Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Taking it on the Chin:
Repairing Animals' Jaw Fractures

Pet Column for the week of April 4, 2005

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Kim Marie Labak
Information Specialist

Because most animals' skulls feature a protruding jaw, animals suffer jaw fractures more often than humans do. If they are hit by a car, their head is in the line of motion for the vehicles bumper or tire. Cats also have the tendency to turn their heads to bite whatever is attacking them, so they will often put their faces toward a tire or bumper and get facial injuries. Jaw fractures also result from infection, tumors, and metabolic disorders.

Fortunately, veterinary dentists, such as Dr. Bill Krug, a resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, have many ways to help repair jaw fractures.

In head trauma cases at the Illinois teaching hospital, internists or critical care specialists will first assess the stability of the patient's vital systems, including the neurological and cardiopulmonary systems. As Dr. Krug explains, "There's not much point in fixing an animal's jaw if it's suffering from respiratory failure."

Jaw fractures sometimes result from deep bacterial infection of the gums, also known as periodontal disease, which can cause bone around the teeth to recede, creating weak spots in the mandible (the lower jaw bone). In severe cases, a weakened mandible can even break when a veterinary dentist tries to extract diseased teeth. Fungal infections and oral tumors can also invade directly into bone, causing gaps or fractures.

Hyperparathyroidism is an endocrine disease that can cause jaw fractures. It causes an overproduction of parathyroid hormone, a hormone that removes calcium from bones. Bones, including jaw bones, become thinned, weakened, and susceptible to fractures.

The first step in fixing a jaw fracture is to assess its location and severity. Usually jaws get fractured in several places, and radiographs (X-rays) taken from different angles or a CAT scan can help locate all the fractures and find teeth that need attention.

How a veterinarian fixes a fracture depends on the type of fracture and the age and disposition of the patient. For young animals whose bones are still growing, a snug muzzle fashioned from gauze and surgical tape can stabilize the jaw so fractures will heal. This is a very non-invasive method, and the muzzle is left loose enough that the animal can lap up soft foods.

For adult animals, acrylic putty can be molded onto the teeth, where it hardens and holds the jaw fragments together. Another way to use teeth as anchors is to weave wire around and between teeth and then tighten the wire to pull the bone fragments together.

For severe or complex fractures, a technique called external fixation can be used. External fixation involves inserting metal pins into the bone and stabilizing the pins by securing them to a metal or acrylic bar outside the body. For jaws, acrylic is ideal since it is a lightweight and strong material that can be molded into a U-shape to follow the shape of the jaw.

Internal fixation is also used. With this more invasive method, metal plates are placed under skin and muscle and secured directly to bone fragments to hold them together.

Healing of any fracture depends on the age and health of the animal and the severity of the fracture. A young dog with a mild fracture may heal in a month, whereas older animals may take several months or more to heal. Since jaw fractures can make eating uncomfortable or just plain impossible, veterinarians can use non-oral ways to get nutrition to the animals, such as the insertion of a feeding tube.

Dr. Krug says that the success of different treatments may depend on the animal. Some animals may be very intolerant or stressed by having their jaw immobilized, while others may still be happy and playful. For more information about facial fractures, contact your veterinarian.