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Torn Ligaments in Dogs

small dog with knee brace


Many star athletes have had to stop playing due to a torn ligament and just like humans, dogs get torn ligaments too. If you are noticing that your dog is lame in one of his hind legs, it may be a torn ligament. The difference is that in humans, this usually happens fast due to an injury and in dogs, it is more of a gradual thing. Here is more on this condition. What causes torn ligaments in dogs, how it happens, diagnosis methods, treatment methods, preventative measures, and home care.

What is a Torn Ligament?

Humans have an ACL and dogs have what is known as a CCL, which stands for cranial cruciate ligament. This is a ligament that connects the front of the tibia (the bone below the knee) to the back of the femur (the bone above the knee). What it does is stabilizes the knee joint and keeps the tibia in place underneath the femur.

According to Pet MD:

The stifle joint is the joint between the thigh bone (the femur) and the two lower leg bones (tibia and fibula). It is the quadruped equivalent of the knee in bipeds (i.e., humans).

A ligament is a band of connective or fibrous tissue that connects two bones, or cartilage, at a joint; the cranial cruciate ligament is the ligament that connects the thigh bone with the lower leg bone – it helps to stabilize the stifle joint.

A torn ligament comes in second on the most common orthopedic condition – right behind hip dysplasia.

What Causes Torn Ligaments in Dogs?

There are numerous reasons a torn ligament happens. A few include:

  • Obesity
  • Trauma or physical activity
  • Breed
  • Age
  • Possibly genetics

The most common cause is repetitive movement and activity. Putting pressure on the same ligament causes tiny tears that over time stretches the ligament. This not only changes the structure of the ligament but can lead to eventual tearing. While there are various factors that cause a torn ligament, this is a very common injury in dogs. It ranges from slight tears that cause minor lameness to swelling and not being able to bear weight on the leg at all.

Of course, some breeds seem to be more susceptible to torn ligaments which is why genetics are definitely a possibility.

Symptoms of a Torn Ligament

While humans have an acute trauma that typically tears their ACL, with a dog’s CCL this happens slowly over time. Not every time, of course but this is typical. What may start out as a small tear will eventually become a large tear with repeated injury.

There are many type of causes for a dog limping but one of the major symptoms is that and the dog favoring the uninjured leg. In some cases, this may lead to injury to the other leg since the dog is putting their weight on it repeatedly.

Other symptoms include sitting abnormally, a clicking noise in the leg area, stiffness in both legs, and a thickening or swelling of the knee area of the affected leg.

In some dogs, they may have periods of seeming to be better. Then after doing certain activities a noticeable change may present itself, showing that the leg has not healed or needs attention.

How is it Diagnosed?

There are a few ways that a veterinarian diagnoses a torn ligament in a dog. According to Vail Valley Animal Hospital:

The key to diagnosis of a ruptured cruciate ligament is the presence of a type of knee instability called a cranial drawer sign. This is where the tibia moves forward on palpation from the femur like the motion of a drawer being opened. Often in large painful dogs this test is best performed when the dog is sedated to allow for the knee to be completely relax. Other important supportive diagnostics used may include: radiographs, MRI, and arthroscopic surgery.

What Are Treatment Options?

The best way to treat a torn ligament is with surgery. This may not always be necessary but more often than not. This is because dogs that have a partial tear usually end up with a more serious injury. Those tiny tears may become a full-on CCL torn ligament. By having early surgery, there is a faster recovery time and fewer chances of cartilage damage. It also helps keep the dog from favoring the other leg which can also cause damage, as mentioned.

There are a few surgeries that are used to repair torn ligaments in dogs:

  • Tibial Tuberosity Advancement (TTA) are most commonly used in medium to large breed dogs.
  • Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy (TPLO)
  • Extracapsular repair (used almost exclusively in small dogs)

Home Recovery

Dogs who have gone through surgery have a fairly speedy recovery. Most can bear weight on the leg within 10 days and a full recovery is not unusual within three to four months.

In some cases, a dog can recover without surgery. This depends on factors like the individual dog and severity of the torn ligament. Age is a factor as well as activity level and general health.

For those who can recover without surgery, some options include a leg brace, Acupuncture, supplements (fish oil, turmeric, and glucosamine), swimming, and massage can also aid in your dog’s recovery from a CCL tear.

For those who choose surgery for their dog, it is important to shop for pet insurance. The average cost of a torn ligament surgical procedure is from $3,000 – $6,000.

Cover Your Dog Today

Pet health insurance can pay for the treatment of broken bones, so get a quote for your dog today and be prepared.


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