Cruciate ligament injuries in pets: what you need to know

Cruciate ligament injury is one of the most common ailments encountered in dogs, particularly dogs that are overweight. Certain breeds are also at higher risk, like Labrador Retrievers, Newfoundlands, German Shepherds, Rottweilers and Golden Retrievers.

What is a cruciate ligament?

The cruciate ligaments are two fibrous bands in each knee that connect the femur (bone above the knee) to the tibia (bone below the knee). Their function is to keep the knee joint stable and allow it to function as a hinge. Usually only the cranial ligament is affected in this condition.

Traumatic rupture occurs when the knee is twisted, usually when the animal runs and then suddenly changes direction.  In obese animals, minor trauma like tripping over a rock can cause the ligament to rupture.

What happens when it ruptures?

Owners will usually notice their pet running,  stop suddenly and cry out. This is a painful condition and symptoms range from lameness to being unable to bear weight on the affected leg. A tell-tale sign is ‘toe touching’ where only a small amount of weight is placed on the injured leg.

Diagnosis is based on the the pet’s history, and clinical signs. The veterinarian also looks for slackness in the knee joint which is called an ‘anterior drawer’ sign. X-rays will almost certainly be taken to evaluate the hip and knee joints as well.

What are the treatment options?

Surgery is usually required in heavier dogs (over 10kg) and there are several methods used to stabilise the knee. An artificial ligament can be placed outside the joint or more complicated methods, where the level of the tibia is altered, can be used.

The cost of surgery depends on the method used but can be anything from about R3 000 to R16 000. Post-operative care is very important and can be very challenging.

In a smaller animal conservative treatment might be advised. This includes the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and strict rest for 6 to 8 weeks.

Your veterinarian will be able to advise you about icing your dog’s knee and performing a 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.

How can I prevent this injury occurring?

The most important preventative measure is to make sure your pet is not overweight. 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

About 50% of animals affected will develop cruciate rupture of the unaffected knee at a later stage.

  • article by Dr Esmaré van der Walt, with additional content sourced from petmd