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is surgery necessary for a torn ACL in dogs?

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Labrador puppy resting on pillow | Torn ACL in dogs | Is Surgery Necessary?
Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on Oct 19 2015

A torn ACL in dogs (known as the cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) in our canine counterparts) – will have your four-legged friend limping to the sideline while you phone your vet for the next available appointment.

The CCL stabilizes the entire knee joint though the full range of motion. When it ruptures, the knee becomes unstable, and from there, arthritic changes are just around the corner. Although trauma can cause the ligament to rupture, most tears occur under normal circumstances as a result of chronic degenerative changes.

Is surgery necessary for a torn acl?

When there is a tear in the cruciate ligament, whether a complete or partial tear, surgery will be recommended. Because surgery is costly and requires anesthesia, most pet parents wonder if simply resting the knee injury will help get Fido back on all four paws.

I understand the desire for pet owners to want to avoid surgery for their pets – even if money were no object, there’s still worry about the anesthesia and the post-operative rehabilitation. Cage rest seems like a simple solution, but unfortunately, for CCL tears, surgery is almost always preferred.

The one exception is dogs who are under 15 pounds.

Some of these little tykes can get away with strict cage rest. About 20%-25% of dogs under 15 pounds and about 50% of cats will improve with conservative non-surgical treatment consisting of strict cage rest, weight reduction and anti-inflammatory medications. If no improvement is seen within four to six weeks, your vet will recommend surgical correction.

For any dog over 15 pounds, surgery is recommended for the best outcome. While conservative therapy of cage rest can result in an apparent improvement, this is almost always a temporary outcome. Surgical intervention is the only way to insure a stable knee in the future, and while it will not stop arthritic changes from happening, surgery provides the most favorable outcome for larger dogs with cruciate injuries.

What if surgery is just not an option for you and your dog?

For any number of reasons, knee surgery may not be an option. Whether because of finances for those without dog insurance or something specific to your particular pooch, such as a medical condition that prevents anesthetic procedures, sometimes surgery is simply not realistic.

For these pets, a variety of options are available:

First and foremost, weight control is key. Carrying extra pounds will only make your pet’s pain worse.

Strict rest for four to six weeks can go a long way toward helping your pet recover, and physical therapy, in all of its various forms, will also benefit your injured dog.

Oral medications can address pain and inflammation, and a combination of prescription and over- the-counter medications will likely be recommended, including non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDS), nutraceuticals (such as glucosamine) and pain medications like Tramadol and Gabapentin.

Alternative therapies like laser therapy, acupuncture, stem cell therapy and platelet rich plasma may also play a role in lessening pain and inflammation associated with your pet’s knee injury, and these types of therapies can accompany surgery or be used on their own if surgery is not an option.

If your pet sustains a knee injury, talk to your vet about all of your options. Dogs who have one cruciate rupture have a very good chance of having the same thing happen in the other knee, so the sooner you address the first problem, the greater the chance is that your dog will have a leg to stand on should the second knee follow suit.

Remember, for most dogs, knee surgery gives them the best chance to return to normal function, and the sooner surgery is pursued, the better. But if surgery isn’t a realistic option, be sure to have an open conversation with your vet about how to best manage your pet’s pain in the future.