that most of my playful tripawds love to chase around. Since they’re ground toys, they’re easy to manage and work with. Additionally, they’re light enough to be picked up in the mouth. If you wanted to teach your three legged cat to play fetch, this is a great toy to work with. Another great ground toy is a circular toy that has an automatic motor propelling an arm with string, feathers or another teaser. When you don’t have the time to sit there with a teaser toy, or you want to see your kitties chase it around and get good photo oppportunities, this is a great choice. I also like the look of the Jackson Galaxy ground teaser toy. I haven’t picked this one up myself yet, but I plan on it. A lot of teaser toys are designed for attracting over the head attention, and your tripawd may not be ready to handle that type of balancing.
We also have many more suggestions for cat toys and enrichment, including DIY-friendly options, on our Pinterest board.
Sometimes tripod kitties can have issues with getting traction or holding down toys and food bowls. Non-slip mats or pads, like you’d put on the bottom of furniture legs, are an inexpensive and effective way to minimize these problems. If you have hardwood floors, rugs can help the cats with their traction. I have all hardwood floors at my house, however, so my three legged fosters are used to walking on that kind of flooring.
I have a high cat tree for my tripod, with the bottom parts giving lots of places to climb up to the higher tiers. Anything that has a ramp, stairs, or a low start to a climbing point is great. It’s also a great way to encourage exercise and stretches.
Getting an elevated food bowl or putting it on an elevated surface so they don’t need to lean down to eat from it helps a lot with their posture. It also makes it much easier for the kitties to eat from their bowl. You may want to get a non-skid bowl so they don’t end up pushing it around the room since they might not have an extra paw to hold it in place.
As far as the bed question goes, that depends on the type of bed you have. As long as the front leg tripod kitties aren’t hesitant about jumping for some reason, they can manage a lot of bed types just fine. I’ve also put together stairs out of cardboard boxes, storage totes, footlockers and similar. Some three legged cats like the help, and some can go straight from the floor. One thing that’s really helpful for three legged cats is an orthopedic pillow. Anything that’s memory foam or a similar material works really well. Since it distributes the weight when they’re laying down, it puts less pressure on their joints.Kennel cooling pads can also be helpful for easing any joint soreness, since so much weight is put on a single foreleg.
Front Leg Tripods
Here are a few peculiarities that you see more often with front leg trikitties.
They are often good jumpers, but the landing is difficult for them. The front legs are typically the ones that bear the most weight for cats, so the force of the impact is distributed disproportionately on that single front leg. Give them lots of ways to easily get down from their perches.
If the amputated leg was their dominant paw, they may try to cover their poop and pee with that non-paw. Help them out by covering things up for them.
Sometimes front leg tripods deal with the whole covering difficulty by popping wheelies with their front paw. While this method can work for experienced trikitties, newer tripods end up planting their paws in the pee or poop. Be prepared to help them clean up with unscented baby wipes.
Back Leg Tripods
Here are a few concerns that you’ll see with back leg tripods.
They have trouble landing from a fall, as landing on their feet requires both back legs to be intact in cats.
They have a tendency to fall over in the litter box while covering their poop. High sided litter boxes help with that.
They sometimes use their tail to compensate for the missing back leg balance-wise.
They are unable to jump as high, which is not a bad thing when you consider keeping your countertops clear of kitties.
Potential Long-Term Health Considerations for Three Legged Cats
Tripod kitties mostly have minimal complications related to their three legged status. However, there are two things that you should keep an eye out for.
Since losing a limb throws off the natural posture of a three legged cat, and they have to walk and run differently from a four legged cat, they can have some joint problems when they get older. Arthritis is more of an issue for senior tripods, and you can help keep their joints strong by giving a supplement of feline glucosamine. The type that I personally give my three legged cats is called Cosequin. It’s available without a prescription, online and in pet stores.
Phantom Limb Pain
Much like human amputees, feline amputees can experience phantom limb pain. Roosevelt/Link experiences a relatively mild form of this, which I feel will end up fading away completely the further away he is from his amputation date. You simply need to be slow and careful when you walk around him. While most kitties are reactive on their amputated side, for whatever reason Link gets upset if you try to pass too close to his intact leg. Silly kitty! If the reactions become worse, talk to your veterinarian about a course of feline Gabapentin. Or anti-anxiety meds.
Overweight trikitties can end up in a lot of joint pain, so their diets and weight should be strictly monitored. This can be difficult with food obsessed cats (mine tend to be like that) but it helps them stay pain-free.
For our tripods, we provide glucosamine supplements, such as Cosequin and Dasequin for long-term joint support.
While all cats may become depressed due to the change in life circumstances, in most cases it’s the senior cats who have a hard time adapting. Depression symptoms in felines can include lethargy, increased sleeping hours, lack of interest in activities and decreased appetite. Talk to your vet if you suspect that your trikitty is suffering from depression, especially if you are past the four week mark without significant improvement (most kitties are well-adjusted by the time their sutures come out, approximately two weeks).
Remaining Limb Injury
If one of the remaining limbs gets injured on a trikitty, you may need to use alternative treatment plans compared to what the normal best practices are for that type of injury. Work closely with the vet to get a workable solution for your tripod cat.
Resources for Tripod Owners
Here are other resources that are great for new tripod owners.
Three Legged Cats Facebook Group (Team Tripod runs this support group)
FTC Disclaimer: Team Tripod gets commissions for purchases made through links in this post. We use these proceeds to help three legged cats.