Knowing how to treat a torn ACL on a dog can be challenging, as there are many options. When my Cocker Spaniel experienced a partial tear of his ACL (sometimes called CCL, or cranial cruciate ligament), we decided to try treating him without surgery.
My dog was four years old when he partially tore this ligament. Dexter loved to run, play, and go for long walks. My spouse and I explored various treatment options for a torn ACL on a dog without surgery.
A torn ACL is painful and cannot heal on its own without side effects, complications, or problems. If your dog tore his ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and surgery isn’t an option, there are some things that may help. A properly fitted knee brace is still a viable option for some dogs with a torn ACL who are not surgical candidates.
Since I wrote this post, our dog experienced two ACL complete tears and two successful ACL lateral suture surgeries. We are thrilled to have found a board-certified orthopedic surgeon to perform these surgeries locally. However, surgery is not for every dog, and not every dog may be a candidate for a variety of reasons.
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What Happens to An Untreated Torn ACL On A Dog?
In our article, What To Do For a Dog With a Torn ACL, we discuss that some dogs may not be ACL repair surgical candidates. Perhaps finances prevent the surgery or the dog has other health conditions that make anesthesia risky. Whatever the case, there are many dogs who tear their ACL and do not have surgery.
A ligament’s job is to bind the ends of bones together so the bones don’t move or dislocate. If the ligament ruptures or snaps like a rubber band, the integrity of the knee joint is compromised.
Thousands of dogs rupture their ACL every year, as this is a very common issue. The ACL is located within the knee joint (stifle) and acts to stabilize the femur as it rests on the tibia.
This ligament can suddenly rupture or tear or become weak as a dog ages, exercises, and engages in high-impact jumping, whether in agility or frequently from a couch, chair, or bed.
If you ignore a partial or full tear of the ACL, your dog will suffer the consequences. Aside from the pain involved, your dog’s body will try to stabilize the weakened stifle with scar tissue. More scar tissue means a stiffer joint. Some dogs will not be able to bend or extend their knee properly and arthritis will set in.
Cold Laser Therapy For Dog ACL Tears
After receiving the diagnosis of a partial tear, we were given the option of cold laser therapy class IV. The cold laser therapy sessions were a shot in the dark, but one I wanted to try.
Most veterinarians have cold laser therapy in-house these days, but back then, my dog received his treatments at a canine rehabilitation center in our area.
Dexter received a total of six 20-minute sessions that cost $250. I didn’t notice a huge difference, but I am a big proponent of non-invasive treatments. I purchased a cold laser for my dog that I use at home for his back arthritis.
The goal of cold laser treatments for an ACL tear is to restore health to damaged tissue cells by stimulating their ability to grow, heal, and survive naturally. Our veterinarian informed us that a partial ACL tear can take months to heal. In the meantime, the dog should not engage in jumping, running, or any other activity that can progress it to a full tear.
Dexter eventually progressed from a partial tear to a full tear of his ACL, but after cold laser therapy, we tried a custom stifle brace.
Torn ACL Dog Brace
The folks at Dexter’s rehab facility were kind enough to answer my questions about a stifle (knee) brace for Dexter to wear during his recovery process.
I learned about My Pet’s Brace, a company that provides orthotic devices for dogs who need support for the hip, stifle, hock, and paw injuries in the hind legs and shoulder, elbow, and carpal injuries in the front legs.
With a prescription in tow and a lot of research under my belt, off we went to the “brace place” for pets. In the meantime, the sheer volume of dog moms and dads I’ve encountered whose dogs have this injury has been overwhelming. We are pet parents with very active dogs, so it’s nice to see veterinary medicine advancing in the direction of care to mirror its human counterparts.
After a thorough examination and assessing Dexter’s somewhat hobbled gait, the staff recommended a custom fit stifle brace. He would need to wear the brace for 6 to 9 months during “active waking hours.”
The two staffers who worked on Dexter said he could resume climbing stairs, playing, and taking longer walks with the stifle brace on.
The entire process took about five minutes to actually take an exact replica of Dexter’s stifle area. This is best left up to the experts, and My Pet’s Brace works with veterinarians all over the country. They send the kit to your vet’s office, your vet can do the casting and then send it back to My Pet’s Brace for custom creation.
We videotaped a part of the casting session, as you can see below. Spending the time necessary to take a good cast in the proper final alignment is critical in obtaining a well-fitting functional device.
ACL Braces For Dogs: How They Help
Ligaments cannot regenerate themselves, so scar tissue formation is crucial. In Dexter’s case, once the mold was taken, much like a human brace, they crafted the finished product.
They are true artisans and were kind enough to walk me through the on-site fabrication process. It takes about a week to 10 days for the brace to be made. We were shown how to apply the brace and care for it. At the time, the stifle brace for my dog’s ACL tear was $625. Price varies by need and dog size.
My friend and veterinarian Dr. Julie Buzby, inventor of Toe Grips for Dogs, says while human anatomy lends itself to a knee brace, a dog’s anatomy does not. Some veterinarians promote the use of stifle braces for dogs while others do not feel they are beneficial.
Dr. Buzby is certified in acupuncture and animal chiropractic, so she doesn’t commonly send dogs right off to surgery for a torn ACL. She is, however, in the pro-surgery camp for canine cruciate tears.
However, not all dogs are surgical candidates. If your dog isn’t able to have ACL repair, a stifle brace is a viable option. I talked to my dog’s board-certified orthopedic surgeon about knee braces for dogs. Of the thousands of ACL repairs he performs every year, my dog was the only one who tried a knee brace that year in his practice.
Custom knee braces are your best option because they conform to the anatomy and need of each individual dog. They can be pricey, so some manufacturers sell generic stifle braces that are not custom molded.
As Dr. Buzby indicates, when the knee brace is off, the joint is unstable. A braceless, partially torn ACL is what incited my dog’s tear from partial to full. Here are some pros and cons of dog stifle braces for ACL tears.
|More affordable than traditional ACL surgery||Your dog may not tolerate wearing a knee brace|
|A viable option for dogs who cannot undergo surgery||Friction rub may occur, causing another issue|
|Helps to stabilize the knee joint when properly fitted and worn||Does not prevent meniscal injury|
|Your dog may engage in some activities with the brace on||Non-custom braces are not made to fit your dog’s joint measurements|
|May help the dog to get around better||May become worn over time and need replacing|
|May buy time to stabilize a partial tear||Will not slow down arthritis|
These experiences are my own and that is not to say that your dog would take the same path. I highly recommend talking to your dog’s veterinarian and getting a second opinion if needed. Surgery isn’t always the answer and isn’t always needed. We are hoping to avoid that route.
More Non-Surgical Options For Canine ACL Tears
Whether you choose surgery or not, there are other options for dogs with a partial or complete ACL tear. After surgery, my dog had physical therapy combined with cold laser therapy and at-home exercises.
Other non-surgical options for canine ACL tears include:
Toe Grips: All-natural nail grips that fit on the toenails of your dog’s paws so he has instant traction on slippery surfaces.
Acupuncture: Often used to treat dogs with arthritis or joint inflammation, including stifle issues and degenerative joint disease.
Nutriceuticals: Supplements for pets that are not pharmacy-prescribed but can have a tremendous positive impact on a dog’s health. Duralactin is a very good choice in terms of soft chew for dog’s joints.
Vet-Prescribed Medication: NSAIDs and other veterinarian-prescribed medications may be a part of the long-term plan for non-surgical treatment of a torn ACL. Use caution as they may have harmful side effects.
Dog Stroller: I am a huge proponent of canine strollers, especially for dogs with mobility issues, postoperatively, or those with injuries.
Swimming or Canine Rehab: With veterinary clearance, swimming is a wonderful form of low-impact exercise for dogs. Not all dogs enjoy swimming, so please don’t force a dog to partake if he isn’t fond of water sports. Canine rehabilitation centers can design a specific protocol of exercises with your dog’s physical limitations and injury in mind.
Have you ever had a dog with knee or ligament issues? Would you consider a brace if in the same situation? Bark at me in the comments below.