Dogs have four larger bones on the hind limbs (metatarsals) and forelimb paws (metacarpals). Three smaller bones attach to each of the metatarsal and metacarpal bones, forming the toes. These toe bones are called phalanges. The two middle toes bear most of a dog's weight and fractures in these digits are more likely to lead to lameness than when the outer toes are broken.
When the joint is not affected by the fracture, the long-term effects are usually very mild or even not apparent. However, when a joint surface is affected, arthritis can develop down the line, leading to chronic pain and lameness.
Signs of a toe fracture include swelling, lameness, abnormal movement of the toe, and instability. X-rays are needed to determine the nature of the fracture, its location, severity, and whether the break includes the weight-bearing toes.
Treatment varies based on the severity of the injury and whether the dog has suffered any other secondary issue. Treatments may include:
- A splint on the foot to immobilize the limb
- Injectable pain medications continued orally upon discharge
According to veterinarian Dr. Phil Zeltzman on Veterinarypracticenews.com, while metacarpal and metatarsal fractures are fairly common canine injuries, treatment methods can be somewhat controversial.
Dr. Zeltzman recommends that "incomplete or complete fractures of one or two metacarpal/metatarsal bones can be treated with external coaptation (splinting), which needs to completely immobilize the carpus/tarsus in order to be effective." This requires six to 12 weeks to for the bone to heal and splints should be changed at least weekly to reduce the risk of pressure sores due to the lack of soft tissue coverage. If the splint gets wet or dirty, it will need to be changed more often.
However, he notes that "If three or four metacarpal/tarsal bones are fractured and displacement is present, external coaptation may be a poor choice. When multiple bones are fractured, the splint cannot maintain reduction properly, and while union may occur, the recovery will be prolonged and deformity is likely. Surgery is considered a better choice in such cases."
Immediately following the accident, prevent your dog from using the foot or bearing weight on the leg with the injured toe. Bring your dog to the vet as soon as possible.
If your dog is put in a splint, limit activity for the requisite amount of time. Recheck how the bone is healing with your vet in several weeks; he'll take another X-ray to monitor your dog's progress and will let you know when you can increase your dog's activity.
Of course, most accidents are unavoidable, but you can take steps to increase safety: Avoid potential car accidents by keeping your dog in a fenced-in yard and always walking him on leash. Take care with your dog around heights, door that can catch little paws, and unfamiliar neighborhood dogs that may be unfriendly.