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Orthopaedics and fracture repair

Veterinary orthopaedics may be needed to help with any abnormality your pet develops or to repair fractures from injuries.

In veterinary medicine, just like in human medicine, the field of orthopaedics includes everything to do with the skeleton and the soft tissue structures with which it’s associated, such as ligaments and tendons.

Orthopaedics involves the correction and prevention of deformities or disorders of these structures, and the repair of injuries to them, including fractures or torn ligaments.

Why might my pet need orthopaedic services?

If your pet develops an abnormality involving their skeleton or joints, such as or elbow dysplasia, a patella (kneecap) that gets stuck, or a torn cruciate ligament, a vet who carries out orthopaedic procedures can help them. And it’s not just developmental or degenerative orthopaedic problems that require orthopaedic surgery – many fractured bones will need help from an orthopaedic vet to repair them.

Where can my pet have their procedure done?

Some orthopaedic procedures and fracture repairs can be carried out at your local Vets4Pets surgery, either by your own vet, or by an orthopaedic surgeon who has been specially brought in to perform procedures outside of your vet’s usual caseload. Visiting surgeons bring specialist equipment with them and work with your vet team, so that your pet is cared for in the clinic, by vets and nurses you know. 

Alternatively, your pet might be referred to an orthopaedic surgeon elsewhere. Some Vets4Pets teams have skilled orthopaedic surgeons, who have undertaken advanced training and provide a referral service for other clinics. Your vet may be able to refer you to one of these colleagues. Otherwise, your vet will arrange for your pet to have their procedure carried out by an orthopaedic surgeon at an outside referral centre. You may need to travel to obtain this care. 

I think my pet has a fracture – what should I do?

If your pet has lameness or swelling, or if part of their body looks a different shape from usual, they could have a fractured bone or an injured joint. Similarly, if you suspect your pet has undergone trauma or had an accident, they may have sustained a bone injury. Put them somewhere quiet, where you can monitor them. Contact your Vets4Pets team by phone and let them know what has happened. They will advise you on what to do next. If your pet sustains an injury when the clinic is closed, ring the out-of-hours number. Always treat a traumatic injury as an emergency, because, although broken bones can often be less life-threatening than they look, there may be internal injuries too, that can be much more serious.

When you get to the clinic, the vet will examine your pet thoroughly. They’ll need to stabilise your pet and, depending on the extent of their injuries, address shock. This could mean admitting your pet to the ward and placing them on a drip or into intensive care. They’ll administer pain relief as needed and they’ll discuss a plan for investigation and further management of your pet’s injuries. In some cases, once they’re stable, your pet may need to be transported to a hospital facility with 24-hour care. Your vet will let you know if this is likely.

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Fracture management in pets

Fractured bones are usually treated as emergencies. Often, they aren’t life-threatening. Other injuries and shock may need addressing before broken bones are X-rayed or repaired. Often, once broken bones are stabilised, either by splinting or by cage confinement, and pain relief has been given, they can take second place to more serious problems. 

Once your pet is stable, your vet can focus on their fractures. X-rays are normally used to understand fractures and plan their repair. Some Vets4Pets clinics also have CT scanners, which provide a more detailed image. If the fracture is particularly unusual or complex, images might need to be sent off to an orthopaedics expert. 

Fractured bones can be managed in three main ways. In some cases, splinting or strict cage rest allow the bones to heal by themselves. Alternatively, your pet may need a surgical repair. Two types of surgical fracture repair are normally used in pets. Internal fixation involves placing surgical screws, pins or metal plates under the skin around the fracture site, to stabilise the bone so it can fill in the gaps over time. Sometimes, these are removed once the fracture has healed. Alternatively, external fixation involves attaching surgical ‘scaffolding’ to the bone through small holes in the skin, to immobilise the broken bone until it heals. This might look drastic, but pets usually cope very well with external fixators!

While your pet’s fracture is healing, you’ll need to take them in for check-ups. When it’s time to remove fixators, X-rays are normally used to make sure healing has occurred satisfactorily. X-rays can also help us understand what’s happening if a pet seems uncomfortable while their fracture is healing. Occasionally, fixation devices need to be repositioned or replaced, particularly if a pet moves around too much and bends or dislodges a component, or if an infection enters through the skin. 

Your vet team will explain how to manage your pet and their fixation device or bandages, and they’ll plan your pet’s rehabilitation with you. 

Orthopaedic problems in pets

If you’re concerned your pet may have an orthopaedic problem, such as lameness, hopping, stiffness or reluctance to play or climb, arrange for them to see their usual vet, who will listen to your concerns, examine your pet and recommend what, if any, investigations are required. 

Often, orthopaedic problems are identified during the examination, but your vet may need to carry out diagnostic imaging, such as X-rays or CT, to assess the extent of the problem. 

Your vet will explain your treatment options – there are often several – together with their advantages and disadvantages. They’ll arrange any procedures and help you prepare your pet for the best outcome. For example, some orthopaedic problems have a better result if the pet undergoes physiotherapy before surgery. 

On the day of the procedure, the vet will take you through what to expect when you collect your pet. Often, pets can go home the same day but, depending on your pet and the procedure they’re having done, they may need to stay in hospital overnight. 

When your pet is ready to go home, your vet will let you know how the procedure went and they’ll explain what to expect over the recovery period. You’ll receive post-operative care instructions, including use of pain relief and perhaps some early home physiotherapy treatments, such as using cool or warm packs over the surgical site.

If you struggle with any of the home after-care, let your vet team know so they can help you. If you’re concerned, or something unexpected happens, contact your vet for advice on the numbers provided. Home care around the time of an orthopaedic procedure can influence the outcome. So, try to follow your vet’s instructions about fixator and bandage care, movement and rest, and weight management and diet. 

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