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Dogs and knee injuries

When we think of knee injuries we usually think of athletes, but dogs can suffer from orthopedic knee problems too. Dogs are active, playful, adventurous, and not always very careful. Sudden trauma or repeated stress on a knee joint can result in injuries that can range from the mild to those requiring surgery.

Let’s take a closer look at the most commonly occurring knee injury in dogs—the cruciate ligament tear—and its diagnosis and treatment.  

What is a Cruciate Ligament Tear in Dogs?

The knee (or as it’s called in four-legged animals, the “stifle joint”) is supported and stabilized by the anterior cruciate ligament (or ACL). Ligaments are fibrous tissues that attach bone to bone (as opposed to tendons, which attach bone to muscle). When the ACL tears or ruptures, the knee joint s destabilized, making movement painful for the animal.

How Can a Cruciate Injury Occur?

Cruciate ruptures can result from a sudden traumatic injury, prolonged stress on the joint, or congenital deterioration of the ligament over time. Carrying excess weight places an added burden on your dog’s muscles, joints, and bones. Stressed joints can become inflamed and painful, further limiting your dog’s ability and willingness to exercise. A micro-tear to the ACL that may at first be asymptomatic can compromise the ligament’s strength and in time result in a full-blown ACL rupture.

What are the Symptoms of an ACL Rupture?

The symptoms ACL injures include lameness, favoring of the affected limb, and visible discomfort. Sudden ruptures, like those due to a fall or aggressive play, will produce a sudden onset of symptoms, whereas those resulting from long-term joint deterioration can have symptoms that wax and wane over time. A dog suffering from an ACL tear or rupture will often stand with the affected limb bent and will be reluctant to bear weight on the joint. The animal may also be less likely to be active or may struggle with basic activities like climbing stairs. Over a period of months or years, the muscles in the affected limb may atrophy from decreased use.

How are ACL Ruptures in Dogs Diagnosed and Treated?

The clinical signs of an ACL rupture can be confirmed by your vet through a range of techniques—including manipulation of the joint, imaging studies, and arthroscopy (which lets the vet directly visualize the joint and its supporting structures). After an evaluation of the tear and its severity, your vet can describe the surgical and non-surgical treatment options.

Is Surgical Treatment Always Necessary?

While surgical repair will result in greater joint stability, treatment of ACL ruptures needn’t always be surgical, especially is small dogs. A lot depends on the size and weight of the animal, as well as on the animal’s age. Generally, dogs under 33 pounds may benefit from nonsurgical treatment, while heavier animals are usually deemed good candidates for repair surgery.

As with most orthopedic surgeries, there is a significant recovery period following the procedure, and your pet will have to wear a cast on the affected limb for several weeks. Your pet may also need help with mobility during this period. If you have a larger animal, a towel slung under the hips can help create a sling to support your pet and help them get around. (We scheduled our mastiff’s cruciate repair surgery for late autumn, so he’d be well enough to play outdoors by late spring).

Follow-up Care for Knee Issues

Your vet will likely schedule follow-ups, both to remove the cast and to check your pet’s recovery as it progresses over time. There may also be noninvasive follow-up imaging studies to ensure the joint is healing properly. It’s important to manage your pet’s weight and limit exercise during the recovery period. If your dog is obese or simply overweight, your vet can work with you to come up with a healthy diet that will reduce the burden placed on the affected joint. Return to normal activity should be slow and should avoid jumping, rough play or activities that would stress the stifle joint.

Editor’s Note: Knee issues can affect all dog breeds, and small dogs commonly experience dislocation of the kneecap. Veterinarian Dr. Lee shares facts about small dogs and knee injuries.


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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