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Help for a Dog With a Fractured, Broken Toe

Newborn Puppy

Dogs, just like humans, are prone to injuries to many body parts and it is not unusual for dogs to develop a fractured toe. Many times, dogs with a fractured, broken toe are not identified promptly by their owners, as the symptoms may not be readily recognized as a fracture. Owners may notice that their dog's paw is in pain, but they do not realize that their dog's toe is broken. Fortunately, a vet visit can help pinpoint the exact problem. A vet visit is also important because there are other possible problems that may look like a broken toe when they are not, and therefore, these conditions may require a totally different treatment.

dog human toes

A Lesson in Anatomy

When we look at our dogs walking, we may assume they walk on their feet just like we do, but in reality dogs are actually walking on their toes.

Dogs indeed are categorized as digitigrade animals, meaning that they walk on their "digits" while are categorized as "plantigrades." Dogs do not walk on the soles of their feet like humans do, and, what we assume to be a dog's hands and feet, are actually just the bones of their fingers and toes.

For instance, the bones that correspond to the human ankle, in a dog are placed much higher along the leg than in a human. A picture is worth more than 1,000 words so you can see the comparisons between human hands and dog paws on the left. Can you see how different they are?

The bones of the toes in the dog's front legs are known as metatarsal bones and are responsible for connecting the dog's fingers to his wrist (carpus), while the bones in the dog's rear legs are known as metatarsal bones and are responsible for connecting the dog's toes to the ankle (tarsus).

Did you know? Dogs tend to fracture their toes usually from trauma. For instance, a dog may develop a broken toe from getting it jammed under the wires of a crate or perhaps stuck between the wooden planks of a bench or a deck. Heavy objects falling on a dog's toe and being hit by car are also cause for injury.

Awww.. so cute!

Signs a Dog Has a Fractured Toe

Dog Snake Bite

A dog with a fractured toe will be in obvious pain, but the location of the pain may not be too obvious. Is it the toes? Is it the nails? Is it the paw pads, the ankle or perhaps higher portions of the leg? The exact location of dog pain may not be easy to pinpoint.

Dogs with a fractured toe will often keep the weight off the paw which will lead to obvious limping. Swelling of the toe and pain upon being touched, can be more indicative a problem with a toe; however, there are other conditions that may cause similar symptoms.

For instance, a dog with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) may keep the toes of his back leg off the floor and engage in "toe-touching" where the toes barely touch the ground.

A dog with Valley Fever, a fungal condition found in the desert southwest, can also cause pain in the bones of the paw when it's the disseminated form.

Simple sprains, strains and dislocations may produce limping and localized swelling too. Other possibilities are arthritis, bone infections and luxated patellas. Because these conditions require a totally different treatment from a fractured toe is why it's important to see a veterinarian.

Did you know? Your dog's two middle toes are the ones mostly responsible for bearing weight. If you dog happens to fracture any of the outer toes (the non weight -bearing ones), then he would likely limp considerably less than if he injured the weight bearing ones.

Awww.. so cute!
dog veterinarian

What Happens At the Vet's Office?

Once at the vet's office, your vet will palpate your dog's paw and check for signs of pain. Muzzling the dog may be helpful considering that even the sweetest dogs may bite when in pain.

The vet may move the metatarsal or metacarpal bones to for signs of crepitation, a crunchy feeling that is sometimes seen with certain fractures. A fracture where a bone has completely moved out of place will be very painful when moved and will typically be wiggly when it shouldn't.

X-rays are often needed to distinguish a crack in the bone (where the bone is not completely broken all the way through) from a fracture. The x-rays will show what is going on, providing a clear picture of the dog's metatarsal or metacarpal bones and their structure.

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Generally, the vet may prescribe the dog a pain killer or sedative for this type of x-ray so that the dog is not in too much pain when moving the toes for proper positioning.

Did you know? A bone fracture where the bone snaps into two or more parts, in such a way that their ends are no longer lined up together, is known as a "displaced fracture."

Awww.. so cute!
Dog Skunk Odor

Treatment for Fractured Toes in Dogs

Depending on the type of toe fracture (displaced, not displaced) and which toes are involved, treatment may vary from applying a bandage, split or a cast, to even surgical repair.

"Many times for broken toes, we don't treat...unless we think the dog would tolerate a splint" says veterinarianDr. Vamvakias.  However, for some more complicated fractures, failure to properly stabilize the bones may lead to complications such as fractures that do not heal properly and crooked, deformed toes.

Generally, if at least one of the weight bearing toes are not broken, it can be used as "splint" to keep the broken toe immobilized and aligned without the need for surgery, explains veterinarian Dr. David Diamond. Your vet should be able to carefully split your dog's toes. For dogs who are treated with a splint (external coaptation) it should be kept on for about 6 to 12 weeks, with weekly splint changes to prevent any pressure sores, explains Phil Zeltzman, a board-certified veterinary surgeon.

Surgery is often needed when the bones of the toe are displaced. In this case, the toe may need to be reset with the use of pins, plates or screws. After splinting or surgery, dogs with a broken toe are often prescribed drugs such as tramadol, carprofen, meloxicam, deracoxib for pain control and to reduce inflammation.

If the bones fail to heal properly, at times amputation may be needed. According to board-certified veterinary surgeon Dr. Daniel A. Degner, limb function is mostly affected if the amputation involves the two middle toes, as these are weight-bearing toes.

And of course, exercise restriction is needed for several weeks. This means short leash walks only potty trips, and when at home, the dog should be kept calm in a small room or pen.

"If there is just one bone that is broken, the other bones around it help to stabilize it and it will generally heal well in a splint for 8 weeks. The splint has to be changed every 1-2 weeks to keep it clean and dry (as the pads of the feet do sweat). If several bones are broken, then more support is needed and a cast may need to be applied, again for 8 weeks. " ~Dr. Fiona

Should I Splint at Home?

Splinting is definitely not one of those do-it-yourself projects that can be done at home, warns Dr. Joey in the quote below. Dogs risk losing a toe or even the entire foot if the dressing happens to be too tight due to loss of blood circulation. Also, lack of padding can cause rubs due to pressure points. As seen, splints gone wrong can sometimes be more damaging than the fracture itself especially if there are also skin wounds! It is best to leave splinting to your vet, so to prevent these possible complications.

"I must advise this is NEVER a do-it-yourself at-home project. There can be significant complications if this is done incorrectly. For example if applied too tight it could cut off circulation to the distal part of the limb and then we have gangrenous issues. If applied with other parts of the leg out of alignment then it could lead to contracture and/or pressure sores. I do not recommend doing this at home." Dr. Joey

How Much Does it Cost to Fix a Dog's Broken Toe?

Dog ACTH test costs

Dog ACTH test costs

Owners may wonder how much it costs to fix a dog's broken toe. The answer is that the costs can vary widely based on the type of fracture involved.

Generally, a vet visit can cost anywhere between 50 and 80 dollars. One x-ray typically costs anywhere between $40 and $125 while additional x-rays may range from $20 to $75. Tow x-rays are often needed to see the extent of the fracture. Generally, the cost of x-rays tends to be on the higher end when the dog needs pain meds or sedatives.

And what about costs to splint a dog's toe or surgery? According to veterinarian Dr Harrison, in his clinic, he charges about $55 to $75 to splint a foot. If the foot needs surgical repair though it can cost anywhere from $500 to $1000, but if done by a specialist it could even cost more. Costs therefore may range from as little as $100 to as much as $3000!

If this seems like a whole lot, unfortunately veterinary costs tend to be pretty high and this is pretty much the norm. Many dog owners enroll their dogs in pet insurance nowadays to avoid further surprises. If your dog's toe needs treated and you are short on money, you can apply for Care Credit to help cover the initial costs.

Photo Credits:

  • Волков Владислав Петрович - Own work The principle of homology: The biological derivation relationship (shown by colors) of the various bones in the forelimbs of four vertebrates is known as homology and was one of Darwin’s arguments in favor of evolution, CCBYSA 4.0

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