A man followed a trail of blood that led beneath his house. There he found a cat, skinny and full of fleas, that had been shot in the leg. He took the stray to a veterinarian, where the initial decision was to euthanize the animal.
“I had just given him a tranquilizer and when I sat by his cage, talking to him, he started purring and licking my hand, so I asked the doctor if he could try to save him instead,” says veterinary technician Randi Golub, of Eugene, Ore. “He had to have one of his legs amputated because it had been shattered by the gunshot.”
Golub cared for the cat as he slowly regained health and eventually adopted him. Now three years later, Cassidy climbs to the top of his cat tree with as much agility as Golub’s four-legged cats.
Historically, most animals like Cassidy were euthanized without much of a second thought, under the rationalization that their lives wouldn't be worth living minus a leg or an eye. Today, while there are no hard statistics on how many pets undergo surgeries such as amputation or removal of an eye instead of euthanasia, veterinarians say there's more discussion about and use of other options.
Part of the reason is that modern advances in rehabilitation techniques, pain management and cancer therapy have contributed to the successful treatment of dogs and cats with devastating injuries and other disfiguring diseases and conditions.
There's also an increasing realization that these animals adapt extremely well to disabilities that people would view as crushing handicaps. Because pets are already agile, flexible and adaptable, those skills really help them when they lose a leg or their vision, experts say.
"It’s always a very emotional thing," veterinarian John Hamil of Canyon Animal Hospital in Laguna Beach, Calif., says of the decision to either euthanize an animal or try to save it, even when that means the loss of a body part.
"But with explanation of how well animals can cope," he says, "I’ve never had a lot of resistance."
The animals can cope, but can they really get around as well as four-legged animals?
“We have a number of patients who’ve had a leg amputated,” says Susan Little, a veterinarian in Toronto, Canada, and president of the Winn Feline Foundation. “They’re so good on their three legs that I have to remind myself that they only have three legs because they’re just so competent. It’s quite amazing what they can cope with.”
In the swim
Longfellow, a dachshund, was 10 months old when he was adopted by Sheila Phillips of Tybee Island, Ga. She trained him as a therapy dog and he visited schools, hospitals and nursing homes. He loved to run and placed third in the local Weiner Dog race in 2005. Longfellow had one bad habit, though: He was an escape artist.
Longfellow survived, but his hind leg had to be amputated. Phillips took him swimming to help strengthen his other legs and he attempted to run with other dogs until he could get along pretty well on three legs. He also resumed his therapy dog visits.
“We started going to Memorial Health Rehab Center, where he visited patients who’d had their legs amputated. He was a big hit there,” Phillips says. “One gentleman at the rehab unit said, ‘If Longfellow can do it, I can too.’”
Advances in rehab techniques such as aquatic therapy for animals help pets like Longfellow recover as well as they do. Prosthetic limbs are rare, but pets with paralysis issues can get around with the help of carts that keep them rolling along.
Last year, Phillips entered Longfellow in the Wiener Dog race again. He won, beating 178 four-legged Dachshunds on his three legs, and is currently practicing for the 2008 race.
When an animal loses a limb, the location of that missing limb can play an important role in adaptation. Cats, for instance, carry the majority of their weight on the hind legs. “If they lose a front leg, that’s the half of the body that doesn’t carry as much weight, so it’s a really quick adaptation,” Little says, “but even if they lose the hind leg, they just learn how to shift the weight onto the other three legs.”
It was just the opposite for Longfellow.
“Our vet ... said if Longfellow had to lose a leg, it was better to lose one on the back,” Phillips says, “because most of a dachshund's weight is on his front.”
Tripp, a golden retriever, is another example of a dog that has overcome adversity and gone on to great — in this case, heroic — things.
A stray dog hit by a car, he ended up in the care of Tennessee Valley Golden Retriever Rescue, but by the time they took him in, his leg was irreparable and had to be amputated. Then fortune found him. He caught the eye of Ellen Franklin of Marietta, Ga., when she saw him listed on petfinder.com.
“Nobody wanted a three-legged dog, but I have to tell you, there hasn’t been a problem,” Franklin says. “He doesn’t know he’s only got three legs.”
Don't miss these Health stories
More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Rates of women who are opting for preventive mastectomies, such as Angeline Jolie, have increased by an estimated 50 percent in recent years, experts say. But many doctors are puzzled because the operation doesn't carry a 100 percent guarantee, it's major surgery -- and women have other options, from a once-a-day pill to careful monitoring.
- Larry Page's damaged vocal cords: Treatment comes with trade-offs
- Report questioning salt guidelines riles heart experts
- CDC: 2012 was deadliest year for West Nile in US
- What stresses moms most? Themselves, survey says
- More women opting for preventive mastectomy - but should they be?
Tripp is also a therapy dog, and he and Franklin visit local nursing homes where he’s quite popular with residents. But what he’s famous for occurred last year.
Franklin’s daughter had come over to spend the night. Late at night, Tripp woke them up.
“He was barking and biting at me and then he ran across to my daughter’s bedroom door and jumped up and then ran back to me,” Franklin says.
The house was full of smoke. Franklin called 911 and they all got out of the house safely. Because of Tripp’s early warning, the house was saved, too.
He was honored by the local fire department and later received the Golden Retriever Club of America’s G.R.A.C.E. award, given to rescued goldens with significant and exceptional accomplishments.
“We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him,” Franklin says.
Relying on other senses
In some cases, animals that have sustained devastating injuries, particularly a loss of vision or hearing, can adapt by relying more heavily on their other senses to guide them. Take Jimmy, for instance, a stray kitten who lost both eyes to infection.
Golub, who took in Cassidy the injured cat, adopted Jimmy last Christmas. "We were trying to find a home for him when Cassidy just fell in love with him, decided that was going to be his kitten," she says. "Cassidy took him under his wing."
Today, Jimmy is thriving. “Unless you look at his face and see that he has no eyes, you really can’t tell that he’s blind,” Golub says. “He uses his other senses and of course he has his whiskers. He goes by feel a lot, but he can navigate the whole house.”
When animals lose their sight early in life, like Jimmy or Little’s one-eyed cat Lily, the brain’s plasticity at that young age helps pets adjust rapidly to their new situation.
“I’ve talked to other people who have blind cats, and we’re convinced there must be another way they can see because they do things that just seem impossible,” Golub says. “I’ll toss a sock toy to him that makes no noise at all and he’ll immediately run toward it and start playing with it. If a cat on the other side of the room gets up, he’ll run right toward that cat to play with it.”
Lily’s eye was removed when she was 5 or 6 weeks old.
“She’s grown up seeing the world through one eye,” Little says. “I’m sure her brain just switched developmental pathways, and she adapted quite quickly. She’s the most acrobatic of all my cats.”
When adult animals lose an eye, their brains aren’t as flexible, but they can still adjust with time. Owners may find that they jump a little less or move more hesitantly, but as long as the furniture stays in the same place, they do quite well.
When Golub tells people about Jimmy, they sometimes ask why she didn’t euthanize him.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about this before we adopted him,” Golub says. “He can do everything he needs without eyesight, and the fact that he can’t see makes absolutely no difference to him.”
Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats. She belongs to the Dog Writers Association of America and is past president of the Cat Writers Association. She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.
© 2013 msnbc.com. Reprints