If your dog goes lame in one of his hind legs, he may have torn or ruptured his cranial cruciate ligament, or CCL – similar to the ACL in humans. This ligament connects the back of the femur (the bone above the knee) with the front of the tibia (the bone below the knee). The CCL is responsible for keeping the tibia in place beneath the femur and stabilizing the knee joint.
Symptoms of CCL Injuries in Dogs
CCL injuries in dogs are one of the most commonly seen orthopedic problems.
Depending on the severity of the CCL injury, a dog’s symptoms might range from having a hint of lameness to being unable to bear weight on the injured leg. A dog with an CCL injury may also have swelling on the inside of the knee.
One indicator of a torn CCL in dogs is the presence of the "drawer sign." This means that when the veterinarian holds the dog’s femur in place, the tibia can be pulled forward in a manner similar to a drawer sliding open. However, the lack of the drawer sign does not mean there is not damage to the CCL.
In addition to a complete physical exam, your veterinarian will probably take X-rays of your dog's knee to investigate the extent of damage and rule out other possible causes of lameness. X-rays will allow your veterinarian to determine the presence of fluid or arthritis in the joint, and also whether any small pieces of bone broke off with the ligament when it ruptured.
Dogs At Risk for Torn CCLs
Certain breeds are more prone to dog CCL injuries, including Labrador retrievers, Newfoundlands, German shepherds, rottweilers, and golden retrievers.
Obese animals and those that get occasional strenuous exercise -- so-called "weekend warriors" -- may also be more likely to develop CCL injuries. Often, these chronic conditions persist for long periods of time, with the dog gradually becoming more lame as the ligament becomes more and more damaged. Sometimes, however, a dog will have no obvious symptoms until the ligament finally ruptures, often with something as simple as a slight misstep.
Additionally, studies show that 5% of males neutered before 12 months and 8% of females developed CCL injuries later in life.
Studies have shown that about half of the dogs that rupture the CCL on one leg will develop the condition in the opposite leg.
Treatment for CCL Injuries in a Dog
If left untreated, the lameness caused by a partially torn or ruptured CCL will improve or go away completely in many dogs, especially small ones, within three to six weeks. Regardless, the lack of a healthy CCL will cause the bones to rub against one another, leading to the development of bone spurs, pain, arthritis, and a decreased range of motion. These problems are more likely to occur in medium-sized to large dogs.
Conservative, non-surgical treatment for CCL injuries is typically only used for dogs weighing less than 30 pounds. This includes rest and anti-inflammatory medications for six weeks to two months, followed by a gentle program of exercise and, if obesity is present, weight loss. Without surgery, the knee joint will be subject to degenerative changes.
CCL surgery for dogs includes a number of different techniques that aim to provide stability to the joint. Depending on the procedure used, it may take two to three weeks before your dog is able to bear weight on the injured leg, and, in all cases, exercise is usually restricted for at least eight weeks to allow for adequate healing. It can be very difficult to keep your dog quiet during the rehabilitation period, so you may find it necessary to keep your dog in a crate when you are not available to supervise his activity.
Your veterinarian will be able to advise you about icing your dog's knee and performing gentle range of motion exercises to help with your dog's rehabilitation. Although this healing period can be a difficult time for you and your dog, strict adherence to your veterinarian's recommendations will provide the best outcome and will be the quickest way to get your best friend back on all fours.