If your pup runs circles around you one day and is lame the next, he may have an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injury. ACL injuries occur frequently in canines, with estimates of over 1 million dogs suffering ACL injuries per year.

ACL injuriesTreating a torn ACL is also very expensive. Fortunately, many pet insurance providers cover anterior cruciate ligament injuries as standard.

How do anterior cruciate ligament injuries occur?

Ligaments are bands of fibrous tissue that hold bones together and keep organs in place. Think of them as the elastic bands of the body. The anterior cruciate ligament reinforces the knee, which in turn connects the thigh bone (femur) and the tibia (leg bone) by means of the kneecap (patella). As one can imagine, a torn ACL is not only painful but can also lead to other injuries.

ACL injuries in dogs result when the hind leg twists violently. The ligament can’t bear the increased pressure and ruptures. Two parts of the knee, the femur and tibia, aren’t kept in place and rub back and forth against each other, causing significant pain.

Obese dogs are especially at risk of anterior cruciate ligament injury due to the weight placed on their hind legs. Certain breeds are genetically predisposed to it. According to Drs Foster and Smith, the following breeds are at higher risk of knee ligament injuries:

  • Rottweiler
  • Newfoundland
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Bichon Frise
  • St.Bernard

Dogs with ACL injuries avoid placing pressure on the sore leg and try to keep it off the ground. Aging and arthritic dogs may limp regularly, but lameness in a healthy dog is usually a torn ACL.

Veterinarians can use the ‘drawer test’ to diagnose a torn ACL in dogs. They hold the femur with one hand while using the other to see if the tibia can be moved forward. A ruptured ACL allows the tibia to move forward. However, only x-rays provide definitive evidence of a knee injury.

Treatment for ACL injuries in dogs

Cone collar

A torn ligament usually requires surgery to repair, although veterinary surgeons may use any one of a number of methods. The usual approach is to either recreate the ligament using fibrous tissue or synthesized material; or to cut a portion of the tibia and reattach it so as to restore balance to the joint.

After ACL surgery, exercise is restricted to keep pressure off the joint until it’s healed. Dogs get only short on-leash walks for 4-6 weeks. Follow your vet’s instructions to the letter so your dog doesn’t strain the joint and tear it again.

Alternatives to ACL surgery

There may be cases where a dog is too old for surgery, or suffers from other conditions that rmake surgery too risky. In these cases, veterinarians use ‘conservative management’. CJ Puotinen (Whole Dog Journal) describes this as being a catch-all term for a range of nonsurgical treatments, including physical therapy, acupuncture, diet, anti-inflammatory drugs and the use of a dog knee brace.

Conservative management is not necessarily quicker or more cost-effective than surgery, nor does it guarantee a full recovery. However, it provides an effective alternative and supports whatever treatment used to help your dog recover.

Dog bandaged legAccording to canine health and nutrition researcher Mary Straus (referenced in Whole Dog Journal), restricting exercise for at least six to eight weeks is the key to conservative management. You also need to control inflammation with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), and maintain a healthy weight. She recommends a high-protein, low-fat diet. You can feed dogs eggs, meat and dairy during the recovery period.

Other products that can be good for dogs suffering from ACL injuries include:

  • Nutritional supplements such as Glycoflex
  • Wholistic Canine Complete Joint Mobility, a powder containing ingredients that promote tissue repair
  • Ligament-supporting products such as Ligaplex and Canine Musculoskeletal Support

Obviously, getting your pet back on his or her feet is a priority for both you and your veterinarian. Be sure to consult with your vet when exploring the options available to you.