What to Do When Your Dog Breaks a Leg

Yorkie with a Broken Leg
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Broken legs are somewhat common injuries in dogs. If your dog has an accident that causes extreme pain and lameness to one limb, it may be a broken bone.

Does Your Dog Have a Broken Leg?

You will usually be able to tell if your dog has a broken leg. There will typically be an injury followed by limping on one limb, unwillingness to bear weight, swelling of the limb, and pain. Many dogs will vocalize from the pain and show obvious limping. However, some dogs will try to hide their pain, making the injury appear less severe. This is a survival instinct for many dogs, so it's important not to ignore ongoing mild lameness in dogs.

Signs of Broken Limbs in Dogs

  • Sudden lameness/limping (often severe)
  • Holding up the affected limb/not bearing weight
  • Swelling of a limb
  • Vocalization due to pain
  • Open wound or bruise (not always present)

Types of Broken Bones in Dogs

There are several different types of broken bones, called fractures, that may occur in dogs. Some are worse than others.

Closed Fractures

These are inside the limb and no extremal wound is present.

Open Fractures

These involve a wound. The bone may have broken through the tissues and be protruding from the leg. Or, a wound might have gone deep enough into the leg to cause a fracture.

Incomplete Fractures

These are partial bone breaks. The bone may appear bent on radiographs (X-rays) but it is not in more than one piece.

Complete Fractures

When a fracture is complete it means that bone is completely broken into two or more pieces.

These types of fractures are typically categorized into three types.

  • Transverse: the bone is broken straight across, parallel to the bone length
  • Oblique: the bone is broken in a diagonal direction; the broken ends of the bones are pointed
  • Comminuted: the bone has been broken into three or more pieces; the shapes of the broken ends may vary

What to Do If You Think Your Dog Has a Broken Leg

While a broken bone is not typically a life-threatening situation, it is still a serious issue that should be addressed immediately. A broken limb should be treated as soon as possible so that the dog's pain can be managed and the fracture can be stabilized, preventing additional injury.

If you notice a sudden injury in your dog, take a moment to assess the situation. Is there an open would? Can your dog walk? Is there major swelling? You may need to administer first aid before heading to the vet. If you see an open wound that is bleeding, apply pressure with a clean cloth until you get to the vet. Try not to move or manipulate the fracture site.

After assessing your dog, the best thing to do is to contact your vet's office for advice on how to proceed. They will likely tell you to head right over with your dog. If your regular vet is closed, you should go to a nearby emergency clinic.

Try to keep the broken limb as stable as possible as you head over to your vet. If possible, carry your dog to avoid weight-bearing on the broken limb. Use pillows or bulky blankets to cradle the limb and keep it as stable as possible. Avoid manipulating the broken leg as this will cause pain and may damage nearby nerves, vessels, muscles, and other tissue.

If you cannot get to a vet right away, confine your dog to a crate or small area. Provide plenty of soft padding and try to keep your dog from moving too much. Any movement of the fracture will be very painful for the dog. If tolerated, you can apply an ice pack covered with a cloth or towel to the injury for 10-15 minutes in order to reduce swelling.

Never give pain medications to your dog without specific instructions from your vet. This includes over-the-counter pain meds as they can be toxic to dogs.

Treatment Options for Dogs With Broken Legs

The recommended treatment for your dog's broken bone will depend on the severity, type, and location of the fracture.

When you arrive at the vet, the staff will obtain some information about your dog's history and details about the injury. The veterinarian will perform an examination and recommend radiographs of the area. Your vet will likely give pain medications right after the exam to offer some relief.

If a fracture is present, it will be seen on the radiographs. Your dog may need to be sedated for the radiographs to avoid additional pain during the movement of the affected limb. Sedation will also enable vet techs and assistants to get the best images possible.

Your vet will interpret the radiographs and possibly send them to a radiologist for a detailed review. The vet will discuss the type of fracture and available treatment options.

The first step to treating any type of fracture is to immobilize it. This minimizes pain and can also prevent further damage from bone fragments moving against the tissues in the leg.

Some fractures can be treated with a splint or a cast alone. The fracture will need to be fixed in place for weeks to months while it heals. Your vet may need to change the splint or cast periodically and retake radiographs to monitor progress.

Certain fractures need to be repaired surgically. A veterinary surgeon will place pins or plates with screws to stabilize the bone until it heals. A splint or cast may be needed after the surgery to provide additional stability. Some fractures require external fixation. This cage-like structure around the leg enables the surgeon to make adjustments as the bone heals.

Regardless of the treatment method, the dog will need to rest and recover for weeks to months. Be sure to follow your vet's recommendations for home care as well as follow-up visits. An improperly healed bone can cause lifelong problems for a dog.