Pet Points: Healing pets' broken bones can pose challenges

One of the best examples of how veterinarians have to improvise in their care of animals is the repair of fractures. We see a large variety of fractures, often with less than cooperative patients. Treating them can be both rewarding and an exercise in frustration.

As we all saw with the shattered leg of Barbaro, the surgical repair of this famous racehorse involved a stainless-steel plate and 27 screws. The goal was to have him live a normal life after racing, but it was complicated by the fact that horses, which often weigh more than half a ton, cannot support their weight on just three legs. Repairing fractures like his is similar to reconstructing a puzzle in three dimensions.

On the other end of the spectrum are felines, which are considered the ideal orthopedic patient. Confining cats to a cage with stabilization of the fracture can often yield a good result. Canine fractures, however, can be tricky. Even with a perfect set, an active dog can ruin a repair if not kept quiet or permitted too much freedom.

Veterinarians have to be creative when working with birds and small mammals. I have seen repairs with tape and small objects such as a paper clip for these tiny creatures. 

When we evaluate a fracture with radiographs, we have to imagine how the bone will look when it is repaired. We need to determine if an external device like a cast or splint might be all that is necessary. Often surgery is required. Surgical pins, which are solid rods inserted down the shaft of the bone, work best if the fracture is straight across, called a transverse fracture.

If a major long bone is fractured in a complicated manner, bone plates and screws are often needed for proper stabilization. Additional training and experience is needed for these and a surgical specialist is often called in. The training, experience and equipment of specialists has saved many fracture patients the loss of a limb and sometimes saved their lives.

Small breed dogs that jump from heights can fracture their front legs just above the carpal (wrist) joint, creating a difficult repair. Even with a bone plate, these fractures sometimes do not heal well.

Although cats with broken bones are generally easier to treat than dogs, they can require small pins and wires to get proper alignment. And even with the best of repairs, some patients will chew at splints and casts or traumatize the fracture site, requiring the use of Elizabethan collars and sedative drugs.

The best prevention for expensive fracture repair is caution. Don’t allow pets near open windows or other heights and be wary of traffic. Collars with reflective material can make outdoor pets more visible. Keeping cats indoors and keeping dogs on a leash is the best way to prevent fractured bones from car accidents.

Lawrence Gerson is a veterinarian and founder of the Point Breeze Veterinary Clinic. His biweekly column is intended to educate pet owners. Consultation with a veterinarian is necessary to diagnose and treat individual pets. If you have a question you’d like addressed in Pet Points, email Please include your name and municipality or neighborhood.