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What You Need To Know Before Adopting A 3-Legged Dog

“Treat them like any other dog or animal, with love and respect.”

Pit bull Merida may only have three legs, but she never seems to feel like she’s the least bit different.

Merida was found by animal control in a yard in Fort Worth, Texas, a tether tightly wrapped around her leg. Rushed to an animal hospital, she was about to be euthanized, when the doctor’s son, Benjamin Morris, asked his dad to stop.

“He told me, ‘Son, this dog is not going to live ... she's dying.’ But I couldn't stand for him to do it, at least not right then,” Morris tells The Dodo. Despite the dire prognosis, Merida managed to pull through, and in losing her leg, she gained a new family.

Benjamin Morris

There are thousands of dogs just like Merida, searching for loving homes and humans who understand them. But what do potential adopters need to know before committing to a three-legged dog, or other special needs dogs for that matter?

As it turns out, there are not that many differences between a tri-pawed pup and a four-legged one, explains Kristi Littrell, adoptions manager at Best Friends Animal Society.

“Three-legged dogs most of the time get around just as well as four-legged ones,” Littrell tells The Dodo. “It can vary if it's a back leg or a front leg (which can be more difficult for them to get around).”

Dogs carry approximately 60 percent of their weight in their front legs, so it’s important to protect the remaining limb from strain. “But I always say to not underestimate them! They adapt much more quickly than us humans,” Littrell adds.

Trauma, bone cancer or a bone disease can all cause a dog to lose a leg, which can cause some pet owners to go overboard with pampering (understandable!). But instead of handing out those treats, owners should pay careful attention to their three-legged dog’s waistline.

“It's important for all dogs to maintain a healthy weight, but it's even more important for amputees to maintain a healthy weight,” Morris explains. “If they are too heavy, it puts even more stress on joints that are already carrying more weight than they were designed to carry.”

Frequent, quick walks and swimming are excellent ways to keep a dog fit, while not putting undue stress on their remaining legs. As with any dog, look for signs of overexertion or exhaustion while exercising — and give them plenty of water breaks as needed.

Owners of three-legged dogs should also pay close attention to their pup’s legs and foot pads. That means frequent nail trims, which will help them balance, and adding vet-recommended vitamins or supplements for joint health to their diet.  

And with age comes a few more challenges. “As they age, they aren't as agile as they might have been,” Littrell notes. “They may put weight on the remaining leg when they jump up or down. They can also can develop arthritis in the remaining leg since it is more weight-bearing.”

Owners should keep an eye out for swelling in the joints, including elbow hygroma, caused by a dog putting too much weight on his elbow. Soft pads for the pup to lay on and elevated food dishes can help take some of the pressure off their legs. Three-legged dogs get around pretty well, but of course if they can't hold their weight or suffer from arthritis, they may need a wheelchair.

Above all, it’s important that owners “treat them like any other dog or animal, with love and respect and as individuals that are each special in their own way,” Littrell adds.

With a little support, these dogs can go on to do great things.

Merida is now a three-legged dog ambassador, traveling with her owner from school to school in the Fort Worth area, sharing her uplifting message.

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“Be like this dog,” Morris tells the kids during his visits with Merida.

“Merida doesn't carry a burden of grief and sorrow around about what happened, she doesn't distrust people even though a person was bad to her,” Morris says. “A dog would never hurt anyone out of malice and when they see somebody hurting they try to take that hurt away, they never add to it.”

Merida can now hold her own at any dog park, and her scars are simply proof that she’s a survivor.