If your dog has a broken bone you will probably be anxious about how the fracture can be treated. There are many different ways to treat fractured bones and the exact treatment which is chosen will depend upon several factors.
Table of contents
Some of the things which will be considered by you and your vet before making a decision about the most suitable treatment option will include:
The type of fracture.
Is it a simple fracture without any displacement of the bone, or is it a complex fracture with multiple small breaks? Have ends of the bone penetrated the skin?
Complex fractures involving multiple fragments may not heal easily and displaced fragments will need to be realigned. If bone has penetrated the skin there is a greater risk of infection.
The age and general health of your dog.
Are there any other health conditions which might affect bone healing or general mobility? Older dogs often have a higher risk of complications following a fracture. They may also suffer from pre-existing conditions affecting their general mobility such as arthritis.
How active is your dog?
If you and your dog enjoy vigorous activities such as agility, the healed bone will need to function optimally. This is equally important if your dog is a working dog and will be expected to continue working in the future. If your pet has a sedentary lifestyle the healed bone may not be placed under too much strain and the major consideration may be a return to reasonable mobility without pain or discomfort.
What are the costs?
Finally, you and your vet will need to consider what resources and expertise are available locally and the costs that you may incur. Many first opinion veterinary practices will have the equipment and expertise to treat certain types of fracture in dogs but occasionally referral may be offered to an orthopaedic specialist. Options for referral to a specialist may be particularly relevant if your dog has a complex fracture, other pre-existing conditions, or if your dog will be expected to perform or work to a high standard in the future.
So what are the medical (non-surgical) options?
A specific type of fracture called a greenstick fracture may not need much treatment and can heal on its own. Often rest will be advised. Greenstick fractures are very simple fractures which tend to occur in young growing dogs with fairly flexible bones. There is usually no displacement of the bone and the periosteum (the outer part of the bone) remains intact. If the bone isn’t fully weight bearing, rest alone can be an effective treatment.
Casts or splints.
Many simple fractures which do not involve badly displaced bones or multiple bony fragments can do well if a cast or splint is used to stabilise the bone during healing. This option is particularly useful when the fracture involves the lower limbs. Stabilisation of a broken bone with a cast or a splint is a relatively low cost treatment and may need to be considered with more complex fractures if funds are limited.
Generally, fractures in puppies heal better by rest or in a cast than those in adults or older dogs. It’s rarely the first choice, but can be effective in some types of break. In most cases, though, surgery will be required
Surgery under general anaesthesia is often required to treat broken bones. The specific type of surgery needed will be determined by your veterinary surgeon but broadly speaking there are two main ways of surgically treating broken bones:
The use of metal implants
Once the fracture has been assessed and the broken bone has been aligned in the best position for healing, metal implants may be placed in or around the bone to support the bone and keep the broken parts together. These metal implants may include pins, wires, screws or metal plates. These implants are hidden under the skin and are often left in place after the bone has healed. If the implant needs to be removed once the fractured bone has mended a further general anaesthetic will be required.
When the fracture is complex and involves multiple different bone fragments, external fixation may be needed. This involves an external supporting structure of metal outside the body attached to pins which are placed within the bone. This can keep complex bony fractures together while healing takes place. Once the bone is mended the external fixator can be removed and the pins withdrawn.
If your pet has a complex fracture which cannot easily be repaired, or if your funds do not allow for complex treatment and aftercare, it is sometimes necessary to perform an amputation of the affected limb. This might seem to be a drastic option, but many dogs do very well with only three legs. This may not be an option in very large breed dogs or those with limited mobility or arthritis. Your vet will advise you if this is an option you wish to explore for your dog.
Is referral needed?
In some situations you and your vet may decide that it would be best to refer your dog to an orthopaedic specialist to have their broken bone treated. This is not necessary in every case, but can sometimes be the best course of action to take.
Specialist veterinary orthopaedic surgeons usually work in referral practices. Often (but not always) these are large second opinion centres. This means that you must be referred by your usual vet rather than seeking treatment with them yourself. The vets working in these large referral practices will usually be experts and/or specialists in their field and have access to advanced techniques and equipment which may not be available in normal first opinion veterinary practices. You may need to travel to a referral centre for your dog’s treatment, but aftercare can sometimes either be shared or completely carried out by your local vet to make it more convenient for you and your dog.
Your local vet will be able to help guide you in obtaining the best possible care for your dog when they have a broken bone. With good communication between you and your vet, together with any referral centres involved, your dog will have the best chance of a good outcome after this type of injury.