Fractures are often one of the most difficult to diagnose or detect skeletal problems in dogs. Fractures are a result of any type of pressure or strain on the skeletal system, which may cause just a hairline fracture or slight crack through the bone or it may cause a complete break. Depending on the severity of the fracture and the location in which it occurs you may not notice any symptoms other than a slight favoring of the limb or area right up to a complete paralysis if the spinal cord is fractured or broken.
Fractures can become more problematic as dogs age and mature, especially if the dog has other health conditions or metabolic problems that are preventing the proper development and maintenance of bones, joints and connective tissue. Some times puppies that are weaned too soon from the mother or are born to unhealthy mothers that are not able to nurse will also be more prone to fractures and skeletal problems throughout the dog's life. Complete breaks are often easier to diagnose but may be much more challenging to completely treat.
There are four basic types of fractures that can occur. The most difficult to diagnose type of fracture is known as the greenstick or hairline fracture. In these breaks the bone is simply cracked, but does not actually move apart or change shape. These hairline fractures will often simply heal on their own, but will always be slightly weaker areas than a solid bone that had never been fractured. Growth plate fractures or epiphyseal fractures are usually only seen in young, growing dogs under the age of one year for most breeds or two years for the large to giant slow maturing dogs. These areas are very soft and spongy as the cells are still growing. Since they are much weaker than the rest of the bone they can be easily fractured, sometimes causing later problems with the joints, especially in the femur or thigh bone and humerus in the top of the front leg where it meets the shoulder.
Compound fractures occur when the break is complete and severe and the ends of the bone break through the skin. There is an increased risk of infections and other complications with these types of fractures. Closed fractures are breaks where the bone does not break through the skin and they can be hard to diagnosis if the break is very slight or the bone ends have only moved slightly apart.
In all types of fractures the owner will notice a favoring of the leg or joint which will vary based on the severity of the break. If the bone is exposed flushing the area with clean water and applying a sterile gauze bandage to keep any bacteria and debris away from the wound is critical. Breaks or fractures should be x-rayed and then set, which may include metal plates, screws or even replacing a joint if the fracture is severe. Just like in humans dogs are put in a cast and monitored as to the rate of healing. In small puppies healing of a break or fracture may be as little as a month and half whereas senior dogs may take several months and require surgical interventions.