Fractures of the Elbow in Dogs
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Article Written by Dr. Daniel A. Degner, Board-certified Veterinary Surgeon (DACVS)

Key Points

Elbow fractures occur most commonly in young dogs

Surgery should be done soon after the fracture has occured

Accurate surgical reduction of the fracture results in the best outcome

Some arthritis may develop in the elbow joint in the future, but is minimized by having surgery done


Anatomy

  • The elbow joint is made of three bones that join together
    • Radius bone
      • The radius bone bears most of the weight versus the ulna which is a supporting bone
      • The head of the radius articulates with the lateral or outer half of the humerus bone
    • Ulna bone
    • Humerus bone
    • Below is a side view of a model of the elbow

 

Fracture types of the elbow joint

  • An impacting force such as jumping off of a deck, chair, or out of an owner's arms causes this type of fracture
  • The most common type of elbow fracture is a lateral condylar fracture of the lower part of the humerus bone
  • In the illustration below, a force up the radius bone can cause the lateral condyle to shear off (remember that weight from the paw goes primarily up the radius bone then to the humerus)

      

  • Young dogs are susceptible to this fracture, because the bones are soft
  • In mature dogs, Spaniel breeds and some Rottweilers are predisposed to developing this fracture with minimal trauma
    • In these breeds, the line of where the fracture occurs is a soft line of cartilage matrix (due to incomplete calcification of the condyles)
  • The T or Y-shaped fracture is less common, but is a complex fracture that can be difficult to repair

 

Considerations

  • If not repaired early, scar tissue which develops can prevent the surgeon from accurately reducing the fracture
  • The fracture should be reduced very well so that the surface of the joint which has the cartilage will be lined up
  • If an elbow fracture is not repaired, the limb usually is not very functional after healing takes place
  • If the elbow is not flexed and extended soon after surgery, scar tissue will stiffen the joint and the limb could become essentially a peg leg
  • Some arthritis of the elbow is expected to develop after the fracture heals; this may cause some lameness associated with heavy exercise or the dog gets up from laying down
  • The radial nerve wraps around the humerus bone and could get damaged by the fracture fragments or surgery

      

Surgery

  • In order to surgically approach the elbow joint in dogs (with a Y-fracture) over 8 months of age, the olecranon which is the top part of the ulna usually must be cut in order to open the elbow joint; on occasion this piece of ulna bone will not heal properly and additional surgery is needed
  • A relatively small incision is made to approach and repair a lateral condylar fracture
  • The lateral condylar fractures are repaired using a screw and pin, or multiple screws
  • A medial condylar fracture as seen in the radiograph below was repaired successfully with 3 screws
  •   Below is an illustration of a Y fracture, which splits the medial and lateral condyles apart.  These fractures are repaired with a screw and two pins; in some cases these fractures are repaired using screws and plates.

      

Aftercare

  • A bandage is kept on for about 3 days after surgery
  • Rehabilitation therapy which includes hot packing the elbow and putting the elbow joint through range of motion exercises is very important
  • Exercise is restricted to house activity until the fractures have healed
  • Jumping, running and rough play are forbidden until the fractures have healed

 

Potential complications

  • Anesthetic death
  • Nonhealing of the fractures
  • Fibrosis (or scar tissue deposition) of the joint making it stiff and peg-leg like
  • Breakage of the metal screws/pins/plates
  • Arthritis of the elbow joint resulting in stiffness
  • Infection
  • Radial nerve damage

Frequently Asked Questions After Surgery

When should my dog have the first bowel movement after surgery?

  • Many dogs will not have a bowel movement for the first 4 to 5 days after surgery
  • Reasons that a dog will not have regular bowel movements after surgery include:
    • The dog has been fasted prior to surgery
    • Dogs do not eat well during the hospital stay
    • They frequently do not eat well when they go home
    • They are fed highly digestible food that produces little stool
    • Pain medication that contain narcotics (such as morphine, fentanyl patches, and tramadol) can be constipating
  • If a pet does not have a bowel movement on the 5th day of being home, a stool softener such as metamucil can be fed
    • Dose of metamucil is 1 tsp per 25 Kg mixed in with each meal (canned dog food); feed immediately after mixing, as the metamucil will gel the food and may make it less palatable

My pet had surgery and will not eat.  What can be done?

  • Dogs
    • Most pets will not eat their regular dog food after surgery, especially if it is kibble.
    • Offer a cooked diet having a 1:1 ratio of a protein source and carbohydrate source.  The protein source can be any meat (example: chicken breast, turkey breast, lean hamburger) that is low in fat and should be cooked (drain off all fat after the meat has been cooked).   The carbohydrate can be pasta, potato or white rice.
    • Try canned dog food; to enhance the flavor sprinkle a very small amount of garlic powder or chicken or beef broth (Chicken-in-a- MugTM or Beef-in-a-MugTM products)
    • Try Gerber strained meats for babies such as the chicken, beef, turkey, or veal
    • Try Hill's A/D diet available at most veterinary hospitals
    • Hand feeding: place a small amount of food in the mouth so that your dog gets the flavor
    • Warm the food slightly in a microwave, as the food will be more aromatic; stir the food before feeding and test the temperature on the bottom side of your wrist; it should only be luke warm.
    • Remember that most pets will not eat the first day or two after they get home from surgery
  • Cats
    • Offer smelly foods that contain fish such as tuna or smelly cat foods
    • Try Gerber strained meats for babies such as the chicken, beef, turkey or veal
    • Hand feeding:  with your finger place a small amount of food on the roof of your cat's mouth; use a syringe to get soft food into the mouth
    • Warm the food slightly in a microwave as the food will be more aromatic; remember to stir the food before feeding and test the temperature; it should be only luke-warm
    • Some cats will only eat dry food, try kibble if your cat normally has been fed that food
    • Petting and stroking your cat frequently will help to stimulate appetite
    • Remember that most pets will not eat the first day or two after they get home from surgery
    • Appetite stimulants such as cyproheptadine may be helpful
    • If your cat refuses to eat anything for 7 days a stomach tube or nasogastric tube should be placed to provide nutrition so that a serious liver problem (hepatic lipidosis) does not develop

My pet is vomiting.  What can be done?

  • The first thing for you to discern is whether your pet is vomiting or regurgitating.  Both will result in fluid or food being brought up.  Vomiting always will have heaving or retching of the abdomen prior to expulsion of the vomitus.  Regurgitation is not associated with heaving and the pet usually just opens the mouth and fluid or food will be expelled.  Usually the regurgited material will be clear or brown colored fluid. 
  • Next is to identify the cause of the vomiting or regurgitation.
  • Causes and treatment of vomiting after surgery
    • When some pets return home after a stay in the hospital they may drink excessive amounts of water at one time and then vomit; if this appears to be the case, the water should be limited to frequent smaller amounts.
    • Medications such as antibiotics, narcotics or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication commonly cause vomiting after surgery.  In order to see which medication is causing the problem, the administration of each drug should be separated 2 hours apart.  Usually the pet will vomit or appear nauseated (drooling and sick look) within 1 hour of administration of the medication that they are sensitive to.  The antibiotic in some cases may be changed to a different one, or may be discontinued. 
    • Stomach upset from anesthesia is a potential cause of vomiting and will pass within a couple of days. 
    • An uncommon cause of vomiting after surgery is internal organ failure.  Blood testing will confirm this problem. For this reason vomiting should not be ignored if it persists for more than 24 hours.
    • If your pet had surgery of the bowels or stomach, vomiting is always a concern, as it may indicate that infection of the abdominal cavity, called peritonitis, is present.  Do not ignore this sign.
    • Symptomatic treatment of vomiting involves withholding food for 12 to 24 hours, then introducing small amounts of bland food such as rice and lean cooked hamburger, if your pet does not vomit after that then gradually wean him/her back onto the regular diet after 3 days.  In order to decrease the acidity of the stomach, Pepcid AC 0.5 mg/kg can be given by mouth twice daily for 5 days.  Metoclopramide and Cerenia are good anti-vomiting medications for dogs and cats.  You should always consult a veterinary healthcare professional before administering medication.
  • Causes and treatment of regurgitation after surgery
    • The most common cause of regurgitation is reflux of acid from the stomach into the esophagus while your pet is under anesthesia.  Acidic fluid from the stomach can cause a chemical burn of the esophagus and result in a bad case of heart burn, called esophagitis.  This results in poor motility of the esophagus, therefore water and food will accumulate in this structure.  In most cases, esphagitis is self-eliminating and will resolve within two or three days. 
    • If the esophagitis is severe the esophagus may develop one or more strictures.  A stricture is a narrowing or stenosis of the esophagus and does not allow passage of food down the esophagus, in regurgitation that lasts longer than one week.  This problem should be brought to the attention of your pet's doctor within the first two weeks so that it can be treated by ballooning the stricture (minimally invasive procedure, as it is done with the aide of an endoscope).  If an esophageal stricture is chronic surgery is needed.
    • Symptomatic treatment of regurgitation caused by esophagitis includes feeding bland food, and administering a coating agent (sucralfate) and an acid blocker (omeprazole or other).  Consult a veterinary health care professional if the regurgitation continues for more than a couple of days.

How do I know that my dog is in pain following surgery?

  • Signs of pain include
    • crying
    • biting if you get near the surgical site
    • grimacing (lips are pulled back and the the dog looks anxious)
    • tragic facial expression
    • panting
    • restlessness and unable to sleep; pacing
    • if abdominal surgery was done the pet will not lie down on the incision, or will continually sit up in spite of appearing very tired
    • the worst pain will be for the first 2 to 3 days after surgery

What can I do to control my dog's pain?

  • Narcotic medications that control pain: tramadol, butorphanol, Duragesic (fentanyl patch)
  • Anti-inflammatories used to control pain: Deramaxx, Rimadyl, Previcox, or Etogesic
  • If an orthopedic surgery has been done cold packing the surgical site may be helpful
    • A cold pack may be a pack of frozen peas, crushed ice in a Ziploc bag, or a cold gel pack; place a thin barrier between the skin and the cold pack.  An alternative to a cold pack is to freeze water in a styrofoam cup; after frozen cut the bottom of the styrofoam cup out. Cool the surgical site around the incision by rubbing the exposed ice directly on the skin in a circular pattern.  Cooling the surgical site helps to numb the area.

How do I know that my cat is in pain following surgery?

  • Pain is more difficult to assess in cats versus dogs, as signs can be more subtle and they usually do not vocalize when in pain
  • Signs of pain in a cat include the following:
    • biting if you get near the surgical site
    • growling or deep cry
    • not wanting to eat
    • hiding and not wanting to be near owner (remember that this could also be caused by the cat just being upset about leaving home and coming back)

What can be done for pain at home for my cat?

  • Pain medication such as buprenorphine or a Duragesic (fentanyl) patch
  • Tylenol will kill a cat as they lack abundant glutathione enzyme in the liver
  • Anti-inflammatories can be used, but the dose is much less than dogs

Is it okay for my pet to lick the incision?

  • If a dog licks the incision, the healing process may be delayed.
  • Licking can remove stitches and cause the incision to open
  • Licking can become a severe habit that is difficult to break
  • Licking can cause infection as the mouth has many bacteria
  • Dogs will frequently lick the incision when the owner is not watching such as at night time; if the skin looks red or excoriated the most common cause is from licking.
  • To stop your pet from licking the following can be tried:
    • Elizabethan collar can be placed on the neck; this will not help stop your pet from scratching at the region
    • Cervical collar (bite not collar) is a less awkward device and can be effective at stopping a pet from licking the surgical site
    • A tee shirt can be used to cover an incision on the chest or front part of the abdomen; gather the waist of the shirt up over the dog's back and wrap an elastic band around this part of the shirt.
    • A bandage or sock can be used to cover an incision on a limb; fasten the top of the sock to the dog's limb with tape.
    • Bitter apple can be applied around the incision; many dogs will continue to lick  after application of this topical
    • Bitter Apple and Liquid HeetTM (obtain this from a drugstore...it is used for sore muscles) mixed in a 2:1 ratio can be applied around the skin incision
    • Antipsychotic medication in some cases is needed

Board-certification by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons

What does it mean?

  • Four years of advanced training in surgery beyond the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine Degree

  • Experience in the development of new surgical treatments

  • Rigorous examination by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons to ensure competency in advanced surgical techniques

  • Assurance that a veterinarian is a surgical specialist

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