Preventing and Treating ACL Tears in Dogs



May 24, 2021

Torn ACLs affect one million dogs per year in the U.S. And pet parents spend $1.5 billion a year to cure this ailment. Fixing torn ACLs is the most commonly performed orthopedic surgery in pets. Here’s a quick primer on what the ACL is, which dogs are more at-risk for tearing it, and what you can do to both prevent, and treat it.

 What is the ACL?

A dog’s equivalent of our ACL is actually called the CCL, or the cranial cruciate ligament. It’s the supporting ligament in each of their back legs that provides stability by keeping the tibia from sliding forward under the femur. They’re fibrous bands that connect the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia).

What Causes a Tear?

Chronic inflammation can build up over time, so the deed may happen naturally. Or, in some cases it can happen spontaneously while walking, or due to overexertion or twisting the knee slightly. In older dogs, torn ACLs are usually the result of wear and tear, whereas if a young dog tears his ACL, it’s often due to overuse or spontaneous injury.

Have you heard of weekend warrior syndrome? That’s where your dog is a couch potato five days of the week, then you suddenly take them out for loads of strenuous, adventurous activity with you on the weekends. Improper stretching and lack of warming up can lead to a torn ACL when they launch into lots of sudden activity after being relatively inactive through the week. To avoid this, you can either up your dog’s exercise a bit through the week, or on the weekends, stay out for just 2-3 hours of exercise at a time instead of 5-8.

 Are There Risk Factors for Torn ACLs in Dogs?

Yes. Obese dogs are at a higher risk, as their extra weight adds extra stress to the joints. Genetics can play a role too. Big dogs are more likely to tear their ACLs, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen to small dogs. Newfoundlands, Labs, St. Bernards, Staffordshire Terriers, Mastiffs, Akitas, Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, and Rottweilers are some of these. Large breeds who commonly experience hip dysplasia might compensate for their pain by putting their weight elsewhere, leading to knee and ACL woes. It happens more to older dogs too. It’s most common at ages 7-8.

What are Signs That my Dog May Have a Torn ACL?

 Watch out for these tell-tale signs:

And beware that having one torn ACL can sometimes cause a dog to injure their opposite limb, because they’ll shift weight, and over-compensate.

How is it Fixed?

When you notice your dog limping, use discernment. There are some simple muscle injuries that can cause limping, but then resolve themselves after a few days. However, if it’s a torn ACL, the limping will not let up, and the longer you wait to get them in to the vet, the more damage that can occur.

At the vet, your dog will likely be x-rayed, and might need some more imaging, as a tear can sometimes be hard to see. They’ll manipulate the knee to see how it responds. And unfortunately, surgery is usually required. Some options you may be presented with are:

Dog insurance, anyone? Bivvy covers future unexpected accidents, including surgery! Some may seek alternatives to surgery if the tear is mild, or if their dog is at-risk or elderly and surgery seems too risky. A knee brace may offer some relief, but the tear will not heal completely this way. And healing from a mild tear without surgery makes other issues—like bone spurs, pain, and decreased range of motion—more likely going forward.

We at Bivvy hope you and your dog have many long years of ACL-tear-free camaraderie. But having the best pet insurance in town comes in handy should you find yourselves in that situation, and others. For less than a dollar a day, you and your best friend are covered in a great many situations. So, adventure on! But do warm up first.