Last updated on July 19, 2017
Within a period of one year, my dog had two surgeries: Both surgeries due to complete tears of the ACL, a major ligament of the rear leg. Our ACL injury journey is well documented on this blog, but this is our first “what’s life like” a year or more out from the ACL surgery blog post.
If your dog has ever injured his or her anterior cruciate ligament or has experienced a muscle, ligament, tendon, or joint injury, you know that post injury care is imperative.
Quick Review/Primer: What Is An ACL Injury?
A ligament connects 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 in 2013 that progressed to a full tear and the second one in 2014. The first time we tried conservative measures including rest, cold laser therapy, and even a custom made 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 says that more than half of his patients have this injury. Some dogs are more prone to ACL injury than others. However, ANY dog at any age of any breed, lineage, or mutt can tear the anterior cruciate ligament.
According to Michigan Animal Hospital, statistically, 35-40 percent of the dogs will suffer rupture of the cruciate ligament in the opposite leg. It is probable that the underlying arthritic change that lead to the first rupture has already started in the opposite leg.
For a complete overview and more details of our journey, you can read the Everything Guide to Dog ACL Injuries .
Preventing ACL Injuries in Dogs
Most articles online talk about what a ligament rupture in a dog is and what to do when it happens.
I get asked if there is anything I would do differently in our journey with two ACL tears in our dog, Dexter. Well, yes, some 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.
If you have a dog who is older, has other health conditions preventing surgery, or you simply cannot afford the surgery, then conservative management of the ACL tear is to be considered. I do 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. Thus, My Pet’s Brace, where we visited, had a custom fitting, but they also work with veterinarians out of state, too.
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.
Arthritis Prevention and Leg Care After ACL Surgery
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?
Here is Dexter then with his limp, right after getting his cast:
And here is Dexter now:
Tonight’s Summer Game involves not letting the size of the ball intimidate you. It’s all in how you carry it. ~Dexter~ 🎾🎖🎾🎖🎾🎖 #thatsgold #instadogbreeds #dexter #instavideo #cockersofinstagram #americancockerspaniel #internationalcockerclub #cockerspaniels #ilmycockerspaniel #cockerspaniel #instacocker
Does he ever limp or hobble at the age of 8? No, knock on wood.
He does have some arthritis but it is controlled and would have been much worse without the surgery. Some dogs never return pre-injury athletic state because of that initial injury to their leg. Other dogs recover and excel. Each dog is different.
He gets daily walks, play sessions indoors, massages courtesy his dog mom, and if need be, I would consider cold laser therapy. 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
- Something to coat the joints and slow the process of arthritis while providing comfort to the dog. We are not getting paid to tell you this, it’s just what has worked for us: A daily dose of Cosequin Advanced Strengthcrushed up, and sprinkled in my dog’s food. We used this with our previous dog and started around age 3 to prevent any future joint issues. She never had a limp or issue and she lived to nearly 15 years of age. Not all glucosamine and chondroitin supplements are created the same. For our dog’s weight, he gets a half a tablet a day. Now and then, we bump up to a full tablet if we know Dexter will be exercising more, rain is expected, and so on.
- Organic coconut oil on his food: Once daily. Karen Becker of HealthyPets.com explains coconut oil for dogs best. It also benefits the coat, the body at large, and even for food sensitivity or allergy flares in some cases. We use this with the early meal of the day.
- Omega-3 Pet Soft Gels: Omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are important fatty acids for humans and their dog and cat companions because they cannot be made in the body. Nordic Naturals has a soft gel that we use, again punctured and mixed in with the supper meal daily. 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.
Read more below about vitamins and supplements for dogs here and what to watch out for, how to determine what your dog needs, and how much is too much.
CLICK THIS: The Reality of Dog Vitamins and Supplements
Products and Suggestions 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. Enter the Cover Me by Tui from Tulane’s Closet. Don’t want a piece of doggy apparel?
CLICK THIS: Dog Alternatives for the Cone of Shame
Dog Stroller: 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.
GingerLead Dog Support: I so wish I had this when my dog was recovering from surgery. This company provides rear support harnesses for aging, disabled or recovering dogs struggling with their mobility or balance. 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.
CLICK THIS: How to Entertain a Dog After Surgery
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:
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