General Fracture Information in Dogs

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Overview of Canine Fracture Information

A fracture is a break or crack in a bone. Although we commonly think of fractures as involving a leg, it is also possible to fracture the skull, jaw, spine, ribs, pelvis and digits (fingers) as well as the long bones and small bones of the front and back limbs.

Practically every bone in your dog’s body is susceptible to fracture, and some, like spinal fractures, have a higher priority to treat. The symptoms that arise with fractures are based on the body part injured and any organ damage. Fractures are usually caused by a traumatic event; however, pathologic fractures can occur from relatively low energy events when preexisting disease such as a tumor or a metabolic bone disease like rickets weakens the bone. Some breeds are also susceptible to particular fractures based on their anatomy, conformation and use (such as hunting or racing).

Because of the trauma involved with a fracture, it is imperative that your dog be checked for concurrent or parallel traumatic injuries. Though your dog’s fracture may seem traumatic, rarely is the fracture by itself a cause for urgent surgical treatment. Your pet should first be evaluated for shock, neurological problems and injury to internal organs.

What to Watch For

Signs of fractures in dogs may include: 

  • Paralysis
  • Extreme weakness or depression
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal discomfort or distention
  • A change in mental status
  • Diagnosis to Diagnose Fractures in Dogs

    Diagnostic tests that may be needed to recognize and treat fractures include:

  • Complete medical history and physical examination
  • Radiographs (X-rays) of the affected limb or area
  • Chest and abdominal radiographs to rule out obvious organ injury especially for trauma patients
  • Blood tests to evaluate for systemic organ trauma and diseases or consequences of shock
  • Treatment of Fractures in Dogs

    Depending on the physical status of your dog, your veterinarian may temporarily stabilize the fracture by applying a splint, padded bandage or other device. After the patient is stable, definitive fracture repair can be instituted. Your veterinarian may recommend a consultation with an orthopedic specialist.

    The type of repair undertaken depends on a number of factors:

  • The fracture type and duration
  • The fracture location
  • The presence of multiple bone fractures
  • The intended activity of the patient
  • The patient’s age
  • The owner’s financial resources and commitment
  • The surgeon’s experience

    Definitive fracture reduction and stabilization involves either closed reduction, in which a cast or splint is applied without surgery. A surgical method may also be an option using some type of metallic surgical implant such as a pin, wire, plate, screw, nail or fixator. The surgical technique often provides the best repair and chance for full return to function.

    Frequently used implants include:

  • Pin and wires
  • Plates and screws
  • Interlocking nails
  • External skeletal fixators (ESF)

    ESF utilizes fixation pins that are placed through the skin and into the bone fragments. A series of clamps and bars or rings are used to stabilize the major fracture fragments.

    Advanced veterinary surgery is technically equivalent to that enjoyed by human patients and uses similarly expensive materials (implants, bone plates, fixator devices) for repair of some fractures. The most desirable treatment can be somewhat costly. If medical and surgical costs are an issue, it is important to discuss the therapy options with your veterinarian first. But remember that if you choose a less desirable option, the success rate may be lower and the chance for return to limb function less than ideal or you may incur repeated visits to the veterinarian for problems associated with the original fracture. These visits can also contribute to overall veterinary costs.

  • Home Care and Prevention

    Carefully follow all the instructions your veterinarian provided and pay particular attention to the wound and the bandages or splints that were applied. Watch for redness, swelling or abnormal discharge from the incision.

    All bandages, splints or casts must be kept clean and dry. It is better to have no bandage than a loose or wet one.

    Return for reevaluation as recommended by your veterinarian. X-rays may be taken to make sure the fracture is healing properly.

    In-depth Information on Canine Fractures 

    Fractures are caused by a complex number of forces that exceed the bone’s ability to absorb them. Twisting, shearing, bending, compression and torsion all play a role in the development of a fracture. The type of force applied to a bone during trauma in many respects determines the fracture pattern of the bone. Bones are generally stronger when they are compressed compared to when the force pulls (tension) on the bone.

    Fractures can be classified as closed or open. Open fractures occur part of the bone has penetrated through the skin. Large bone pieces sticking through the skin are obvious indicators of an open fracture; however, frequently the bone will penetrate through the skin and then retract, leaving a hole in the skin. Although an open fracture can be dramatic and emotional, the prognosis is often similar to that of a closed fracture where the bone fragments have not penetrated the skin.

    If your pet develops a fracture that was the result of a low energy (mild) trauma (such as walking down stairs or running in the yard), your veterinarian will want to determine if a preexisting disease that weakened the bone is present. Examples of such conditions that weaken bone include bone tumors (cancer) or metabolic bone disease. A thorough clinical and radiographic exam is necessary to define preexisting disease.

    Certain breeds are susceptible to specific fractures. Toy breeds that jump from heights are susceptible to fractures in the lower part of the forearm (radius and ulna). Because of the poor blood supply to this area, these fractures tend to recover poorly with cast or splint treatment. A bone plate with screws is generally the recommended form of treatment.

    Spaniel breeds of dogs are also susceptible to particular fractures surrounding the elbow joint. The end of the humerus (upper arm) may not develop properly in these dogs and they may be at risk for fractures in this area. Because the elbow joint is involved, early treatment is warranted.

    Performance dogs (greyhounds) are particularly susceptible to certain injuries associated with their role in life. Compression injuries occur in the lower extremities according to their direction raced on the track. Digit (toe), hock (ankle) and carpal (wrist) injuries seem to predominate.

    Because multiple disorders may occur with trauma, a thorough clinical examination is necessary. Dogs that have been hit by a car should have a chest X-ray (radiograph) taken to evaluate for concurrent chest trauma.

    Some dogs may have subtle joint injuries or spinal injuries with their more obvious long bone fracture. It is imperative to evaluate these patients fully.         

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