Within a period of about one year time, I experienced dog ACL surgery recovery for two separate operations. Both surgeries involved a complete tear of my dog’s ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) to his back legs.
I documented my dog’s ACL journey and what we learned step by step in a separate post. I also wrote about non-surgical ways to manage a dog with a torn ACL. However, there are some tips and tricks I learned in the postoperative period both times.
If your dog has ever injured his anterior cruciate ligament or has experienced a muscle, ligament, tendon, or joint injury, you know that post-injury and postoperative care is important.
Here’s what I learned both times my dog had ACL surgery to repair a torn cranial cruciate ligament. Spoiler alert: The recovery period is long but a combination of rest, physical therapy, and a few other elements make things go a lot smoother.
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases. I am also an Etsy and Chewy affiliate.
What Is The ACL In A Dog?
A ligament connects bone to bone. It is connective or fibrous tissue that is located at a joint. In a dog, the cranial cruciate ligament, sometimes called the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL/CCL), is located in the rear legs. It connects the thigh bone with the lower leg bone. You can imagine how important this ligament is to a joint.
Our dog tore BOTH of his ACLs: The first one as a partial tear that progressed to a full tear and the second one a year later on the opposite leg. The first time around, we tried conservative measures including rest, cold laser therapy, and even a custom-made stifle brace for his leg.
The anterior cruciate is a ligament that is commonly damaged. The board-certified surgeon who performed the two surgeries on my dog explained that more than half of his patients have this injury. Some dogs are more prone to ACL tears than others. However, ANY dog at any age of any breed, lineage, or mutt can tear the anterior cruciate ligament.
Statistically, about 35 to 40 percent of the dogs will suffer rupture of the cruciate ligament in the opposite leg. It is probable that the underlying arthritic change that contributed to the first rupture has already started in the opposite leg.
When our dog tore the ACL in his left leg, his musculoskeletal exam noted, “Toe touching to non-weight-bearing lameness of the left hind limb. Left stifle: Very thick with marked medial buttress. Effusion and pain, especially on extension. A pop is felt in range of motion on flexion. Moderate to marked cranial drawer and positive tibial thrust.”
For a complete overview and more details of our journey, you can read our Everything Guide to Dog ACL Injuries .
How To Prevent ACL Injuries in Dogs
I am often asked if there is anything I would do differently in our journey with two ACL tears in our dog, Dexter. Yes, there are a few things.
Reputable studies are showing over and over that neutering a dog too early can increase his chance of rupturing/tearing the ACL. A puppy is still growing at 6 months of age. We had our dog neutered right around that point.
I mean, it’s what we are told, and so we do it. When we know better, we do better, as the saying goes. I would still neuter my dog, but I would do it at a little over a year of age if I could rewind and do things over again. I’d let the joints and ligaments reach their growth potential. Maybe then, he wouldn’t increase his chances of injuring or rupturing his ligaments. Maybe he still would, but well, I’d rather err on the side of prevention.
Side note: Our dog’s littermate brother also tore both of his ACLs within a year. He was neutered before one year of age, too.
Some dogs are more prone to ACL injuries and tears, and it’s not just my opinion: Science and studies and all that jazz. One of the pioneers in the field of veterinary medicine, Dr. Jean Dodds, writes, “(In a) study of large breed dogs with ACL rupture found early-age neutering…to cause an excessive angle to the tibial plateau.”
She is not alone. There are studies galore posted here and there online about early-age neutering from reputable sources. We are pro-neutering and spaying but at the right time.
I am grateful for trying conservative measures, but with an active dog and knowing as much as I do about the pain and an ACL tear’s propensity to advance from partial to full tear, I’d go for the surgical repair upon diagnosis.
What About Conservative Management of A Torn ACL?
If you have a dog who is older, has other health conditions preventing surgery, or simply cannot afford the surgery, then conservative management of the ACL tear may be an option.
I know a few folks who have opted to manage their dog’s on again-off again ACL tears. Each dog’s journey is unique and no two dogs, like people, are alike.
If you opt for a brace for the ACL injury, a custom brace is most effective because, like a custom brace for a person, it conforms to the exact specifications of your dog’s anatomy. Not all knees, legs, or dogs are the size same and with the same structures.
Two Cocker Spaniels, for example, side by side, still do not have the same anatomical measurements.
Braces DO NOT heal the knee. They only help a dog walk better. When visiting our dog’s orthopedic surgeon, he asked to see the custom brace that was made for Dexter. Of the thousands of patients on which he performed surgery, no one ever tried a custom brace first.
There is no 100 percent guarantee you can prevent a ligament injury in your dog. Life doesn’t hold guarantees in that way. You can, however, keep your dog in shape, and follow the advice below so that your dog’s joints, bones, and connective tissues (ligaments and tendons) stay healthy.
I have encountered dog moms and dads who tell me their dog lives comfortably with a partial tear of the ACL. Any joint that is compromised is prone to develop arthritis. Living with a partial tear does have limitations: At any time, it can progress to a full tear, and then surgery is most likely required. Scar tissue can take the place of the damaged ligament, but it will come at a cost: Arthritis, pain, and/or limited mobility.
Dog ACL Surgery Recovery Tips
Always follow your veterinarian or vet surgeon’s orders. Here’s our list of ACL postoperative recovery tips that we followed. Our dog recovered well, had no problems, and in the many years since surgery, has been thriving and his knees and joints are intact.
If all instructions are followed and there are no postoperative or at-home complications, the typical recovery from ACL surgery is 12 to 16 weeks.
Limit Physical Activity For Four Weeks Postoperatively
Dr. Charles McBrien, who performed Dexter’s two ACL repairs discharged us with instructions stating, “For the first four weeks postoperatively, keep Dexter strictly confined and rested indoors. He is allowed outside on a leash for purposes of the bathroom 5 to 10 minutes, three times a day, only under my direct supervision.”
Following Two Weeks ACL Repair Postoperatively
For the following two weeks postoperatively, we were instructed to allow Dexter more freedom inside. He was allowed outside on a leash for 15 to 30 minutes three times a day.
Dexter was allowed more unrestricted activity at about the 6-week mark postoperatively. Sutures were removed after 10 to 14 days. Dexter had staples in his wound. We engaged in cold later therapy at the rehab center and were instructed in at-home range of motion exercises to do with Dexter.
Follow your veterinarian’s orders for cold packs to be used on your dog’s wound.
Several weeks after surgery, your veterinarian may recommend swimming. If your dog isn’t fond of water, don’t force him to learn or engage in water activity at this time.
Assess Your Sleeping Arrangement
Dogs who sleep in their crate, kennel, or on the floor should not have a problem. We moved the mattress into the living room to sleep with Dexter. He always sleeps on the bed with us, and we feared he may try to jump off the bed during the night. We blocked the living room entrance with a baby gate.
Block Any Stairs
Our dog’s surgeon said the number one reason surgery fails is lack of owner compliance. This means some pet parents allowed their dogs to walk up or down steps. Some people allowed their dogs to run, play, or go for longer walks. Use a baby gate or dog gate to prevent accidents near stairways.
Keep Your Dog Entertained After Surgery
Dogs who are normally active may become bored and even depressed postoperatively without some sort of stimulation. Here are 10 ways to entertain your dog after surgery without risking his health and well-being.
Walk Pets Separately In Multiple Dog Households
If you have more than one dog, do not walk a dog recovering from ACL surgery with other dogs in your family. You don’t want to risk injury or surgical failure.
Arthritis in a Dog With An ACL Injury
To understand why arthritis develops because of an ACL injury or tear, you need to understand this process.
In simple terms, imagine the ACL as a rubber band. That rubber band holds two things together. If you slightly rip that rubber band, those two “things”— in this case, the femur and tibia — are not as stable. They move and shift, and when that rubber band fully tears, as is the case with many ACL injuries, suddenly you have nothing to connect them. You have bone rubbing on bone. Ouch.
The femur and tibia, bones of the leg, now move back and forth across each other. That tough band of tissue, the cruciate ligament, is not there to support them. A stable kneecap, the patella, needs the ACL to be strong and not torn so that the femur and tibia have proper support. When joint cartilage wears down, in addition to causing pain to the dog, arthritis sets in.
And wait, there’s more: That abnormal motion of the tibia and femur rubbing on each other can damage the menisci in the leg. The menisci is the cartilage pad, or as our dog’s surgeon called it, the “shock absorbers.” When the bones rub together due to the tear of the ACL, the bone cuts into that shock pad (menisci) and severe arthritis ensues.
The reason why some dog parents choose to rest a partial tear of the ACL in a dog is so that scar tissue can build up in the tear. At any time, that tear, even with scar tissue forming, can progress. Even if it heals, it can re-tear. You also have arthritis to deal with as a result. One misconception I’ve encountered in these years of getting to know the anatomy of a dog’s leg is this statement: “My dog isn’t active so I don’t need to have surgery on his or her ACL tear.”
A dog does not need to be super active to damage a ligament. A dog can pivot, step off a curb, pounce, or any number of motions that can cause a ligament to tear.
I wanted my dog to have stability. He has it with his surgically repaired ligaments. Incidentally, there are several types of surgeries for dogs with ACL tears. Seek a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and discuss the best option(s) for your dog. Based on his size and our surgeon’s recommendation, our dog had a lateral suture repair on both legs.
How Is Our Dog Years After Double ACL Repair?
Dexter is now in his early teens and he has developed arthritis, but not in his knees or hips. He has lower back arthritis, which we manage with nutraceuticals and cold laser therapy at home.
He gets daily walks, play sessions indoors, massages courtesy of his dog moms We keep his weight to a healthy number, and his veterinarian and orthopedic surgeon are thrilled with his progress.
Controlling and Slowing Arthritis in Dogs
One of the best things I’ve ever done for my dogs’ joints is to start them on a high-quality glucosamine and chondroitin supplement at a young age. We started both of our Cocker Spaniels on this supplement at age two. Here are a few of our favorite joint supplements for dogs:
I also love a high-quality omega-3 fatty acid that includes EPA and DHA. These are important because dogs cannot produce these substances. The omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) found in fish oil support things like joint health, heart health, skin and coat, immune system, and more. Here are a few of our favorite fish oil supplements:
A product I recently discovered is called Duralactin. It is touted as a cutting-edge immuno-inflammation aid that supports the health of your dog’s joints and tissues. I am using this daily on Dexter at this time.
Duralactin comes in a hard tablet that you need to crush or a chewable treat. My dog could not tolerate the chewable treat, as it gave him diarrhea. Other dogs do well on it. We are using the vanilla tablet and crushing it up onto his food.
Product to Make the ACL Journey Easier
There are several things we used, continue to use, and would recommend exploring in the event your dog injures his ACL. Many of these products can be used for dogs in general and/or for other types of injuries or situations as well:
Cover Me By Tui
The cone of shame need not bring a dog’s spirits down. I know my dog would be more upset and depressed in wearing an Elizabethan collar than the actual surgical recovery itself. So I looked into other options, and low and behold: There are viable lick preventative measures that are available for pet parents who want an E-collar alternative.
Granted, some dogs will figure out how to get through garments and bandages, so I wanted something easy to use, safe for my dog, and that would not dampen his spirits. We highly recommend the Cover Me by Tui from Tulane’s Closet.
Here are some dog alternatives to the cone of shame.
Depending on the size of your dog, consider a pet stroller. I purchased the Pet Gear No-Zip Jogger Pet Stroller, with great wheels and able to accommodate a dog up to 70 pounds. I want my dog to feel like we are not neglecting the outside world and his presence in it. So we packed up the stroller and take short but much-needed walks in it. He loved it.
Choose a dog stroller from Amazon for your dog’s size and needs.
GingerLead Dog Support
I discovered this product after my dog’s two ACL surgeries. The GingerLead provides rear support harnesses for aging, disabled, or recovering dogs struggling with their mobility or balance.
It helps dogs with weak hind legs walk. Since the dog has limited mobility per doctor’s orders postoperatively, this would have helped us at the curb for walks.
Best wishes to you and your pooch. In an effort to help guide you and your dog, here is our complete listing of links to help guide you through ACL surgery, options, and our journey: