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Can my dog recover from a knee injury?

If your pet suffers a knee injury, it may be debilitating and could require surgery. Tears to the anterior-cruciate ligament can be painful and can result in intermittent lameness and loss of joint support. Knowing how to recognize the signs of knee injuries in dogs can help you choose the proper treatment. Let’s take a look at what you can expect.

What is the ACL?

In mammals, ligaments serve as a stabilizing connection between bones. The anterior-cruciate ligament (or ACL) is a thin strap of connective tissue that travels through the notch in the patella (kneecap) to connect the femur (thigh bone) with the tibia in the lower leg. The ACL provides vital stability to the knee joint when the animal is running, jumping, or pivoting.

How Do ACL Injuries Occur?

Most often, ACL tears occur when a dog pivots hard during play. Larger, heavier breeds—such as the Newfoundland, Mastiff, Akita, Rottweiler, and Labrador Retriever—are most susceptible to ACL tears. The presence of a congenital knee deformity can also place an animal at increased risk for an ACL injury.

Symptoms of an ACL Injury in Dogs

ACL injuries are usually painful when they occur, and you may notice your dog favoring one of its rear legs. But often the pain is inconsistent, waxing and waning with time. If your dog shows signs of intermittent lameness in the same rear leg, you may want to have your vet evaluate the injury. An x-ray can determine the status of the ACL and the severity of the injury.

Non-Surgical Treatment for ACL Injuries

ACL repair surgery is expensive, and not all veterinary surgeons are trained in the procedure. In less severe ACL injuries, some owners choose to avoid surgery and instead outfit their pet with a cruciate-care brace. The soft elastic brace provides external support to the knee joint, taking over the work usually done by the ACL. With the ligament given time to heal, the tear may repair itself, allowing a callous forms over the scar. Other non-surgical treatments include acupuncture and joint support with oral glucosamine.

Surgical Treatment for ACL Injuries

Surgical ACL repair is a complex and often costly orthopedic surgery. Though there are several approaches to the procedure (depending on the nature of the injury and the preference of the surgeon), surgery can cost an estimated $5,000 or more. Typically, the animal is boarded overnight for observation following the procedure and is sent home in a cast the next day.

Recovery from ACL Surgery

ACL repair is a rather involved orthopedic procedure that requires significant recovery time. The animal is often required to spend an extended period (4-6 weeks) in a protective cast. Rest is encouraged and exercise is severely limited. After the cast comes off, your pet may slowly begin resuming daily activities such as walks, but activities like aggressive play, jumping, or stair climbing are discouraged for at least another few weeks.

A Personal Note

Several years ago, our Pit-Mastiff mix, Hammer, tore his right ACL while playing with another dog at the beach. The injury seemed at first to be nothing more than a sprain, but Hammer continued to experience periods of intermittent lameness, difficulty with stairs, and reluctance to jump. We were able to locate one of the two vets in our area licensed to perform the ACL repair surgery. After meeting with him and reviewing Hammer’s x-rays, it was decided that Hammer needed surgery to fix his knee.

We scheduled Hammer’s procedure in early December, so he wouldn’t miss any of his favorite summer activities (like hiking and swimming). The surgery was successful, and the next day Hammer came home in a green cast, which we all signed. He spent the next month convalescing, moving carefully between his dog bed and favorite chair. We even had to help him upstairs each night at bedtime. (Not easy with a 100 lb dog!) After his cast came off, Hammer slowly began to regain use of the knee, though exercise remained restricted until spring. By summer he was his old self again, hiking, playing, and jumping without pain.


Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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