Trauma & Orthopedics

Trauma & Orthopedics

Cats and dogs have a skeleton that is similar to the human skeletal system. Their bones can be fractured just like humans due to falls, fights, sporting injuries, motor vehicle accidents, and bone disease that lead to pathological fractures. Overuse injuries such as sprains, strains, and tearing of ligaments, tendons, and muscle tissue also occur in cats and dogs.

Trauma in Pets

If your pet is injured, it could be in pain and is also most likely scared and confused. You need to be careful to avoid getting hurt, bitten or scratched. Unfortunately, accidents and illness happen from time to time, and sometimes these events can be traumatic in nature.

Types of Trauma

  • Blunt trauma is commonly associated with thoracic and abdominal bleeding, organ rupture, fractures, and neurologic injuries.
  • Penetrating trauma is typically localized to the path of the penetrating object, which is rarely a straight line.
  • Falling from a height causes long bone and facial bone fractures as well as thoracic and abdominal injuries.
  • A dog bitten by a larger dog can have deep-penetrating bite wounds, spinal injuries, major abdominal and thoracic trauma (even without penetrating wounds), and tracheal rupture from the shearing forces sustained during thrashing motions.

Signs of Traumatic Injury

You may not always see an accident occur. Instead, you may simply suspect something isn’t right. If you see any of the following signs (or anything else that makes it seem like your pet is in pain or suffering), it may be time to seek emergency care.

Some common signs of trauma include:

  • Unexplained vomiting
  • Bleeding
  • Apparent dizziness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Whimpering or groaning
  • Growling, hissing or acting afraid when you touch him or her.

Causes of Pet Trauma

  • Being hit by a car or other vehicle
  • Wild or domestic animal attack
  • Gunshot or weapon wound
  • Being hit, kicked or struck
  • Major falls
  • Jumping from a moving vehicle
  • Car accidents (while riding in a vehicle)
  • Stepping on a sharp object
  • Multiple bee stings or insect bites

Diagnosis of Pet Trauma

Diagnostic tests can vary depending on the injuries of the individual pet, but generally include radiographs (x-rays) of the injured body part and blood work to evaluate organ function. In pets with major trauma, additional diagnostics may be needed to more thoroughly evaluate for internal injury. These tests may include chest radiographs, abdominal radiographs, or abdominal ultrasound. In cases of spinal injuries or when more complex fractures are present, a CT scan or MRI is typically recommended.

Treatment of Pet Trauma

The most important thing to do in case of pet injury is to obtain assistance quickly. If your pet is exhibiting any of the above signs of traumatic injury, every moment could make a difference in assuring your pets long-term health and comfort. If you can, bring your pet to an emergency clinic right away. The doctors on call can begin treatment right away and give you more information about what to expect.

Fracture fixation

A fracture is a break in the continuity of the bone that can occur due to a motor vehicle accident, fights with other animals, or any kind of trauma. It is important that the fractured bone edges should be immobilized. This can be done using a cast or splint or by fracture fixation. The different methods of fracture fixation include:

  • External fixation, where pins are screwed into the fractured bone and come out through the skin to be attached to a splint outside the body
  • Internal fixation, where the splint is placed inside the body within the bone or on the surface of the bone.

Joint Trauma-Luxations

Properly managing traumatic joint luxations or dislocations in your pet involves evaluation and treatment of any life-threatening injury, joint reduction, and joint stabilization. The methods used for joint reduction will vary depending on the extent of injury. Joint stability can be achieved by either external coaptation or internal stabilization depending on the level of laxity in the joint. Once joint stability has been achieved it is important to begin physical therapy to prevent lameness, relaxation, and degenerative joint disease in your pet.

Muscle-Tendon Trauma

Muscles and tendons in pets can be stretched, directly injured, or pinched resulting in inflammation and tearing of the muscles fibres and tendons. Signs of an acute injury will include lameness and localized swelling. The condition may be identified by physical examination and diagnostic imaging studies. Treatment will involve post-injury care for your pet, rest, application of ice, and physical therapy.


Arthrodesis is the fusion of a joint to prevent movement in that part of the limb. It is generally performed only when there is no other treatment option available to preserve joint function. Arthrodesis may be performed if your pet is showing signs of severe joint pain or instability, has joint infections that do not respond to antibiotics, or there are tumours in the joint. The surgical procedure involves removal of the joint surface and placement of a graft in the joint space. The bones forming the joint and the graft are then rigidly stabilized to ensure adequate joint fusion. Complete joint fusion may take about 12 weeks.

Deformity Corrections

Deformities in pets may be present at birth or develop during the growth phase. Forelimbs are more commonly affected than hindlimbs. Deformities may be confirmed by X-rays, but advanced imaging studies such as CT scans may sometimes be ordered to evaluate the condition of the surrounding soft tissues. If the deformity is primarily cosmetic, non-surgical treatment may be adequate. Corrective surgery is generally considered only in adult animals.

Revision Surgery

Revision surgery may be indicated in pets when the initial surgery fails to relieve symptoms or there is a failure of implant components causing recurrent joint dislocations, periprosthetic fractures, or infection in the bone or joint. The revision surgery is only recommended if there are no conservative options to treat the condition.

Prof. Dr. Pozzi is Head of the clinic for small animal surgery, University of Zurich. His team of specialists, surgeons, veterinariens are dedicated to the well being of dogs and cats.

  • American College of Veterinary Surgeons
  • University of Zurich - UZH
  • University of Florida
  • American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation