How to treat knee ligament tears in dogs

Jan 18, 2021 at 08:00 am by FamilyPetHealth

Did you know that one of the most common serious injuries veterinarians see in large dogs is also a common human injury? 

Tears of the Cranial Cruciate Ligament (CCL) is equivalent to injuries to the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in humans. This ligament in the hind end of the dog sits between the femur (thigh) and the tibia (shin) bones and acts as a shock absorber, bearing a large load of the dogs weight, and helps position the dogs hind quarters correctly. Just like in humans, this ligament is susceptible to tearing or rupturing. 

The injury can be sudden, like when your dog is running after a ball and suddenly comes back to you limping, or it can be caused by wear and tear as your pet ages. Factors like obesity, conformation (skeletal build) and breed can also play a role in CCL tears. 

What are some signs your pet might have a CCL tear? 

Your pet may have some swelling in the inside of the leg. Lameness, anywhere from mild to severe, may also be noted. The classic presentation is a “toe touch” limp where the injured leg is held mostly up off the ground, only touching the toes to the ground enough to allow the dog to walk. 

The veterinarian may diagnose a CCL injury by a “drawer test” in which the doctor will slide the joint back and forth. A lot of motion in the joint can be an indication of a tear. To confirm the diagnosis, the veterinarian will need to take X-rays of the joint. Your pet will need to be under sedation to perform these X-rays as the dog must be completely still and the hind limbs moved in ways that would be uncomfortable for an awake patient. The veterinarian is looking for fluid, any bone fragments that might have broken with the rupture or arthritis that may build up around an injury. This helps determine the extent of the damage caused by the rupture. 

What’s next?  

X-Ray of a Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy
X-Ray of a Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy
X-Ray of a Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy

If your pet is diagnosed with a CCL tear some decisions will need to be made with your veterinary team. If the tear is minor, you may decide to treat it with extensive rest (3-6 weeks) and medications that will reduce inflammation and pain to make your dog more comfortable. This is most often effective in dogs that are smaller (less than 30 pounds) and are at a healthy weight and physical condition to begin with. Larger dogs and dogs that are obese are often not as successful with the rest and wait method. These dogs are most often surgical candidates.

The surgery that is commonly offered is called a TPLO, which stands for Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy. This is a procedure that essentially changes the physics of the leg, making the ligament unneeded for stability of the knee. The surgeon makes cuts to the bone, rotates it, and then uses screws and a plate to provide stability. While there are a few other procedures, the TPLO remains the standard of care for this injury. 

Due to the complexity of a TPLO, it is recommended to have a Board Certified Veterinary Surgeon perform your pet’s surgery. Often, a team of such specialists will travel to individual clinics to perform surgery in their buildings rather than hosting patients in their own facilities. 

Your dog had surgery - now what?

Immediately following your dog’s TPLO surgery, a set of post-op X-rays will be performed to ensure proper placement of screws and plates. Your dog will stay one night at the clinic, and the morning after the surgery the veterinary team will medicate and assess your pet. Once your pet is assessed and cleared, your pet will be discharged to recover at home. Your veterinarian will see your pet back in 6 weeks for another set of X-rays to ensure all is healing well. During those six weeks your pet will need to rest as much as possible while he or she heals. Activity should be limited to leash walking only for elimination purposes.  

Data shows that 40-60% of dogs who experience a CCL tear will have similar issues in the other knee. It is crucial to their future health to keep your dog at a healthy weight to prevent further injury. However, once the injured knee is repaired, there is a 90% success rate with the TPLO surgery. 

Pet owners who would like more information about common pet injuries or to have their own pet evaluated for a possible CCL tear can speak to one of our pet specialists here at Family Pet Health by calling 615-907-8387.

About Family Pet Health, PLLC

Family Pet Health is located at 3307 Manchester Pike in Murfreesboro. The practice, owned by Dr. Amy Shirley and her husband Michael, is a small and exotics animal veterinary hospital. They provide a full range of veterinary services including exams and vaccinations, lab work and diagnostics, surgeries, and referral services. All of their staff members are Fear Free certified and have undergone extensive training on recognizing signs of fear, anxiety and stress in their patients. Learn more at