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How To Tell If a Cat Has a Broken Leg: Our Vet Explains

Dr. Sharon Butzke, DVM (Vet)

By Dr. Sharon Butzke, DVM (Vet)

cat with broken leg in the streets

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Dr. Sharon Butzke

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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Cats are notoriously curious, which can unfortunately sometimes lead them into trouble. Outdoor cats are typically at higher risk of injury, but indoor cats can have accidents as well. A broken bone, also called a fracture, is a serious injury that requires urgent veterinary attention.

How Can a Cat Break Its Leg?

Fractures in cats are often the result of traumatic accidents. For example:

  • being bitten by another animal (e.g., dog)
  • hit by a moving vehicle
  • falling from an elevated position
  • stepped on by a person or other animal
  • projectile injuries (e.g., from firearms)

Less commonly, cats may have an increased risk of fracture due to weakening of their bones. This can be caused by:

What Are Some Signs That My Cat May Have a Broken Leg?

You may or may not know that your cat has experienced a traumatic injury, particularly if they spend time outdoors, but signs of a broken leg may include:

  • reluctance to move
  • limping or not putting any weight on the affected leg
  • an obvious deformity in the leg
  • leg hanging limply or at an abnormal angle
  • bruising, swelling, and tenderness at the fracture site (with or without a wound)
  • not wanting to be touched or picked up
  • general signs of pain: hiding, vocalizing, not wanting to eat or drink

Cats are very good at masking their pain. A team at the Université de Montréal in Canada developed the Feline Grimace Scale in 2019, which describes three levels of pain in cats (none to mild, mild to moderate, and moderate to severe). Pain assessment is based on head, ear, and whisker position, squinting of the eyes, and muzzle shape. The scale has proven to be a simple, quick, and reliable tool that can be used by veterinary professionals and owners to help identify pain in cats.

sick cat
Image Credit: Ro_ksy, Shutterstock

What Should I Do If I Think My Cat Has a Broken Leg?

All fractures require urgent veterinary attention.

 If you are concerned that your cat may have broken its leg, please contact your regular veterinarian or the nearest veterinary emergency hospital immediately.

Until your cat can be transported to the hospital, here are some important things to keep in mind:

  • even the nicest cat may bite or scratch if they are in pain, so approach your cat cautiously and handle them as gently as possible (a thick towel or blanket may be helpful to scoop them up)
  • confine them to a small area, if possible, as movement may worsen the fracture
  • do not try to examine the cat yourself
  • you should not administer any medication without checking with a veterinarian
  • keep children and other pets away from the injured cat

How Are Broken Bones Diagnosed?

It is important for the veterinarian to examine your cat’s entire body carefully, because a broken bone may not be their only injury. Your cat may need to be stabilized before the fracture can be addressed, particularly if a major trauma has occurred.

It is likely that the veterinarian will administer pain medication and possibly some sedation. This is to help keep your cat comfortable, allow for a thorough examination and proper positioning of radiographs (x-rays).

The veterinarian will gently palpate (feel) for any areas of swelling, tenderness, or obvious bone deformities. They will make sure all joints can move normally and look for signs of nerve damage, which can also result from trauma.

vet assessing birman cat
Image Credit: Stock Asso, Shutterstock

Radiographs are the most common test used to diagnose fractures.

If a fracture is suspected, your veterinarian will take multiple x-rays.

Some fractures are only visible from certain angles and could be missed on a single radiographic view.

In some cases, advanced imaging (e.g., CT or MRI scan) may be needed. This typically requires referral to a veterinary specialty hospital.

Are There Different Types of Fractures?

Bones can break in different ways depending on the type of trauma and resulting forces acting on the bones. Fractures can be described using a variety of terms, starting with whether they are open or closed:

1. Open Fractures (also called Compound Fractures)

Piece(s) of the broken bone have pierced the skin and an open wound is present. Open fractures are contaminated and require antibiotics to prevent infection.

2. Closed Fractures

The broken bone and any associated fragments are fully contained within the skin,

which is still intact.

Fractures can be described according to many other criteria, which can get very specific, but here are some of fundamental concepts:

  • location of the fracture on the bone
  • whether the bone is completely broken or partly intact
  • number of bone fragments resulting from the fracture
  • alignment of the fragments

How Are Broken Legs Treated in Cats?

Treatment recommendations are guided by:
  • the type of fracture
  • age of the cat
  • overall health status of the cat (including other injuries, medical conditions)
  • financial considerations
  • ability of owners to provide the necessary care during recovery
  • accessibility of a veterinary orthopedic surgeon (if needed)

A splint or cast may be appropriate for some fractures, but it is a common misconception that this is a simple, minimally expensive treatment option. Cats need to be kept indoors and confined to a small area to restrict their movement. The splint or cast must be monitored closely to ensure it stays clean, dry, properly positioned, and doesn’t create sores. The splint may have to be changed multiple times during the recovery period (which sometimes requires sedation), and follow-up radiographs will be needed to make sure the fracture is healing.

Complicated fractures often require surgery and orthopedic implants, which may require referral to a specialty veterinary hospital. It is important to note that this can be quite an expensive undertaking.

In cases of severe fractures, surgical repair may not be possible, and amputation of the affected limb could be the best choice. Luckily cats adapt very well to three-legged life!

vet treating cat's broken leg
Image Credit: Leoschka, Shutterstock

How Long Will It Take for My Cat’s Broken Bone To Heal?

 Every case is different, but it can take up to 6-12 weeks for a full recovery. Kittens generally heal faster than adult cats, and complicated fractures usually need more time than simple fractures.

How Can I Reduce My Cat’s Risk of Breaking a Leg?

Accidents happen, but there are some things you can do to minimize your cat’s risk of suffering a broken bone:

  • keep them indoors
  • close windows on upper levels and balconies to prevent falls
  • supervise playtime with children and other pets (especially for kittens)
  • provide complete and balanced nutrition to keep bones healthy

See also:

Featured Image Credit: HeungSoon, Pixabay

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