When Your Pet Breaks a Bone: Immediate Care and How to Transport

By: Dr. Kasandra Garner

Broken bones in dogs and cats are fairly common injuries. They are usually due to accidents such as being hit by a car or falling, but can occur after any traumatic event such as gunshot wounds, horse kicks, animal attacks, and being struck by a hard object such as a golf ball.

If your pet has suffered an accident, signs that there may be a broken bone include pain, swelling, or obvious malformation of a limb. If it is an “open” fracture, you may be able to see the bone sticking out of the skin.  Because there is potential for shock and/or internal injuries with trauma, you should immediately bring your pet to Animal Hospital of North Asheville, or one of the area’s emergency hospitals if the injury occurs after business hours. Even in an emergency, please call ahead if at all possible, so we can be ready to immediately care for your pet. Unless you know that the injury is isolated to the leg or you are unable to get your pet to immediate veterinary care, it is best to get them to veterinary care right away rather than take the time to provide first aid.

Do not give your injured pet any pain medicine at home unless you have something that has been specifically prescribed for them in the past and you can administer it without being bitten. Many over the counter pain medicines are toxic for pets or may react badly with pain medications your veterinarian will want to give by injection once your pet is at the animal hospital.

If your pet is a cat or a small dog, the best thing to do is to put him or her in a small carrier and bring them to the animal hospital right away. Use a thick towel or blanket to wrap them up and safely put them in the carrier, guarding against being bitten or clawed. Make sure their head is covered as you pick them up.  Your pet is going to be in a lot of pain and may not recognize that you are trying to help them.

If your pet is too large to put in a carrier, you may want to stabilize the fracture before transporting him or her to the animal hospital. Do not try to “set the bone”! The goal is to simply keep the injured limb from moving and causing the animal more pain. If there is concern for internal injuries, time may be more important than stabilizing the leg. In that case, just get your pet into your car as gently as possible.

Before attempting to splint any limb, muzzle your dog. Broken bones are excruciatingly painful and painful animals bite!  Even the sweetest, gentlest creature may strike out if injured. You must keep yourself safe in order to help your pet. If you don’t have a muzzle, you can make one quickly. Material such as a simple piece of cloth, a nylon leash, pantyhose, or a neck tie will do; basically, anything that can be tied around the dog’s snout. Make a loop in the center and gently put the dog’s nose through it with the tie under the jaw. Tighten it to be firm, but not too tight, then put both ends behind the dog’s ears and tie it into a bow. Do not use a knot as you may need to untie the muzzle quickly.

If the broken part of the bone is visible through the skin, cover the wound with clean non-stick pads such as telfa pads, clean women’s sanitary products, a clean diaper, or a clean dish towel or pillow case. Do not apply any ointment or sprays.

To splint a limb, you can use a rolled-up magazine or a thick towel. In a small dog, popsicle sticks or plastic knives work well.  The splint can be attached to the limb with white medical tape or duct tape, but be careful not to cut off circulation. If splinting the limb causes severe pain, don’t force it. Don’t waste time trying to get it perfect. The most important thing is to get your pet to the animal hospital as quickly and as safely as possible. Rather than splinting, if possible, have someone else drive so that you can hold your pet in a comfortable position so he or she does not place weight on the fractured leg. 

If your pet has a broken tail, don’t try to splint it. It is almost impossible to keep a splint or bandage of any type on a tail and there is always danger that you will cut off circulation. 

If you suspect your pet has broken ribs, the best thing to do is avoid touching the chest area and transport your pet to the animal hospital as soon as possible. If there is an open wound over the chest area and your pet is having trouble breathing, or the wound is making a “sucking” noise with each breath, you can try wrapping a sheet or Saran Wrap snugly – but not so tight as to impede breathing - around the chest before travelling to the animal hospital.

Keep in mind that broken bones are not always obvious, particularly those involving the skull, ribs, pelvis, or paws. If your pet experiences any traumatic accident, or is exhibiting signs of pain, an x-ray of the affected area is always recommended.

Broken bones are scary for the owner, and painful for the pet, but the good news is that in most cases they will heal with timely treatment by a veterinarian.