Some dogs are more prone to ACL tears than others
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Some Dogs are More Prone to ACL Tears Than Others

ACL tear

Is there a genetic and/or familial connection for dogs who tear their ACL? According to veterinary medical research, there are some dogs, breeds, and even a familial component existing with regards to tearing their anterior cruciate ligament.  Indeed, some dogs are more prone to ACL tears than others. I know first hand because:

A) My dog has torn his ACL in both legs within the course of one year;

B) My dog has had extracapsular repair of both ACL tears within the course of one year;

C) My dog’s littermate has experienced both A and B, following in his brother’s pawsteps.

If Your Dog Has a Suspected or Diagnosed ACL Tear

This is the one post you must read if your dog’s ACL is torn or you are considering surgery.  And here is our summary in the event you want to walk a mile in our shoes and the experience we had with double ACL surgery:

March of 2013: ACL partial tear diagnosis from doing a jump for the ball at the park

April of 2013: Cold laser therapy sessions at the local pet rehab center

May of 2013: Custom orthotic ACL stifle brace to wear for 4-6 months with modified activity (read: no jumping)

Early August of 2013: 90 days the brace and all seemed well

August 2, 2013: A 90-day update of the ACL saga

Mid August of 2013: Limp – pop – stagger.  My dog injured the same leg but worse. Surgery is required. A partial tear became a full tear.

September 3, 2013: Two-week postoperative assessment and update of ACL surgery.


Does ACL Affect Certain Breeds?

In his book, Advances in the Canine Cranial Cruciate Ligament, author Peter Muir, shares that the Newfoundland (“Newfie”) breed of dog has a high incidence (as high as almost 23 percent) of ACL (sometimes referred to as CrCL) rupture trait. Further, specific breeds of dogs have an increased risk of ACL rupture, which suggests a genetic predisposition.

These breeds include, but are not limited to, the Labrador Retriever, Rottweiler, Bichon Frise, St. Bernard, and others. Many dogs with a degenerating ACL will have the condition in both knees, and this is the case with both our Cocker Spaniel and his littermate. Knee cap issues can also predispose a dog to rupture their ACL. These knee cap issues include a luxating patella.

ANY dog at any age of any breed, lineage, or mutt can tear an ACL.

Those breeds that are less likely to tear an ACL, according to Muir, include the Greyhound and German Shepherd Dog.

Confirming an ACL Tear

The gold standard for diagnosing an ACL tear is surgery: Actually looking from the inside at the ligament and the knee. Most dog parents do not want to open a dog’s leg up for the sake of finding out whether a tear is present or not. Surgery, when performed, is used to repair the injury.

Dogs who do rupture/tear the ACL will generally appear suddenly lame, toe touch, or most often, hold the effected leg in the air (off the ground). The dog may use the leg again, but ultimately the lameness returns. Some pain may be present and arthritis will set in.

Do ACL Tears Happen to Littermates?

At this time, an ACL tear is considered binary; that is, dogs are either affected or unaffected. When it comes to littermates, our dog is from a litter of five; two of the five have had ACL tears with eventual surgical repair. The dogs were five years old when the first injury occurred, close to six when the second injury occurred, and they are both neutered, healthy, active males from a reputable breeder.

Incidentally, ACL rupture has a variable age of rupture. This makes genetic predisposition screening to determine propensity to tear an ACL since all dogs of all ages are affected.

Littermates, therefore, can be affected, as evidenced in our case. Both dogs are of a healthy weight and both are from the same litter. Is this the case across the board? There is not enough evidence nor scientific study to point to this, but in our own personal journey I have encountered several littermates with ruptured ACLs. Here are Dexter and McGee, for example, littermates:

running cockers

How to Treat

ACL tears that are not treated at all are at very high risk for developing degenerative arthritis. Alternative forms of treatment if surgery is not an option include physical therapy, custom orthotic braces, an animal cell transplants. A “one size fits all brace” can actually do more harm than good on a dog’s recovery. Custom braces are made with the dog’s anatomy in mind, and you can follow our journey with a custom brace. We highly recommend a custom brace when surgery is not an option for a dog with other health issues or due to age. The brace worked for a while for us, but they are costly, at around $400-$700 in our region depending on the dog’s size. However, our dog’s tear did go from partial to complete because he is so active. We also experienced a rub burn on his leg and had to visit the clinic a few times for cushioning padding and support. Still, this is a viable option for some.

Is Surgery the Only Way to Go?

If a complete ACL tear is not surgically repaired, the knee cannot function as a hinge joint, this according to Stacey Hershman, DVM, of Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, in a Whole Dog Journal article.  Conservative management is something we tried for the first partial ACL tear of our dog. Since symptoms did not improve and only worsened to a full tear, we are very grateful to have found a qualified, board certified, kind, caring, and highly skilled veterinary orthopedic surgeon to repair the tear.

knee brace ACL
Dexter and his custom orthotic ACL stifle brace.

Each dog and dog owner circumstance is different, so consulting with your vet and a qualified board certified surgeon are key. In addition, there are many types of ACL repairs, and you can search for “ACL” on our search engine for more information on these processes.

dog surgery
One day postop extracapsular repair of torn ACL and release of meniscus.

Fi-Dose of ACL Reality 

Our dog’s board certified orthopedic surgeon is a gem. According to Dr. Chas McBrien of Northeast Veterinary Referral Hospital, of the nearly 3,000 surgeries his practice performs every year, an average of 70 percent of the surgeries are for ruptured ACL of a dog. We were his first clients EVER to attempt a customized stifle brace.

How’s the Cockers Today?

Our dog is doing extremely well. We did physical therapy at home, and I received individual instruction via Skype video with Susan Davis in order to strengthen Dexter’s muscle and legs with in-home exercises. Dexter’s second ACL surgical repair took place June 13, 2014, and he has made a full recovery. We like to call him “bionic knees.”

Surgery is not inexpensive, and while we would do anything in our household to help our dog and his medical needs, having pet health insurance was wonderful for us. I am not being paid to let you know that I am a nearly 20-year Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) policy holder. It has taken us through canine cancer and two ACL surgeries. We have never had a problem and get extremely fast reimbursement that covers much of the bill. Feel free to do your own pet health insurance homework.

Our dog’s littermate had his second ACL tear repair on Thursday, November 20, 2014, and is home from the hospital. He, too, is doing well, and will start the in-clinic rehab process of underwater treadmill and physical therapy sessions. So far, so good. Here’s McGee in rehab the last time he had ACL surgery in 2013.

dog treadmill

 The Bottom Line

  • Yes, littermates can be affected by ACL tears.
  • Any dog can get an ACL tear.
  • There is a genetic component for ACL tear propensity in certain breeds
  • Our dog, Dexter, exercises regularly, eats a healthy diet, takes Omega 3 fish oil, Coconut Oil, and will be on a wonderful joint supplement for life.
  • If a dog is overweight this put him or her at an increased risk of injury or re-injury to the legs, joints, and ligaments not to mention other bodily systems being affected.

Yes, I’d do it all over again the exact same way and I am grateful we tried CM (conservative management) so that we could try a less invasive route first. I am sure there are dogs out there who benefit greatly from CM; we just are not those dog people.

Question: Has your dog ever been affected by an ACL injury? What did you or would you do?


Note:  I am not a vet and make no claim to what will or will not help your dog. Always seek medical attention for your dog’s individual needs and issues.

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  1. There is so much information in this article that I have copied it for future reference. I am going to show this to my vet because this is so handy for all dogs and litter mates. Thank you for sharing this valuable piece of info.

  2. When I took Sampson in for his consult for his ACL tear I mentioned my concern to the surgeon that he would tear the other one. The surgeon we saw said that dogs who tear their ACL before the age of five will typically tear the other. Older dogs, not so much. That is what this surgeon said and I don’t know where he got that information.

    I do know of an older golden that has torn both probably within a year or two of each other. Sampson’s anniversary is coming up and I’m understandably nervous.

    I’m glad Dexter is feeling better and has recovered well.

  3. My rottie mix had a full tear of his acl ccl. He could only walk on three legs. The vet recommended $4700 tplo surgery asap. I read that severe infections are common so have more money available for complications from surgery. After searching the internet, reading many comments of those that put their poor dogs thru this painful joint surgery, I made the decision to avoid surgery. I read online that dog knee braces work, read comments of those that used dog knee braces instead of surgery with great results. Dog knee braces do not cause complications or infections. I decided on the posh dog knee brace and with a few modifications it was working very well and supporting the knee for dog walks. In several months he was walking quite well on all four legs, and wore the brace less and less. Now he doesn’t wear the brace, but I keep the brace just in case. I am very happy I refused the surgery for my dog. I would recommend a custom dog knee brace instead of surgery as they do really work.

    1. We had a brace for our dog but went with custom. I am so glad it worked for your dog and you were able to get the “support” – many years ahead of good health!

  4. This is a very helpful article, thank you. My lab mix, Buddy, had a full tear in his left knee 3 years ago next month. Sadly, it looks like his right knee tore last night. I can only assume Buddy will need the same surgery as last time. It’s so sad we’re going through this again, it breaks your heart. We are going to be living in the living room during his recovery again as we’ll have to baby gate the stairs. I really appreciate the article on how to entertain them while they’re recovering. He’s 6 1/2 and very playful. It didn’t really cross my mind last time about how much stimulus they really need while healing. I was too concerned with him just resting and not getting up too fast. We have wood floors and had to put carpets down to prevent him from slipping. Buddy also gets REALLY excited when someone knocks on the door, so we have a big note on the door asking that nobody knocks, they call instead and we can come out. I recommend doing that for anyone who has a similar excitable pup. The only tiny silver lining is that we’ve been through this and know what to expect. I know having two ACL surgeries will mostly likely affect his movements later in life. So sad. The important thing now is getting him well and keeping him comfortable. Thank you for the information in these articles, it’s very helpful.

    1. Keep us posted on how your dog is doing, Sasha. I so know exactly what you are going through. Such a good idea to prevent dogs from slipping, too. Let us know how things go.

  5. Our pup was diagnosed at 4 months with a partial tear; we are waiting for her to be fully grown before doing surgery (as long as we can keep her from doing more damage). Since we found out about our pup, 3 others in the litter have the same issue and all under 1 year of age ( 7 pups born in the litter)!! I feel this is definetly a genetic predispostion and hopefully the breeder doesn’t breed those same dogs again. I trust our orthopediac surgeon and as stressful and costly as it is we will do it and get our girl back in great shape…poor thing hasn’t known what pain free is basically since she was born 🙁

  6. Our nearly 2 yr old Rott girl started out perfect, but her rear legs are not quite right (backyard breeder, we should have known better), and she has blown both knees, a few months apart.
    She got stem cell treatment, laser treatment, water treadmill, acupuncture and pool therapy. plus supplements.

    Our vet says her legbones are misshapen enough that TPLO and the other surgery would make her somewhat dysplasic hips worse (he actually said pop out of joint), so we’re stuck with pain management and very limited exercise.
    Poor baby! She’s so sweet and loves everyone, and all we can do is keep her happy as long as possible.
    Thanks for sharing your experience with knee issues. It really helps to read about how others deal with them.

    1. WOW you are doing such pawsome things for your Rotti. I hate that they have to go through leg stuff. How is your sweetie doing now?

  7. I am adopting an 10 yr. old Chihuahua that has a luxating Patellal They say she is active, but no jumping. I am leary of adopting this dog, but have fallen in love with her. I am getting her from the Humane Society in St. Louis, Mo. I am weary of paying 255.00 for a dog with a bad knee, but I live in a small town and hope the price will be cheaper. The brace sounds like a good idea, I will try that. Both the dog and I have arthritis and a bad knee. We will go very well together. Wish us luck, her name is Elsbeth and got shipped to St. Louis from Arizona. Her owner gave her up because she is old and has a bad knee. I am adopting her cause I want her last years to be happy in a forever home. My previous little dogs have lived to be 14 to 16 years. I hope this works out. Thanks for the advice.

    Sandy Johnson
    Sullivan, Mo.

  8. With my pair of Malt-Tzu littermates, 12 yo, 20 lb, one of them, Sunshine, tore 2 CCLs in succession, the first last October and the second on Christmas Day. (The other dog is fine; no signs of joint problems.) The vet wanted Sunshine to have surgery in October, but I couldn’t go ahead with it because I wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavy. With both legs out of commission, she underwent surgery immediately. It worked out better because she wasn’t favoring one leg over the other; her recovery was balanced.

    While all this was going on, I was repeatedly warned not to let her jump up on furniture. What goes up has to come down, and it’s the landing that strains the knees. I immediately put a stop to both dogs’ jumping habits. **I think the number one precaution should be to stop the dog from jumping–either up or down–if there is the slightest chance of a CCL injury and perhaps even as a general practice.**

    Sunshine’s legs were fine after her surgery. However, in May she suddenly developed Cushing’s disease. Two different vets told me that weak CCLs can be the first indication of Cushing’s. One of them also said they are finding increasing evidence that Cushing’s may be related to early spaying or neutering. Elsewhere I’ve read that a small percentage of weak CCLs may also be due to early sterilization.

    So, it may be a long shot, but perhaps it’s worth wondering whether Cushing’s is one of the causes of weak CCLs. And further, breeders, believing they’re doing the right thing, may be spaying and neutering their puppies when they are too young.

    Unfortunately, Sunshine had a fulminating case of Cushing’s: by August she had a space-occupying tumor in her brain. She died in September.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss, Muriel. I know that spaniels have to be watched closely for Cushing’s – my last Cocker was suspected to have it but turned out negative. Thanks for sharing your experience and all our best. Please come back and say hello.

    2. My cocker has had Cushings for 5 years. He is 11-12 now (he came from the pound so, we aren’t 100% sure). He tore his ACL/CCL recently. I would never put him through a surgery at his age. He has had a great life, but he is too old for that. Anti-inflammatory drugs, pain meds, and I am going to look into a brace. Vet thinks he has arthritis throughout as well, and he has been compensating with his right front leg and now that hurts him. I appreciate the info re: the brace, to help him stay comfortable. But I fear his time with us is ending and I am so sad. I have never had a dog like George in all my years, and I have rescued quite a few animals. For some reason, he is just my heart.

  9. My Jack Russell tore his left ACL at 13 years old. We had the lateral suture surgery done and he did fine for three months. One day I noticed he was limping on the other leg. I took him in and the ACL was fine but the leg was withering. The doctor sent us to Knoxville to a specialist and she said he had acquired autoimmune disease of the nervous system from the knee surgery. He was put on meds to help stop the disease and meds to help with the pain. For six months we struggled to keep him pain free. The autoimmune disease eventually caused neuropathy and dementia. A week ago he developed liver failure with NO warning. He got up that morning, ate his breakfast and then threw it up on the floor. His hair was falling out by the handfuls. The day before he was OK. Liver ALT level was off the chart at over 2000. I had to make the decision to put him to sleep at 14. It broke my heart. I wish I had NEVER had that surgery done. I can’t see me every having another dog even as much as I love them. I would be afraid to let them out to play or do anything and would worry constantly. I wish I had done the brace.

  10. Found your blog after my little Jack Russell tore her ACL a few weeks ago. We are now researching the best route to go. (I’m leaning toward just going full on surgery to get it repaired and out of the way. She is, and always has been on salmon oil and chondroitin, etc.) My question had to do with your pet insurance. Every thing I read says that no insurance will cover pre existing conditions, and I was curious as to what your experience was with having the exact same issue happen THREE additional times to both your dog and his littermate! Was there no pushback from the insurance company about a “pre-disposition to ACL injuries” or the like? I realize that its too late for my Coconut, as she has already torn her ACL and no one will cover her, but I have another dog that I was looking into getting insured now that I’ve experienced this calamity with my other dog.

    1. I had the vet pet insurance with Nationwide when my dog tore his ACL the first and second time. This was not a pre-existing condition. I have had pet insurance on all my dogs since puppyhood so it would not be excluded.

  11. Today, (December 5, 2017) my ENEGETIC 11 year old Bedlington Terrier was diagnosed with both torn Meniscus and CCL (ACL) and I don”t have insurance or even credit to cover the projected $4,000 cost. Obiwan’S health and recovery are my foremost concern and responsibility so I need to find out about getting a custom brace made for him. He is almost as precious as one of my grandchildren as he is my devoted and beloved companion and I sacrifice to provide him top quality raw diet, condriton supplements etc while we live modestly on my SS income. My hope is to find an animal custom brace maker here in the Portland, Oregon area… Blessings with an enormous Thank You for taking your time to create this resource to help others consider what alternatives to surgery exist.

    1. Our blessings and prayers to you for your dog to get the help he needs. I totally understand about wanting your baby to be healed. Please keep us posted.

  12. My best friend in the whole world was dx’d with partial tear ACL yesterday! He is a beaglador (lab and beagle)! he has really short legs and a long lab body. He is 47 lbs. I hate to see him hurting and I am so sad for me. He is 11 years old. I am struggling with just putting him down because my heart is breaking for his inability to walk. I assume he is in pain. I know I have to give him time to heal. He is on NSAIDs.

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