The most common reason for canine orthopedic surgery is damage to the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in the dog’s knee (known as the stifle). This ligament is the canine equivalent of the human ACL, which functions to stabilize the knee joint and ensure proper mobility. In humans and dogs, ACL tears or injury to the ligaments of the knee can result in pain, instability, limited mobility, and lameness.

 

Knee ligament injuries are more common in dogs than in humans. Human ACL injuries are usually associated with serious trauma to the knee, while canine knee injuries may have a slower onset. The ligaments in dogs’ knees naturally degenerate faster than in humans and can be a result of multiple factors. Thus, even in the absence of a specific injury or trauma, your dog may experience tearing of the CCL.

Ligament injuries MUST be treated

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As a human, you would never undergo orthopedic surgery or attempt to recover from a joint injury without physical therapy. Research shows that postoperative physical therapy is necessary for full recovery in humans. The same is true for your dog.

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If you suspect that your dog may have a CCL injury, it is critical that you address it. Ligaments do not heal on their own, and if untreated, your dog’s symptoms will get worse. Furthermore, if your dog begins compensating for the injury by relying on the non-injured leg, there is a high probability that they will also damage the good knee. In fact, research suggests that “at least half of dogs that have a cruciate ligament problem in one knee will likely…develop a similar problem in the other knee.”[i] It is imperative that you seek medical attention to reduce the risk of further injury.

 

Depending on the severity of your dog’s injury, surgery may or may not be warranted. More minor injuries may be conservatively managed with physical therapy. Serious tears will likely require surgery.

There are many different options and types of surgery, so it is important to get an expert opinion. We recommend consulting a board-certified orthopedic veterinarian before deciding on a procedure (look for the letters DACVS after their name). Board-certified vets are the equivalent of human orthopedic surgeons and will be able to provide you the most appropriate expert advice regarding your pet. Nebraska’s board-certified orthopedic vets all practice at Sirius Veterinary Orthopedic Center. They are Drs. Horsteman, Tan, Zann, and von Pfeil.

Whether your dog needs surgery or not, CANINE PHYSICAL THERAPY can help your dog recover from a CCL injury. Conservative management with physical therapy may help your dog avoid surgery altogether, but if surgery is warranted, in most cases  your dog can begin physical therapy the day after surgery. In either case, physical therapy will help your dog maintain muscle mass, begin properly aligning damaged muscle fibers, and help your dog retain range of motion in the affected joint.

 

[i] “Canine Cruciate Ligament Injury.” James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Colorado State University, 2022, https://vetmedbiosci.colostate.edu/vth/services/orthopedic-medicine/canine-cruciate-ligament-injury/.