“Can a dog’s broken leg heal without surgery?” The answer may surprise you.
By nature, broken bones will heal by themselves over time through a process called bone remodeling. A dog’s fractured limbs are no exception.
In many circumstances, dogs do not need surgery to heal a broken leg. In fact, there are certain instances where non-surgical options are safer and more effective. For closed fractures, a splint or cast is usually sufficient and does not require any surgical procedure.
If this is not done properly by a qualified vet, the bone will heal in the state that it was broken in and result in deformity. This makes future fractures much more likely due to bad structural integrity.
- How Do Broken Legs Happen In Dogs?
- 4 Steps to Prepare Your Dog For Treatment
- Can A Dog’s Broken Leg Heal On Its Own? The Non-Surgical Option
- How Much Does It Cost To Fix a Dog’s Broken Leg?
- How Do You Treat A Dog’s Broken Leg At Home?
- In Conclusion
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As much as dogs love to run around and jump from high places, it’s little surprise that they occasionally suffer a broken leg.
This can happen from the impact of falling off a sizable height, or by fracturing an ankle on slippery surfaces. Many dogs also suffer broken limbs when they are involved in incidents involving traffic.
While all breeds can suffer from broken bones, tiny breeds such as Chihuahuas and Pomeranians are especially vulnerable and fragile. Any sudden impact can result in a fracture, such as being stepped on or even from jumping off a couch.
The key to proper healing is to correctly identify the injured area and begin the recovery process as soon as possible.
Signs of a broken leg can include:
- Heavy limping or unnatural limb movement
- Inability to put weight on the leg
- Holding up the leg
- Whining, crying or screaming
- Unwillingness to move
- Swelling, tenderness and pain
- Exposed bone or broken skin
- Inability to resist force
Fractures are usually categorized as either open or closed.
Open fractures are also known as compound fractures and they are rather obvious- the injury has happened in a way that the bone is now protruding the skin. Open fractures are at a high risk of bacterial infection due to the wound being exposed.
Open fractures usually can only be treated through surgery to set the bone back into place and close the wound.
Closed fractures are much harder to identify and diagnose without professional assessment and equipment. This is because the bone has broken underneath the skin and is not clearly visible.
It is possible for closed fractures to be treated without surgery as it could involve simply setting or leaving the bone in place. The leg would then be immobilized in a cast or splint and allowed to heal naturally.
However, if the bone has fragmented into many pieces then surgery may be necessary to put the bone together again.
There is always a chance of hidden complications caused by a broken bone. This can include internal bleeding or damage to organs. This is why it is vital to take your dog to the vet as soon as you have identified that a fracture might have occurred.
It is heartbreaking to see your beloved dog hurting, and it can be very tempting to want to try to fix the source of the pain. However, it is not a good idea to handle the injured leg or touch the fracture site unless you have professional training as a vet.
If the wound is exposed, cover it with a clean piece of gauze or tea towel and apply gentle pressure to try to slow the bleeding.
- Do not try to set the bone back into place by yourself.
- Do not put ointment, alcohol, or antiseptic liquid onto an exposed fracture by yourself.
- Do not give any pain medications to your dog by yourself.
Before you perform any action that may put your dog at risk, ask for guidance from your vet.
The primary goal is always to reduce the risk of further damage and pain, and handling a dog’s injury yourself increases the risk of infection and injury. The best thing that you can do for your dog at this point is to keep it as still and calm as you can.
The best way to keep a dog still and comfortable is to confine it to as small a space as possible. This way the dog will be unable to move freely and will therefore reduce the risk of further injury to itself.
Crates or kennels are a good option for limiting the movement of an injured dog.
When a dog is injured and in serious pain from a broken leg, it will naturally be very scared. This fear could cause a normally docile dog to become aggressive as it tries to protect itself.
As its owner, it is important to understand that your dog’s panicked state could cause it to lash out and bite at short notice. If you find that your dog is acting more aggressively than normal, it would be a good idea to put a muzzle on in order to protect yourself as well as the vet.
Getting your dog from the site of injury to the car safely can be the trickiest part of this ordeal. Done improperly, you risk causing further injury to your dog and making its pain even worse.
If you have managed to confine it to a crate, then carry the whole crate into the car slowly and steadily. More than one person making the journey would be ideal as someone would be then be able to constantly keep the dog stable and secure.
If you have a small dog, carry it carefully to the car while making sure that its head and hips are well-supported.
If your dog is large, check to see if it is still able to walk on its uninjured legs. If so, encourage it to walk towards the car and help it to balance along the way. Once it has reached the car, carefully help your dog to climb inside.
If your large dog is unable or unwilling to walk, you will have to try to move it using a sling.
Try to lay your dog onto a blanket, wrap it up and carry it to the car. Make sure that you lay it on its uninjured side and once you are at the vet’s office, let them know that your dog has a leg injury and is immobilized.
The vet will first want to make sure that your dog is properly immobilized to prevent any further damage. Following that, they will likely want to take an X-ray of the leg to confirm the break and to see how exactly it is broken.
This is essential in determining which treatment options are best. While a dog’s broken leg will heal naturally on its own, it is the vet’s job to assist the fracture healing in the correct position.
As your dog is being assessed, it may be given pain medication so it feels more comfortable. In addition to the way the bone fractured and number of pieces, the vet will also take into account the size, age and fitness of the dog- as well as your budget considerations.
If the broken bone is still in the stable, correct position, then non-surgical treatment may be available.
Fractures which are clean breaks below the knee or elbow often require only a cast or splint to heal completely. This is particularly the case for young dogs and small breeds.
When the fracture in the leg is stable enough and has only a small amount of fragments, casts can be the best option to immobilize the joints. They are applied to the outside of the leg and are good at resisting various bending and torsion forces.
Casts are a relatively easy solution to manage, only needing replacement if they get wet or dirty, if they break, or if the dog outgrows it.
However they do have their disadvantages too, such as causing the leg to become stiff and weak due to the joints being immobilized.
They also doesn’t provide the most stability when compared to other options such as an external fixator or internal bone plate.
As the cast is prone to damage and may need repairs and replacing, additional vet appointments are common.
Also, since full recovery of leg function will require more physical therapy after the cast is taken off, the entire healing process may be longer than other options.
This all adds to the eventual overall cost of treatment, making this method potentially more expensive than what it originally seems.
Sometimes, surgery is the only suitable option for healing a dog’s broken leg.
This is influenced by factors such as the number of fractures and fragments, age of the dog, location of the wound and whether the dog has any other existing biomechanical issues.
Surgical options for a broken leg are usually either external fixation, or insertion of a bone plate. Both provide more rigidity than an external cast or splint and will allow the dog to walk on the leg.
External fixation is where thin pins are inserted into the bone. These pins are connected to a rod that sits on the outside of the limb and holds the bone securely in place, allowing fractures to knit together effectively.
Though installing an external fixator is a surgical procedure, it is minimally invasive to surrounding soft tissue and doesn’t require surgery on the actual fracture site.
Bone plates are directly installed onto the affected bones by using screws to attach them.
This method is required when there are a lot of breaks and it is a complex fracture. Bone plates allow the broken limb to be reconstructed in full, but later on may be required to be removed again.
The total cost of healing a dog’s broken leg will largely depend on the nature and severity of the break.
The biggest cost is the actual procedure of bone repair, but it also includes associated factors such as initial and repeat checkups, X-rays, anti-inflammatories and physical therapy.
A simple, closed fracture in a young dog may only cost a few hundred dollars for a cast and prescribed rest. Meanwhile, a complex surgery requiring hospital stay could range into the tens of thousands.
For example, putting a cast on a leg would only cost around $400, while external fixation could cost anywhere from $3000 to $5000 depending on individual practices and complexity.
According to HowMuchIsIt, the national average cost of fixing a canine broken leg is $2000.
As you can see, the price of fixing a dog’s leg is significant and for some, may be prohibitive.
However, it is negligent to let a dog suffer in pain when treatment is available. There are numerous workaround options that may be available for people who cannot afford to pay such a large sum at once.
Many vet offices have payment plans or financing available to those who need it. Credit cards can be used to pay for the total cost of treatment first and repaid in instalments later.
You may also be able to borrow from family and friends who also know and love your dog. Finally, public fundraising from services such as GoFundMe can be an effective way to help cover the cost.
Recovery timeframes will differ depending on each dog’s unique circumstances such as age and fracture severity. The chosen treatment option will also have an impact due to the amount of surgical trauma undertaken.
For simple fractures, young dogs and puppies typically require less time to heal completely and will be recovered in around 4 weeks. Adult dogs will need at least 8 weeks to heal properly, and in some cases will take even longer.
While the bone is healing, there are many things that the owner will need to do for their dog in order to ensure it recovers swiftly with no other complications.
Though bandages and casts are instrumental tools for healthy bone recovery, care must also be taken that they are maintained properly at all times.
Whether the dog is in a cast or has bandages covering the surgical site, it is vitally important to keep all coverings clean and dry. This is to prevent the risk of the leg becoming infected or swollen, both of which would pose a serious danger to the dog’s health.
In situations where the bandage may get wet, such as when the dog needs to go outside for a toilet break, wrap the covering in a plastic bag to ensure that no moisture can soak into the fabric.
Bandages and casts also need to be constantly monitored for any structural damage or movement, as a difference in placement can affect the speed of the healing process significantly.
Lastly, owners should not modify the cast or bandage in any way themselves. If you have concerns about the rigidity or security of the covering, the best course of action is always to take the dog back to the vet for re-examination.
The less your dog moves while it is recovering, the quicker that it will heal.
However, this is often easier said than done. Dogs naturally love to run and explore, and will definitely try to use their broken leg before it is properly mended.
Excess movement will not only slow down the healing process, but may also derail it completely by moving bone out of place or refracturing the leg.
Therefore, one of the most important things you can do to facilitate a speedy recovery for your dog is to confine it to a small room (or ideally a crate). Make sure that the floor is not something that the dog could slip or fall on, and do not allow it to run, play, or jump under any circumstances.
If it needs to go outside for an occasional toilet break or some fresh air, make sure that it is always on a short leash that you can control easily.
An orthopedic memory foam dog bed can be helpful in reducing discomfort and pain for your dog by keeping the pressure evenly distributed. This way, the leg does not bear the dog’s full weight and it will allow the dog to rest more comfortably.
It is inevitable that your dog will need to move and walk around sometime, such as for a toilet break or for a follow-up visit to the vet.
Even though the dog will most likely try to walk on its own, it is a good idea to assist it as much as possible while its leg is still so weak. This is especially true for environments with slippery floors or a large number of steps or stairs.
If your dog is small enough, you can carefully pick it up while making sure that you support the affected limb.
If your dog is too large to carry, there are many slings available commercially, like the one below, that make it simple to help your dog to carry its own weight.
Physical therapy is often the final step required for a full recovery from a broken leg.
When a bone breaks initially, it will likely cause damage to the surrounding muscles, nerves and blood vessels as well. Coupled with inactivity due to having to rest, muscles in the leg waste away and joints become increasingly stiff.
Though much of physical therapy requires professional guidance and specialist equipment, there are still some simpler methods that you can use on your dog at home.
In the early stages of recovery, applying cold therapy to the surgical area can help to bring down a lot of the swelling and inflammation. This will help to reduce the pain significantly and make your dog much more comfortable.
After the initial inflammation has been reduced, light massage around the injured area can be given to break up any scar tissue that has begun to form.
Scar tissue can prevent the leg from regaining its usual movement later on, so massage therapy is a helpful tool to mitigate the issue.
Finally, around four weeks into recovery, you can start to implement joint therapy to keep your dog’s leg as flexible as possible.
Starting with the smallest amount of movement, try to flex and push the joints gently without causing any pain. The goal is to progressively add more slightly more force everyday, working towards a normal range of motion.
By carrying out physical therapy on your dog diligently during its recovery process, you will give it the best chance of getting back to being its original, joyful self.
Due to their natural biology, dogs are indeed able to recover from a broken leg without surgery. Sometimes, all they need is a simple cast to stabilize the leg, and the time to allow it to heal. This is especially true when it comes to puppies and young dogs.
However, in cases where there is an open fracture or where the bone has fragmented into many pieces, it would be negligent to allow the dog to heal by itself without surgery.
This is because in these situations the bone will never grow back into the shape it is meant to be without surgical intervention- not to mention the pain and suffering that the dog would go through.
Though it can be very expensive, sometimes the right choice is to go with the surgical option and follow it with thorough maintenance and physical therapy. By doing this, the dog will be given the best opportunity to fearlessly run and jump like it used to do.
Heather Abraham is an owner of two dogs, one cat, a leopard gecko, and a parrot (who her dad still cannot teach bad words to), and an avid blogger. From the time she was a young girl, she always felt a connection with pets. She brings her love of every type of pet to you, with information on animal nutrition, medication, toys, beds, and everything else in between. Along with newly-on-board veterinarian DVM editor Elena, she puts pups first while offering other various fun tidbits along the way.