Dogs break (or fracture) bones for a lot of reasons. Often they break due to traffic accidents or incidents such as falls. Sometimes the bone isn’t broken at all, but is pulled out of its socket (dislocation).
Fractures are typically classified as either “open” or “closed.” An open fracture occurs when the skin over the fracture is open and the bone is exposed, while with closed fractures, the skin over the affected area remains intact. There are also certain situations in which the bone fracture is incomplete (i.e., a small sliver or crack in the bone). These are known as hairline fractures. A dog with a hairline fracture may not exhibit the typical symptoms associated with open or closed fractures. Nevertheless, hairline fractures are painful and should be treated (i.e., stabilized) with equal care.
What To Watch For
A broken bone sticking out through the dog's skin is an obvious indicator of a fracture, but any sign of pain or discomfort after an accident or injury could indicate a fracture or dislocation. Limping and whining are two other strong signs that something is wrong. It is important to note that muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries can cause similar symptoms to breaks.
Bone fractures are caused by a sudden impact or great force to the body, whether from an object or due to a fall from a great distance. They occur most often in older dogs and in adventurous, excitable animals.
The primary goals of treatment are to reduce pain, lower the risk of additional accidents, and avoid infection of open wounds. In all cases, there are three primary rules:
- Do not try to re-set a fracture.
- Do not use antiseptics or ointments on open fractures.
- Get the dog to a vet immediately.
For specific breaks and problems, follow the guidelines below.
Muzzle the dog, if necessary, then gently pull it onto a flat board without bending its back. You will need to strap him in place to limit movement, but should avoid putting any pressure on the neck or back. (It is vital to never try and splint a broken back.) Take the dog to a vet immediately.
Muzzle the dog, if necessary, then gently slide a clean towel under the broken limb. If the broken part of the bone is visible through an opening (an “open” fracture), cover the exposed part with clean gauze such as a bandage or a clean dish or sanitary towel. Do not apply antiseptic or ointment.
If the break is “closed,” the gauze is not needed and a rolled-up newspaper, magazine, or similarly sturdy material can be used to splint the leg. If splinting causes the dog severe pain, don’t force it.
In both cases, support the broken limb with a folded towel. Do not try to re-set the bone; the splint will help prevent damage to nerves, vessels, and other tissues until a veterinarian can treat the break with the aid of general anesthesia. Once you have splinted the bone, lift the dog and transport him immediately to the vet, keeping him warm to prevent shock.
Muzzle the dog, if necessary, but only if it has no difficulty breathing. Check the chest for open wounds and cover them with clean gauze, then wrap the whole chest area with clean, torn sheets. The sheets should be wrapped firmly, but not so tight that they interfere with breathing. Also, don't support the dog by his chest when lifting or carrying him to the veterinarian.
If you notice that the chest is bulging, wrap it tight enough to cover the bulge. If the bulge is firm, it’s probably the end of a broken rib. If it is soft, it could mean the lung is punctured. If the dog emits a sucking sound, the chest cavity has been breached, which requires immediate veterinary assistance.
These are extremely difficult to manage, even for a trained expert. If the tail appears to be broken but there is no blood or bone visible and the dog does not seem to be in pain, immediate emergency care is not essential -- that is, as long as the end of the tail does not become discolored. Make an appointment to see the vet within 24 hours and keep an eye on the problem.
The vet will examine the break and treat it accordingly. This may include administering medications to control the pain and a general anesthetic to re-set or stabilize the bone. Dislocations should also be treated with the aid of anesthesia; in fact, you should never attempt to re-set a bone at home.
Living and Management
Depending on the dog’s age, size, fitness, and other factors, your vet will be able to advise you of the best way to rehabilitate a broken bone. Owners of smaller dogs, especially so-called “tea cup” breeds, should be extra careful when caring for their pets, as these dogs can easily fracture a bone just from falling from a person's arms or due to someone accidentally stepping on them.