A dog’s broken toe requires veterinary treatment. But how soon do you need to get your dog to the vet if you think he or she broke a toe? And how do you keep your dog (and yourself) from going crazy while your dog is wearing a splint? These questions, and others, are exactly what integrative veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby is about to address.
Hardie was a happy-go-lucky Goldendoodle who would usually enthusiastically prance into my office. So I knew something was wrong as soon as he walked—or rather limped—in the door. While he still maintained his outgoing personality, he was definitely more subdued. And his mom was understandably concerned.
She proceeded to tell me that, being an active dog, Hardie frequented the dog park. However, ever since that morning’s romp with his friends, he had not wanted to place any weight on his right front leg.
As I knelt down to examine Hardie, I noticed his paw was swollen. And it was extremely painful to the touch. To help him be more comfortable, I gave him an injection of pain medication. Then I explained to his mom that I was concerned his symptoms might be related to either a broken bone or a severe strain or sprain.
To help his mom better understand the potential problems, I started with a quick dog paw anatomy lesson.
Dog paw anatomy
A dog’s paw consists of four long bones called the metacarpals or metatarsals. The metacarpals are located on the front limbs, and the metatarsals are on the rear limbs. These bones are similar to the ones that make up the palms of our hands, and soles of our feet, respectively.
Attached to the metatarsals and metacarpals are three bones, known as the phalanges. Together, they form the digits (i.e. fingers and toes). At the end of each digit, a toenail covers the tip of the third phalange.
Additionally, the paw is made up of a variety of soft tissue structures (i.e. muscles, tendons, and ligaments). These structures provide stability and/or the ability to move the components of the paw.
Altogether, there are a variety of structures in the paw that could potentially be injured. I discuss paw pad injuries in dogs, a dog’s split nail, and ripped-off toenails in dogs in other blogs. So the focus here is going to be on broken toes.
Why do dogs have broken toes?
As you can imagine, there are many reasons a dog can break a toe. Some of the most common injuries include:
- Getting stepped on (more common in smaller dogs with tiny fragile bones)
- Catching the toe in a slatted floor or between fence posts
- Being hit by a car
- Sustaining a bite wound to the foot
- Jumping down from a height and landing wrong (especially for larger dogs)
Sometimes you know your dog experienced trauma to the foot. But other times, you are left wondering “Why is my dog limping?” Or you may be asking yourself why your dog is showing other symptoms of a broken toe like:
- Excessively licking the foot
- Swelling of the toe or foot
- An abnormally shaped toe
- Unwillingness to use the leg
- Signs your dog is in pain
How quickly do you need to get your dog to the vet?
If you suspect your dog has a broken toe, you will need to decide if he or she needs urgent medical attention, or if you can wait to see the veterinarian the next day. Most of the time, it is fine to schedule an appointment with your regular vet. However, there are some situations where you should make an emergency vet visit for your limping dog. They include:
- You notice your dog is dragging one or more limbs (this can be a sign of a fracture or IVDD in dogs)
- Non-weight-bearing lameness, inability to move, or the dog’s back legs collapsing
- Severe trauma (For example, if your dog was hit by a car, he or she may have more severe injuries that are not immediately apparent.)
- An open wound, significant or uncontrolled bleeding, or exposed bone
- Swelling of the joint or paw
- Fever (i.e. temperature greater than 102.5° F)—This is why it is so important to learn how to take a dog’s temperature at home
- Concerns that your dog is in significant pain
How will your vet diagnose a dog’s broken toe?
Whether you end up making an emergency/urgent care appointment or a regular appointment for your dog, the vet will probably start with a physical exam. This is important for all dogs, but especially so for those who have experienced some sort of trauma. As mentioned earlier, sometimes a potentially broken toe isn’t your dog’s only—or most pressing— problem.
The veterinarian may also perform an orthopedic exam on your dog. This involves watching your dog move and palpating and manipulating the structures of the limb. Then, depending on the results, he or she may recommend additional diagnostics like X-rays. Taking X-rays allows the vet to visualize and evaluate the fracture (if one is present). And it also helps rule out other causes of pain and swelling of the toe, such as cancer.
Hardie’s diagnosis and treatment
To see how this works in real life, let’s go back to my patient, Hardie.
Since Hardie had a swollen paw and refused to bear weight on the leg, I wanted to take some X-rays to rule in/out a fracture. Getting quality images would require manipulating his already painful foot, so I recommended giving him a short-acting sedative on top of the pain medication I gave him initially.
While Hardie napped thanks to the sedatives, my techs brought him to radiology to take a couple of X-rays of his foot. Unfortunately, the films confirmed my concern that he had fractured one of the bones in his toe.
While he was still sedated, I applied a splint to his foot to help stabilize the broken bone. The sedation made the splinting process much more comfortable for Hardie. And it also helped me get a good splint placement since I didn’t have a moving target.
What is the treatment for a broken toe?
The majority of the time, your vet will recommend a splint or cast for your dog’s broken toe, just like I did for my patient. However, in some cases, your dog may need surgery to repair the fracture. This tends to be the case more often if the fracture involves a weight-bearing bone or is complicated.
In most cases, broken bones take approximately four to eight weeks to heal in dogs. Puppies tend to heal faster so their broken toe healing time may be closer to that four-week mark. But since senior dogs often have delayed healing, they may need to keep the splint on longer.
Your veterinarian will likely replace the splint every one to two weeks until the fractured bones heal. However, there may be circumstances where he or she will need to change the splint sooner, such as if:
- The splint becomes soiled or wet
- There is swelling of the toes or above the bandage
- The splint slips
- Sores develop near the bandage or at pressure points
What about the at-home treatment of a dog’s broken toe?
It can be difficult sometimes to get to the vet every one to two weeks (and the cost of care for your dog’s broken toe can add up). Understandably then, I sometimes have pet owners ask me if the broken toe will heal on its own, or if they can apply and change a splint at home.
While I do suggest dog parents learn how to wrap a dog’s paw for short-term first aid purposes, I generally do not recommend applying a splint or longer-term bandage at home. The risks of something going wrong are just too high.
For starters, if you apply a bandage or splint too tightly, it can cut off the circulation to the dog’s toes, causing the tissue to die. Not only is this painful for your pup, but a dog leg amputation is often the only option once the toes are dead.
Additionally, an incorrectly-applied splint can put pressure on the broken bones. As a result, it can actually prevent—instead of encouraging— fracture healing. Or, the splint can cause pressure sores on your dog’s leg, which can be painful and take time to resolve completely.
How should you care for your dog with a broken toe?
As we have established, splinting your dog’s foot at home isn’t a good idea. But there are some things you can, and should, do at home to help your dog’s broken toe heal well.
Give all medications as directed
Your veterinarian may prescribe pain medication to keep your pup comfortable while the bone heals. This will most likely be a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as carprofen (Rimadyl®) or Previcox®. It is important to only give medications prescribed by your veterinarian, as human anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or Advil® can have serious side effects in dogs.
Follow your veterinarians’ instructions regarding the dose and timing of the medications. And if you have any concerns about your dog’s pain level or suspect he or she is experiencing side effects from the medications, please contact your veterinarian.
Ensure your dog rests the foot
I know it is difficult, but strict rest is critically important to prevent unnecessary stress on the dog’s toe. This means no running, jumping, or rough play. Plus, in most situations, you should only let your dog walk around outside long enough to “do his or her business.” And you should keep your dog on a six-foot leash while outside to prevent him or her from running around.
For a couch potato dog, rest may be no big deal. But some dogs have trouble knowing their limits. Or they may start to develop “cabin fever” before they have a clean bill of health.
If your dog is having trouble coping with the resting phase of recovery, please talk to your veterinarian. There are some medications, such as trazodone for dogs, that can help with anxiety.
In addition, Kong toys, puzzle bowls, lick mats, or other DIY enrichment ideas for dogs can be great ways to battle boredom. They help provide your dog with an alternative outlet for their energy by working their brain instead of their paws. (But ensure that you avoid any activities that get your dog too wound up or involve chasing an object or treat.)
Keep a close eye on your dog’s splint and toes
As mentioned earlier, splints do carry the risk of complications. While having your vet apply the splint and following all of his or her instructions does greatly decrease the risk, it doesn’t drop it to zero.
Thus, it is important that you take good care of the splint by keeping it clean and dry. And you should also check the splint daily. You want to ensure it hasn’t gotten wet, started to slip, or caused your dog’s toes or leg to swell, change color, or become cool to the touch.
And if you have any concerns about the splint or your dog’s leg, call your vet promptly. That way he or she can correct any potential issues before they create a big problem.
Apply Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips® dog nail grips
If your dog is slipping or sliding while wearing the splint, applying Dr. Buzby’s ToeGrips® dog nail grips to the other three feet can be a simple and effective solution. They are also a great tool for post-surgical recovery.
ToeGrips work with your dog’s natural traction mechanisms, the toenails, to help your dog gain traction and move around more confidently. This makes it less likely that he or she will slip and fall (and potentially get hurt or become afraid of hardwood floors).
I’m happy to say that Hardie’s broken toe healed beautifully. This was in no small part thanks to the excellent care that his mom gave him. She followed my instructions to a T and did a great job of using brain games to keep him entertained.
Watching him sprint around the dog park a few months later, you would never know he had broken a toe.
You are integral to your dog’s recovery
I know that hearing your dog has a broken toe can be intimidating and upsetting at first. But thankfully, like Hardie, most dogs with broken toes heal well with surgery or splinting.
I don’t want to underestimate the role that you play in your dog’s recovery, though. Your vet will get your dog started off on the right foot. But then it is up to you to give your dog his or her medications, enforce strict rest, monitor the splint, and return for any follow-up appointments.
I don’t say this to overwhelm you, but to show you how valuable your contribution is. Together, you and your vet can help your dog recover from a broken toe and never look back.
Has your dog broken a toe?
Feel free to share his or her story below.