I had never heard about knee injuries in dogs until my golden retriever Brittni tore her ACL at age 5. Now I know that anterior cruciate ligament injuries are fairly common in all dog breeds.
ACL injuries can happen to any dog of any age and any breed. Brittni was an active, healthy dog who just happened to slip on the ice the wrong way. She actually slid right into my dad's parked truck and injured her knee.
Dogs are generally good at hiding their pain, or maybe we humans are not very good at noticing the signs.
When Brittni tore her ACL, it was not obvious to us how bad her injury was. She limped some but still walked around and was basically her usual self. If your dog limps for more than 24 hours, it's better to be on the safe side and contact a vet. If a dog's ACL is partially torn, you don't want her to tear it further so keep her as still as possible until she sees a vet.
Brittni developed some arthritis in her knee most likely because we did not take her to the vet right away. The longer you wait to start treatment, the more likely it is for the dog to further injure herself or develop more severe arthritis. We had no idea she had torn her ACL until we took her to the vet at least a month later when her limping got worse.
Treating a dog's ACL injury
At the time we were presented with two options for treating Brittni's knee injury. We lived in a small town close to Minneapolis and the University of Minnesota so we were fortunate to have a lot of resources. Ex-rays showed that in addition to a torn ligament and arthritis, Brittni also had hip dysplasia in both hips.
The vet explained that our dog's knee would not recover on its own. We had two treatment options, one involving surgery and one not.
The nonsurgical option would require Brittni to wear a brace on her leg. This didn't seem like much of a treatment to us.
The second option involved surgery to repair and stabilize the knee.
Today it is also possible to treat your dog's partial ACL tear with regenerative stem cell therapy. Stem cell therapy is a groundbreaking new regenerative treatment now available for dogs. Whether stem cell therapy is a good option for your dog's partially torn ACL depends on the degree of the ACL damage.
This wasn't an option for us at the time of Brittni's injury 10 years ago, but it's something dog owners should ask about today. The process involves a minor surgery to extract fat tissues from the dog. Stem cells are then extracted from the tissue and injected into the cells where the dog needs treatment.
Because our dog was only 5 years old and we believed she had a lot of years left, we went with the surgery to repair her knee. She was expected to have a full recovery, although the rehabilitation process would take a good four months. If our dog had been a few years older, we may not have chosen the surgery. This is something each individual dog owner must decide.
I always suggest dog owners decide now how much they are willing to spend on their dog's medical bills before an accident or illness occurs. It's better not to make important decisions based purely on emotions during a crisis. Plan ahead.
Helping a dog recover from an ACL injury
Recovering from a torn ACL is a long process that shouldn't be rushed. We actually scheduled our dog's surgery right when school got out for the summer so I could be home to help with her recovery and rehabilitation process. Be very aware of what this process involves before you decide on a treatment plan.
Physical therapy is important for strengthening the knee. We started with simple stretches and strengthening exercises that our vet showed us how to do. If these stretches aren't done correctly or often enough, the knee won't be able to gain back the flexibility and strength needed for full recovery. It's also important not to work the knee too hard or there is a risk of re-injuring it.
We were eventually able to take our dog for short walks and then slowly build up to multiple short walks and then longer walks. For a lot of dogs, the most difficult part will be staying calm and quiet during this important recovery time. Our dog was fairly laid back and was content to nap in her "cubby" under a desk in the kitchen. More active dogs will have to be kept in a kennel to make sure they don't try to run around.
If you have access to hydrotherapy, I highly suggest it. We were given this option but chose not to go this route because of costs and scheduling. We would've had to drive at least an hour for each appointment, and Brittni was very anxious in new places.
At the time, we thought doing pool exercises with her would be more stress than it was worth. Looking back, I believe hydrotherapy would've made a big difference in Brittni's recovery, especially because of her weakened hips due to hip dysplaisia. Although she was eventually able to run and walk just fine, she would always have arthritis and slightly less mobility in her knee then she once had. Hydrotherapy could've helped her build more strength and flexibility.
Minimizing the risk of injuries
Dogs do not always have an "off switch" when playing or working, even if they are injured. If a dog is very excited or fixated on something, she may continue running on her injured leg without showing any signs of pain. Think of a border collie obsessively herding sheep or a Lab mindlessly retrieving a ball - they don't know when to quit. It's the owner's job to make the dog take breaks every now and then to help her relax and to make sure she is not injured or overheating.
I am very aware of knee injuries in dogs because I exercise dogs daily through my dog running business.
Any dog can tear her ACL whether she is an "athlete" or not, but there are some ways to cut back the risk of injury:
- Feed a high-quality diet
Look for foods that have high-quality protein sources as the first three ingredients. High-quality protein is real meat such as turkey, duck or chicken, not "poultry" by-product or "animal" by-product. This could be just about anything. There are dozens of natural and organic dog food brands out there to choose from.
- Keep your dog at a healthy weight.
An active dog will be more likely to have healthy joints and muscles. She will not be carrying around extra pounds that put unhealthy stress on the body.
- Ease into activities with a warm-up and stretching.
A dog is more likely to injure herself during a sport or game that requires a lot of quick stopping and starting, jumping, twisting, etc. To help your dog warm up, go for a light jog with her and then gently massage and stretch her muscles. This is especially important before sports like herding, agility or flyball.
The more you know about ACL injuries and dogs, the more you can do to prevent injuries from happening in the first place as well as plan for the best recovery if an injury does happen.
Has your dog ever had a knee injury? What was the recovery process like for your dog?
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