Can a dog recover from a torn ACL without surgery?

If you notice one day that your dog is limping or showing signs of lameness, there’s a good chance they’ve torn or ruptured a ligament.

Just like humans, dogs experience tears and strains to muscles and ligaments through every-day physical activity. The most common orthopaedic problem that affect dogs is the cruciate ligament injury.

In humans this injury is called the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament), the canine equivalent is the CCL (cranial cruciate ligament). The ligament connects the back of the femur (the bone above the knee) with the front of the tibia (the bone below the knee). The ACL helps keep the tibia in place beneath the femur and this stabilises the knee joint.

How can I tell if my dog has an ACL injury?

You should look out for the following symptoms if you think your dog may have torn its ACL.

  • Lameness or weakness in one or both hind legs
  • Unable to bear weight on the injured leg
  • Limping or reluctance to use one or both hind legs
  • Limping becomes worse with exercise but improves with rest
  • Unwillness to play or run
  • Reluctance to get up, jump, run or go up and down stairs
  • Stiffness and difficulty getting up and sitting down
  • Swelling around the knee joint
  • Signs of muscle wasting

When a dog partially tears its ACL, it can quickly get worse due to continued physical activity. They begin compensating for the injury by transferring more weight onto the healthy leg which weakens the ligaments. In over half of all cases, dogs will go on to injure a second knee.

Why do dogs injure their ACL?

When dogs suffer ligament injuries, it’s normally the result of subtle, slow degeneration that has taken place over a period of weeks, months and sometimes years. The ligament slowly weakens and a tear eventually occurs.

Acute (sudden) ACL injuries are normally caused by strenuous or exuberant activities, like running and jumping which have impacted a healthy ligament.

Common causes for ACL injuries include:

Everyday activities

Everyday physical activities such as walking, running and jumping will naturally cause wear and tear to joints and ligaments. This is especially true if a dog is in poor physical health.

Ageing

Older dogs are more likely to suffer ligament injuries due to the natural ageing process on their bodies.

Certain breeds

Studies have shown certain breeds are more prone to ACL injuries. They include:

  • Labrador Retrievers
  • Poodles
  • Golden Retrievers
  • Bichon Frises
  • German Shepherd Dogs
  • Rottweilers

Breeding practices

Poor breeding practices can result in dogs with hereditary and congenital conditions that are present before and at birth. These dogs develop health issues which can lead to joint and ligament damage.

Being overweight

More dogs in the UK are now classified as clinically overweight - in many cases obsese. This excessive amount of weight will naturally put more stress on a dog's ligaments over time.

Hip dysplasia

Hip dysplasia is a common canine disorder. Many of the causes of Hip dysplasia are considered hereditary and dogs suffering from the condition are more likely to develop ACL tears.

Poor physical health

Hip dysplasia is a common canine disorder. Many of the causes of Hip dysplasia are considered hereditary and dogs suffering from the condition are more likely to develop ACL tears.

Does an ACL tear need surgery?

If a dog has a completely torn ACL injury – surgery will often be the best option available, especially if they are young. However, opting for surgery can be expensive and the success of any surgery will depend on the age and health of each dog.

Dogs can recover from ACL tears without surgery but dog owners should again consider the severity of the injury and their dog's age and physical health.

For partial tears, non-surgical treatment can be a better alternative. It's a less invasive option and cheaper financially than surgery.

Alternatives to surgery for ACL injuries

Knee braces

Dog braces provide therapeutic support and stabilisation before and after surgery for dogs with ACL tears. A knee brace is a potentially good option if you have an older dog and you have concerns over the impact surgery might have.

A brace can help stabilise the injured knee as well as balancing the back and hip areas of the dog, this can help prevent further injury.

Swimming

Swimming is an excellent form of exercise for dogs. It’s great for their overall health and provides an aerobic workout that tones and strengthens muscles. Swimming is a low impact activity and doesn’t put as much stress on a dog’s joints and tendons.

When submerged, the water takes a dog’s weight and supports their body. There is less stress and impacts on bones and joints than with land exercises. Swimming is good for the healing and rehabilitation from injury or surgery, especially for dogs who are older or overweight.

You can take your dog to a swimming bath that provide facilities for pets. Alternatively, you can find a local pond, lake or have a dip in the sea.

Hydrotherapy

Hydrotherapy involves exercise performed in water and provides many of the same benefits as swimming.

The water allows dogs to exercise but without the stress on muscles and joints. This form of therapy can help dogs suffering from ACL ruptures, arthritis and joint pain.

Dog Massage

Massage therapy can help dogs in their recovery from ACL tears and other injuries and surgery.

Canine massage involves the manipulation of muscles, tendons, ligaments and connective tissue similar to massage for humans. Massage helps relieve stiffness, tension and soreness in the muscles and keep dogs fit and agile.

Prolotherapy

Prolotherapy, also known as nonsurgical ligament reconstruction, is a medical treatment for ACL tears and associated joint pain. It’s used to treat joint pain and increase ligament strength for humans, but it can also help dogs.

Prolotherapy can be performed on most dogs but it is more commonly used by middle-aged and older dogs. The treatment involves an injection into the affected area every three weeks for a total of four injections.

Many dog owners report a reduction in pain and increased mobility within the first two treatments. The treatment helps the growth and formation of new connective tissues in areas where it has become weak.

Cold laser therapy

Laser therapy can help dogs with a variety of conditions, such as sprains and strains, arthritis and swelling caused by disc problems. It is especially good for puppies with torn ACLs.

Laser therapy focusses on penetrating the affected area. There’s no surgery or drugs needed as the laser works to stimulate blood circulation and regenerate cells. The warm heat generated will feel like a massage for your dog.

The laser stimulates a chemical reaction called photobiostimulation. It releases endorphins (the happy chemical) which helps dogs and other pets feel better. It’s good for muscle and tissue healing and helps speed up the recovery process.

How long does it take for a dog's ACL to heal without surgery?

If left untreated, a partially torn or ruptured ACL can improve or disappear completely within three to six weeks for most dogs, especially small ones.

Non-surgical treatment for ACL injuries, along with rest and medication can take between six weeks to two months for recovery, followed by a gentle programme of exercise.

When a dog suffers an ACL injury it's common for a tear or rupture to occur in the opposite leg within two years of the first injury. This is why non-surgical therapies and exercises are important for dogs once the initial recovery period has finished.

Dogs need to remain physically healthy, rebuild muscle strength and keep to an appropriate bodyweight to prevent further injuries.

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