Most pups are lightning-fast compared to us - they love running, jumping, and romping around. All of this activity keeps a dog happy, well-adjusted, and keeps their energy levels in check.
But, while their legs are built to be fast, they are not very resilient to injury. Their front legs are relatively flexible, but their rear legs, which provide their speed, are rigid and sturdy.
These rigid rear legs can get hurt with one wrong step on uneven ground. Torn ACLs are incredibly common injuries in dogs, with over one million dogs suffering from a torn cranial cruciate ligament each year.
The treatment depends on the severity of the injury, and not all dogs will be able to get away with at-home treatments. If your pup has received a diagnosis of a dog ACL injury, non surgical treatment is a potential option in the right circumstances.
Read below for more information on ACL tears and the best way to treat a torn ACL in dogs - no surgery required.
What is a torn ACL?
The ACL or anterior cruciate ligament (also called the cranial cruciate ligament) is a strong tissue band that connects the bones of a dog’s upper leg to the lower leg. It runs through the knee and supports the leg during movement.
An ACL can tear when under too much pressure as a result of one of the following:
- Suddenly slowing and changing direction
- Turning the body with the foot still planted
- Sudden stops
- Receiving a direct blow in the wrong direction while standing
- Misstepping on uneven ground
- Continual, repetitive stress on the knee
A dog’s knee is always slightly bent while standing, which puts constant pressure on the ACL. That’s why dogs are even more susceptible to this common injury than humans.
Torn ACL symptoms
A dog with torn ACL will show a few or all of these symptoms:
- Inability to walk
- Sitting unnaturally, with the affected leg sticking out to the side
- Swelling of the knee area
- Clicking while moving
Can your dog torn ACL heal on its own?
It is possible to provide dog torn ACL treatment without surgery in the right circumstances. It depends on the severity of the tear, whether it is a partial or full tear, and the dog's size.
An ACL injury can heal without surgery, but it will require some other help healing. If an ACL tear is left to heal without any help, the damage will worsen and wear down the joint.
First, if you suspect an ACL tear, bring your pup to the vet, who will determine whether or not the tear needs fixing with surgery.
If the vet determines that your dog needs surgery, they’ll perform one of these three surgical options:
- Lateral suture technique. A false, monofilament ligament fully replaces the torn ligament. This procedure costs $1,100 to $2,500.
- Tibial Plateau Leveling Osteotomy. The tibia is cut and then rotated into a flat position that no longer requires the ligament. This costs $2,400 to $4,500.
- Tibial Tuberosity Advancement. A surgeon makes a cut along the front of the tibia, pushes the bone forward, and puts a bone spacer into place, with a steel plate keeping it in place. This surgery costs $3,500 to $4,500.
The road to recovery does not end after surgery. You’ll need to implement many of the following techniques to further your pup’s healing.
Conservative treatment - Dog ACL surgery alternatives
Recovery with conservative (non-surgical) management is possible but requires a lot of effort and is challenging at times. A good recovery plan includes some or all of the following therapies to get your dog back in shape as soon as you can.
Icing: Should I ice my dog’s ACL tear?
Icing is beneficial during the immediate post-injury period. Ice your pupper’s knee three times a day, for 10-minute long sessions. Always place a clean, dry towel between the ice and your dog’s skin.
If you’re icing the knee for longer than 10 minutes at a time, keep the ice on for 10-minute increments and then remove the ice for at least 10 minutes before reapplying to avoid ice burns.
Once the initial pain has subsided from your dog’s ACL tear, you can begin to gently massage the area daily for 5 or 10 minutes. Massage helps to reduce inflammation of the knee and keeps muscles from tightening due to inactivity.
You can repeat this process 2-3 times a day for the first month or so.
NSAIDs / Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories
An ACL tear creates quite a bit of inflammation in the body as it attempts to heal itself. Unfortunately, inflammation also contributes to cartilage degeneration and increases arthritis development. By giving your doggie some anti-inflammatory medications in the early days after injury, you can reduce inflammation and manage pain.
Get a prescription from the vet clinic for these medicines, and never, ever, give your dog human anti-inflammatories - they can be toxic and lethal for dogs.
Give your dog a glucosamine supplement daily, which is excellent for recovery and future prevention. These supplements work to protect cartilage and slow degeneration leading to arthritis.
Movement limitation: Keeping your dog recovering
One cost-effective solution is to fit your dog with an ACL brace, which will stabilize and immobilize the knee joint while allowing your dog to stand and move.
The injury can take 6-8 weeks to heal, so keep the brace on as much as possible during this time to prevent re-injury. With the joint immobilized, scar tissue can build a callus over the injury so it may begin to heal.
Watch your dog in the house and try to get them to lay down as much as possible. Make an extra-cozy bed for your dog to relax in all day, and sit nearby to provide them with some loving emotional support and company. Put up puppy gates temporarily to keep them confined to one room if they’re antsy to get moving before they should be.
Keep your dog on a shortened leash whenever you’re outside to prevent unwanted running and jumping. Avoid stairs and carry the pup up and down the stairs if necessary over the first few weeks of recovery.
Get a dog ramp for bed so that your dog can get on and off the bed without hurting their knee. You can also use a ramp for the couch or car, as they should not be jumping at all during recovery.
Obese dogs are at greater risk for joint injuries, and the potential for re-injury increases drastically with each extra pound your pup carries around.
Check with your vet to get your dog on a specific diet for their breed, size, and age so they can lose weight and prevent excessive stress on the injured leg.
A vet may prescribe your pupper some physiotherapy to slowly rehabilitate and strengthen their injured knee.
A dog physiotherapist can work on specific exercises with your pet, as well as aquatic therapy, cryotherapy, or laser therapy.
Acupuncture can have some positive effects on your doggie’s healing process. By stimulating specific points, the dog's pain reduces, and healing quickens.
Start by taking your dog to a specialized acupuncturist twice a week for the first few weeks, then once a week for a month or so. After the first month, you can reduce to monthly treatments and eventually cease the treatments altogether.
Final notes: How to make a full recovery from an ACL injury
Whenever you’re dealing with a pet’s serious injury, you need to consult a professional vet.
The vet will give you an educated estimate of the odds of outcomes, depending on the healing route you choose to take. Sometimes, there is no way to avoid the necessity of surgery.
If you can avoid surgery, follow the vet’s instructions precisely and employ as many forms of therapy as you can to help your furry buddy heal quickly and return to activity stronger than ever.
Good luck to you and your dog on your healing journey!