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What to Do If Your Pet Has an Orthopedic Injury

At a visit to the park with my family today, I saw a little girl with a pink cast on her arm, signed by all of her classmates. This made me think of the many orthopedic injuries we see in pets in the veterinary ER. Just like humans, pets can suffer from broken bones, torn ligaments, and dislocated joints. And just like people, many of these injuries will require surgery to repair them.

Emergency Steps to Take First

If you suspect your pet has a broken bone, get him to the vet so he can be stabilized and treated for pain. The 1st priority, however, is to take measures to protect yourself, as an injured pet may try to bite.

  • Fashion a muzzle out of pantyhose or cloth and tie snugly around the muzzle so he can still breathe through his nose.
  • Use an Elizabethan collar (also called an E-collar) to keep him from being able to bite.
  • Place cats in a pillowcase for emergency transfer if a carrier or sturdy box is not available.
  • Do not try to soothe the pet by petting on the head or get your face too close to theirs.
  • Once at the veterinary hospital or ER, prepare for pain medication, sedation, and X-rays. To tell you what it takes to fix it, the vet has to be able to know the extent of the injuries. And if you’re going to the ER,  prepare to wait. A pet with more severe injuries may require the doctor’s attention until it’s time for your pet to be seen.

Most Common Injuries & Related Costs

Broken Bone

Also known as a fracture, broken bones can be either a nuisance or a big-ticket medical headache. The method of repair and the cost all depend on:

  • Which bone is broken. A bone in your pet’s foot may only require a splint for a few weeks, while the only reliable way to fix a broken thighbone is surgery.
  • How it happened. A bone that was injured in a high-speed car accident is likely to be more severely fractured than one that happened in a minor accident. Other injuries like skin wounds and internal injuries tend to be more serious as well, which increases cost and hospitalization time.
  • If it's open or closed. An open fracture, formerly known as a ”compound” fracture, is one that has a break in the skin over the broken bone. They are more serious, more prone to infection, and have a higher complication rate.

Costs for broken bones can go from a few hundred dollars for a splint and some X-rays up to $10,000 or more if your veterinary orthopedic surgeon needs to get involved, though most are in the $2,500-5,000 range. If multiple bones are broken at the same time or complications set in such as infection or a bone that won’t heal properly, expect a longer recovery time and higher expenses.

Ligament Injuries

The most common ligament injured in dogs is the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in the knee. Similar to many career-ending sports injuries, injuring this ligament can mean a big change in lifestyle for many dogs and it often happens while running or jumping.

Dogs with a torn CCL can become acutely lame and limp on a leg right after the ligament tears, or they may have a chronic and subtle lameness if it’s a partial tear. X-rays, an orthopedic exam under sedation, and sometimes a CT scan or MRI can help diagnose a torn CCL.
The CCL stabilizes the knee and when it tears, the joint becomes unstable and inflamed. Over time, arthritis develops as the cartilage of the knee breaks down, so the sooner it’s repaired the better. Repair methods, costs, and recovery times vary.

Some general practitioners are able to stabilize a torn CCL with certain surgical techniques, but for the cutting edge and minimally invasive stuff, you’ll likely need to visit an orthopedic specialist. Costs can run anywhere from about $900 to $4,500 per knee depending on the procedure you choose, and if one knee goes, the other one is likely to follow suit.

Dislocated Hip

Often the result of trauma, a dislocated or luxated hip can be a challenge to fix. About half of them can be put back in without surgery, but this requires several weeks in a very difficult to manage sling called an Ehmer sling. Rub sores, frequent visits for sling adjustment, and slipping or soiling of the sling are constant threats with an Ehmer sling.

If surgery is needed, either due to failure of the sling or complicating factors like shallow hip sockets, there are a few options. For cats and smaller dogs (up to about 20lbs), there is a procedure called femoral head ostectomy, or FHO, where the head of the femur is removed and the body forms a false joint of scar tissue over time. It sounds odd but works in many cases. These can run about $500 for simple ones or up to $2,500 for complex ones.

”Open reduction” is the term for a surgical procedure to seat the femur back in the hip joint, often using a toggle device similar to a molly bolt you might hang a picture with. These can cost somewhere in the range of $1,500 to $3,500.

I certainly hope the little girl in the park healed up well after her injury, and I hope your pet never suffers an orthopedic injury. Keep your pets safe and free from harm with a sturdy fence and always use a strong, non-retractable leash. There’s almost always something that can be done to help pets with orthopedic injuries, but pink casts don’t look as cute on dogs as they do on little kids.

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