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Broken bones in cats and dogs

It seems like broken bones are something that many pets (and kids) go through at some point in their lives. It can be something as simple as falling off the couch or as severe as being hit by a car. Just like there are many ways to break a bone, there are many ways that your veterinarian can fix a broken bone. We will introduce different methods of fixing broken bones and also some complications that can happen after a bone has been broken.

First we will go over the basics of bone healing. This is important because when we ‘fix’ a bone, we are not magically gluing the bone back together. We are only putting the pieces close to each other so the body can heal faster. Very often, when broken bones are left untreated, the break either never heals or heals in the wrong way. The animal may never be able to use that leg again. Over time, the body heals by creating a lot of cartilage in the area of the break. This is called a ‘callous’. On an X-ray, the callous looks like a large swelling. The body gradually breaks down the cartilage in the callous and deposits bone in its place. The bone then reorganizes into the proper structure. At this point the bone is considered to be healed.

A break in a bone is called a ‘fracture’. There are various typeswounds of fractures. The type of fracture and the bone that is involved, will determine how it will be fixed. For example, fractures can be a simple break or the bone may be shattered into tiny fragments. A simple break is much easier to put back together than tiny fragments. The fracture may or may not break through the skin. A fracture that breaks through the skin may allow bacteria to get in and cause an infection.

Your veterinarian will decide what method is best for your pet’s fracture. Many pets get a cast. Casts are considered good to use on young animals with simple breaks because they will heal very quickly. Another method is the ‘pin and wire’ solution. In this case, a pin is placed inside the bone and wires are put around the bone to hold it together.

Two other methods of fixing a fracture may or may not be offered by your veterinarian. Both of these methods require more equipment and are much more expensive. However, they are often a better choice for very complicated fractures. The first is a ‘bone plate’. A thin, long, rectangular piece of metal is placed inside the leg, directly beside the bone. Screws are then placed through the holes in the plate and are screwed into the bone. The second method is called an ‘external fixator’. It is external because the metal bars are outside of the leg (as opposed to the bone plate). The metal bars are clamped to long screws that are screwed into the bone. Unlike the bone plate, which remains in the leg for the animal’s life, the external fixator is removed once the bone has healed. Keep in mind that veterinarians often use a combination of these various methods, and that there is always more than one way to properly fix a fracture.

Most animals heal very well. The length of time that it will take depends on how old your pet is, how bad the fracture is, and if there are any other medical problems. However, sometimes the bone does not heal properly. This is usually because the bones are not kept stable enough. When the bones are allowed to move even a tiny bit, the blood supply and the callous are disrupted. A fracture that is constantly moving will not heal. Very often this happens with pets that are allowed to run and jump before the bone has entirely healed. In this case the pet can re-break the bone and will have to have it surgically fixed. Sometimes the bone takes too long to heal. In this case the veterinarian may decide to either wait and let it heal over time, or do a second surgery to speed up the healing process.

Broken bones are common in pets. Your veterinarian will be able to determine the best method to fix the fracture or may refer you to another clinic if the fracture is complicated and needs extensive repair. It is very important to work with your vet to reduce the risk of complications by taking good care of the fracture site and restricting your pet’s activity. With luck, your pet will heal up quickly.

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