Which bones are commonly broken?
There are many reasons dogs may break (fracture) bones, such as road traffic accidents or falls from a height. Frequently broken bones are:
- the femur (thigh bone)
How to spot a breakage
Fractures can be very obvious, particularly if the broken bone is sticking out through the dog's skin. However, any sign of pain or discomfort after an accident or injury could be a possible break or dislocation. Crying, limping, swelling, even deformity with shortening of affected leg, also tells us that something is seriously wrong. Abscesses, migrating grass seeds and muscle, tendon and ligament injuries can cause similar symptoms and equal pain levels.
What types of fracture are there?
Fractures are classified as open or closed:
- Open fractures (also known as compound fractures) are where the wound exposes the bone, often contaminated by dirt and bacteria, and are accompanied by a high risk of infection
- Closed fractures are broken bone that have not penetrated the skin
What to do if you suspect your dog has a broken bone
Your primary treatment goals are always to reduce pain and risk of further accidents, as well as avoiding infection. If you suspect your dog has broken a bone, don't try to re-set the bone fragments or apply antiseptics or ointments onto open fractures. Just get your dog to your vet immediately.
On the way to the vet
Muzzling your dog may be necessary too as pain, anxiety and aggression (biting owners in self-defence) are common. Exposed open fractures should be covered with clean gauze, such as a bandage, clean T-shirt or tea towel, with gentle pressure applied to continued bleeding. On the way to your vet, try supporting broken limbs with towels, and keeping your dog warm to prevent shock.
Which dogs may be prone to broken bones?
All breeds are prone to fractures, but as most breakages are caused by a sudden impact or great force - whether from objects or falls - they most often happen in older dogs and young, adventurous pups. Toy breeds with tiny fragile limbs may be trodden on too.
How are broken bones treated?
The way in which vets treat fractures depends on the dog's age, size, fitness, broken bone, type of fracture, and budget available. Some fracture repairs can cost thousands of pounds. Sometimes amputation may be indicated. Open, closed and hairline fractures all require treatment, usually undertaken when patient shock, blood loss and pain are successfully stabilised with analgesics and anti-inflammatories, and the risk of infection is controlled, often days after the initial incident.
Treatment and best repair options often involve general anaesthetic, x-rays and surgery, enabling bone edges to come together again for re-alignment (fracture reduction) so they can knit together firmly and form a healing callus.
Repairing broken bones
Once reduced, the position of the bones must be maintained. In most dogs, with fractures above the knee or elbow, the position is held with pins and metal plates. Fractures below the knee or elbow are immobilised with splints and casts. Fractures involving joints usually require open surgery and repair with pins, screws, and wire. Your vet may even choose to refer your dog to an orthopaedic specialist.
What can I do to help my dog heal?
Post-operative healing is greatly enhanced with strict crate rest (often up to six weeks) preventing walking, playing, running or jumping, including special bandaging care and support, as well as extended courses of antibiotics and pain killers. Some implants require future removal and some may need to remain in the patient forever.
Supporting your dog
Healing is often more rapid in younger, quiet, calm, healthy-eating patients of all shapes, sizes and breeds with single-limb injuries. However, delayed healing is common in older, bouncy, active, sick, debilitated, giant or toy breeds, especially if they suffer other injuries too. Your dog may require owner assistance to stand, walk and go to the toilet in the first few days or weeks after surgery, especially on slippery surfaces.
When limbs are not used properly for several days to weeks, joints stiffen up, muscles shrink, and bone healing is often delayed. Physiotherapy during healing aims to improve comfort and limb use without causing harm. Careful coordination between the vet and physiotherapist can help the patient to return to normal function.
Other simple methods you can try at home include cold therapy (applying cold packs to the fracture site), motion therapy (flexing and extending joints) and massage therapy (this helps prevent restrictive scar tissue), but it is important to speak to your vet before trying any of these. Other complementary therapies, such as hydrotherapy, may also be indicated in specific cases but always seek your vet's approval or a referral first.
How long do broken bones take to heal?
Your vet will explain how long the bone may take to heal, but generally canine fractures need a minimum of four weeks in young puppies and eight weeks in older animals to heal sufficiently and eventually return to normal.
Being strict to help your dog heal
As dog owners, we can't just tell our dogs to "take it easy" or "stay off of it", so it's up to you to impose restrictions, even when your four-legged friend is begging to play. It can be a long two to three months when the sun's shining and squirrels are asking to be chased; but catastrophes can happen if fracture repairs are stressed too soon.
Finally, on a positive note
Fractures do heal and bones often resume near normal shape and strength. Close attention, appropriate treatments and preventing your dog from 'running before it can walk' mean our 'broken' pets can often return to completely normal, happy and active lives.
This article was written by Marc Abraham, a vet based in Brighton who regularly appears on UK television.
Think your dog may be affected?
If you're worried about your dog's health, always contact your vet immediately!
We're not a veterinary organisation and so we can't give veterinary advice, but if you're worried about any of the issues raised in this article, please contact your local vet practice for further information.
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