Broken legs are somewhat common injuries in dogs. If your dog has an accident that causes extreme pain and lameness in one limb, it may be a broken bone.
Does Your Dog Have a Broken Leg?
You may suspect your dog has a broken leg if there is some kind of trauma 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.
Types of Broken Bones in Dogs
There are several different types of broken bones, called fractures, that may occur in dogs. Some are more complicated than others.
The broken bone does not break through the skin so no extremal wound is present.
These involve an open wound. The fractured ends of the bone may have broken through the skin and caused a wound. In extreme cases, a piece of bone may be protruding through the skin. In another case, the trauma that caused the wound might have been forceful enough to also cause a fracture. These fractures are more complicated because they are considered infected and this can affect bone healing.
These are partial bone breaks. The bone may show a fracture line on radiographs (x-rays) but it does not extend all the way through the bone and it is not in more than one piece. These are less complicated fractures because the bone is still in one piece and should heal more quickly and easily than other types of 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 usually a life-threatening situation, it is a serious injury that should be treated immediately. This is especially true if your dog was injured in some kind of trauma where there could be additional injuries that you can't see. 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 and giving the bone the best chance of healing.
If you notice a sudden injury in your dog, take a moment to assess the situation. Is there an open wound? 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 tissues.
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 human 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 limb. Your vet will likely give pain medications right after the exam to offer pain 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. The bone must be immobilized in order for it to heal as well. If there is motion between the bone fragments, they cannot form a callus which is required for bone healing.
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 will need to change the splint or cast frequently to prevent pressure sores and replace any soiled bandages. Your vet will also retake radiographs to monitor the progress of the bone healing.
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 is a cage-like structure around the leg that stabilizes the bone from the outside and 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 and/or require additional procedures and surgeries to resolve the problems.