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Fracture of the Rib in Cats

By: Dr. David Diamond

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Isolated fractures of the ribs are rare. More commonly, these fractures are found in conjunction with other fractures (legs, pelvis, spine) and are a result of trauma (motor vehicle accident). There are usually no potential long-term effects from these fractures.

Trauma to the chest wall can be associated with severe respiratory (breathing) difficulty. In addition to rib fractures, cats can have "pulmonary contusion" (lung trauma), "pneumothorax" (free air within the chest cavity causing a collapsed lung), and "flail chest" (abnormal movement of the chest wall when multiple rib fractures are present).

Diagnosis

No laboratory tests are required to make the diagnosis, but other diagnostic tests may include:

  • Thorough medical history and physical examination

  • Chest radiographs (X-rays) to evaluate the extent of injury to the lungs, determine if pneumothorax is present and to visualize the rib fracture(s).

  • Complete orthopedic examination to rule out other fractures or injuries

    Treatment

    Emergency care for concurrent problems caused by the trauma is paramount. After stabilization, additional treatment may include:

  • Treatment of concurrent fractures and soft-tissue injuries

  • Most rib fractures are managed without any treatment. The chest wall cannot be immobilized and rib fractures generally heal well on their own

  • Occasionally, the individual fractures may be surgically repaired with pins and/or wires

  • When multiple rib fractures are present, leading to a "flail chest," the freely moving section of the chest wall usually must be stabilized so the animal can breathe properly. This involves attaching the ribs within the free segment to a large splint placed on the surface of the skin. The ribs are attached to the splint with suture material placed through the splint and around each rib.

  • Injectable analgesics (pain medications) may be given to your pet while he is being treated in the hospital and may be continued orally once the cat is discharged from the hospital.

    Home Care and Prevention

    So your pet can heal with the least amount of pain possible, exercise restriction usually will be required for several weeks. Excessive motion of the chest wall with activity and heavy breathing causes discomfort and may cause the fracture to take longer to heal.

    If a "flail chest" is being managed with a splint, the splint will be maintained for several weeks while the bones heal.

    Radiographs (X-rays) may be repeated in several weeks to make sure the bones are healing well and to make sure it is safe to increase your pet's activity level.

    A recheck appointment with your veterinarian may occur in several weeks to evaluate how the bone is healing (with new radiographs), to monitor your pet's progress and make sure it is safe to increase your pet's activity level.

    Many traumatic events are true accidents and thus unavoidable. Avoid the chance for motor vehicle trauma by keeping your cat indoors.


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