When Merry arrived at La Plata County Humane Society in mid-December, she was abandoned with no tags and had a broken hind leg – possibly after having been hit by a car along La Posta Road (County Road 213) south of Durango.
The veterinarians at the Humane Society were unable to save the leg.
Merry, now a “tripawd,” has made a remarkable recovery in the last two months.
She bounds forward on her two front legs while her hind leg does double duty to keep up. Her tail, almost as long as a leg, wags in delight as she receives attention from Humane Society staff members and animal lovers who stopped to say hello recently in downtown Durango.
“She’s one of the most well-behaved dogs in the kennel,” said Cassidy Crisp, media relations manager with the Humane Society.
Dogs tend to cope with amputations better than humans, said Jim Nelson, who started Tripawds, a nonprofit based in Texas that provides resources and community forums to the parents of three-legged dogs nationwide.
“The dog will adapt,” he said. “They’ll wake up with one less leg, they’ll adjust, they’ll overcome and they’ll go be a dog. … It’s the people that freak out.”
Dogs adjust so quickly that they can hurt themselves in the weeks after surgery because they want to go and play, he said. They don’t mope around and feel sorry for themselves.
The Tripawds nonprofit does not maintain data on what percentage of dogs have only three legs.
“It’s a great project that we hope to fund someday,” Nelson said.
But the leading cause of amputations is cancer, he said, followed by injury from being hit by a car or jumping from a moving vehicle.
Another leading cause is neglect, Nelson said. Dogs who live most of their days on a chain or a cord can become tangled up with the tether, causing a limb to be strangled, he said.
“We’ve seen accidents and snake bites and tick bites and all sorts of reasons,” Nelson said.
Owners of three-legged dogs often field the same basic questions from nearly everyone they encounter: How did your dog lose its leg? How has the amputation impacted your dog’s mobility?
Nelson said by and large, three-legged dogs can do all the same things as four-legged dogs, including playing fetch, going for walks and running up and down stairs. But the key to recovery is rehab, he said.
During the immediate recovery phase, pain management is crucial, he said. Dogs, like humans, need a cocktail of pain medications to help them recover.
For longer-term care, three-legged dogs should visit a certified rehab therapist who can help animals with weight-bearing management and core exercises, Nelson said. His nonprofit believes so strongly in the value of rehab that the foundation will pay for an owner’s first visit to a certified rehab therapist.
Sandy Gilpin, who adopted Posh, a three-legged dog in 2018 from the Humane Society, said a common reaction among those who are meeting Posh for the first time is “aw, poor thing.”
“I go, ‘Don’t feel sorry for her, she’s living a fabulous life,’” Gilpin said. “She can jump just as high (as other dogs) and is super adaptable to everyday things.”
Posh, now 11, tends to greet other dogs with a few sharp barks. It is not that she is scared of other dogs or is feeling aggressive toward them, Gilpin said. Rather, it is to let other dogs know she is different.
“We think she’s saying, ‘Hey, I’ve only got three legs. You might need to be a little careful. Have you seen my missing leg? I'm missing a leg,’” she said.
Three-legged dogs tend to have a hopping motion when they walk. But when Posh runs, it is almost like she has a perfect stride, Gilpin said.
“You can’t even tell she’s missing a leg, because she runs beautifully,” she said.
While it is impossible to know how many three-legged dogs are running around Durango, it is not uncommon for three-legged dogs to run into each other on walks or at the dog park, said dog owner Bob Lyle. Lyle has a dog named Kiana, an 11- or 12-year-old pup who lost her leg about 10 years ago after being hit by a car in Tohatchi, New Mexico.
Kiana, who is missing her left hind leg, has met three other tripods in the past two months, he said.
“Over the years, we’ve run into quite a few of them,” Lyle said. “So they’re definitely around.”
Kiana probably knows she is a little bit different from other dogs, Lyle said, but it doesn’t seem to be the type of thing she and other three-legged dogs commune over when they meet.
“I don’t think they recognize that (the other) dog is missing a leg – and I’m missing one too,” he said.
It is something humans can bond over, he said, yet he is unaware of any local groups that have formed to help “tripawd” owners connect.
That may not be unusual, considering several owners of three-legged dogs are adamant that there are few differences between their dogs and other dogs.
“It seems like it would be a really big deal (to be missing a leg),” Lyle said. “But in reality, for the dog, I don’t think it is.”
He acknowledges that life will likely become more difficult for Kiana in the next few years. He anticipates having to get her a harness to help her on walks and possibly having to do something about the eight stairs leading to his front door.
The Tripawds Foundation hosts more than 2,000 cat and dog blogs in which pet owners can share their stories or advice about caring for three-legged pets. The nonprofit also holds gatherings across the country to unite tripawds and their owners, Nelson said.
Pet owners who have to amputate can feel alone, angry and uncertain about the future, he said. Nelson said people may have questions like, “Will my dog ever swim again?”
In extreme cases, pet owners may face criticism from other people about their decision to amputate a limb versus putting the dog down, he said.
Humor is sometimes the best medicine, he said. Tripawds Foundation maintains a forum with jokes and comebacks about three-legged dogs.
If someone is especially inquisitive about a dog’s missing leg, the owner may put that person at ease by saying, “If he had a fourth leg I never would have caught him.” Or if children are overly alarmed by a dog having only three legs, an owner may say, “Dogs are born with three legs and a spare,” or “Well, he’s still got one more leg than you.”
“So there’s all sorts of comebacks,” Nelson said. “ … The people that are commenting just don’t know. They’ve never been through it, and they don’t realize that these animals can and do quite well with our help.”
An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect location for where the Tripawds Foundation is based.