Treating Fractures in Animals

By: Merten G. Pearson, DVM

TVMA Member
Amarillo, TX

Published February 2016

Just like you and me, animals can break bones. The causes can vary from jumping out of a moving car, getting caught in a fence, getting into a fight or even just jumping off the couch or out of your arms.

What signs may tip you off that your pet has a broken bone? Often, fractures are in the limbs and, if so, he or she will most likely be non-weight-bearing (won’t put it down and walk on it). You will often see significant swelling and perhaps bruising around the location of a fracture. If it is an open fracture, you may even see a piece of the bone sticking out of the wound. A sudden case of difficulty rising, reluctance to move, pain over a localized area or a “crunchy” feeling when you touch the area are all possible signs of a broken bone, but be aware that other things can cause many of these signs. These all need to be seen by your veterinarian for evaluation of their cause. The following questions are among those that a veterinarian uses to investigate and assess how to best treat a broken bone.

Which bone is broken?

Is it the only broken bone?

Does it have to be immediately functional after surgery?

Does the fracture involve a joint or growth plate?

Is it a simple or compound fracture?

Is the fracture open or closed?

How long has the bone been broken?

Is the bone infected?

Is there enough bone for a fixator to attach to?

What is the temperament of the animal?

How old is the animal?

Is the animal otherwise healthy, or are there health problems that could impact the healing of the bone?

How big is the animal?

Many of the above questions are answered by taking one or more X-rays. Once the veterinarian makes the diagnosis and has assessed the patient’s and client’s ability to manage at-home care, a treatment plan can be made for best stabilizing the fracture. There are many treatment options for fractures, and getting the fracture appropriately stabilized will help minimize the pain and speed up the healing process.

Stabilization Promotes the Healing Process

It is important that there is not any movement between the broken pieces of bones. If there is movement, healing may be delayed by weeks, thus prolonging the pain and stress of the pet. The common way to ensure stabilization and promote the healing process is to use a fixator. A fixator is anything used to hold the bone fragments stationary while they come together to heal. Some kinds of fixators include external skeletal fixators, bone plates, intramedullary pins, circlage wire, lag screws, pins and wire, screws and wire and splints. A cast is also considered a fixator, but it can be difficult for pets to tolerate because they cannot use crutches and won’t stay in bed for six to eight weeks! The more rigid the fixation, the less motion you have through the fracture, thus preventing disruption of new bone growth.

While a rigid-fitting fixator is a useful tool in enhancing bone growth, a fixator that is too rigid can do more harm than good. If the fixation is too rigid, the bone will never strengthen to its full potential because the fixator is doing all the work. Sometimes you need to either partially or completely remove a fixation device so the bone ends up having to do some of, and eventually all of, the work. Another part of the healing process is restriction of activity. This may include kenneling your pet for part of the healing process, leash walking and restriction to a small area of the house or yard. It can take anywhere from four to more than 12 weeks for a bone to heal depending on factors such as the age of the animal, rigidity of the fixation, health of the animal and the health of the wound around the fracture. In addition, because veterinarians seek to treat the whole animal, not just the isolated issue, pain management and antibiotic therapy also may be administered to the pet.

Bones are remarkably capable of healing if given a little help, care and time. If you suspect your pet has a broken bone, do not wait around to see if it will get better. Instead, make an appointment with your veterinarian and have it examined.

Merten G. Pearson, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Amarillo, Texas. Dr. Pearson practices at Noah’s Ark Pet Hospital and Pet Dental Center of Amarillo.